Hidden amid industrial complexes and wooded lanes a few miles outside of Charleston, Westbrook Brewery looms like a three-story-tall secret, leaking the smell of fermentation. It’s here, a 20-minute drive outside of booming foodie haven Charleston, along a small road most notable for its strip malls, that South Carolina’s best beer is brewed. In the six years it’s been open, Westbrook has gained renown for its canned gose, a sour, salty summer porch sipper, as well as its IPA, a clean East Coast style. But once a year, the brewers here perform a sort of alchemy that’s elevated them from solid local brewery to national name. Not lead into gold: they transfigure a love story into one of the most strange and delicious beers in the world.
“I think it tastes like a date,” says Morgan Westbrook, co-owner of the brewery, sipping the inky black liquid in front of her. Morgan is the voice of the brewery; her husband, Edward, is the head brewer; their little girl, Ellen, is a fixture at the brewery, and giggles at a video of herself practicing ballet as we sip in Westbrook’s tasting room, a small oval at the front of the brewery with ceilings so tall it echoes like a cathedral. Morgan’s a wispy blond, bubbly and polite — but not, uh, timid. “You’re two drinks in. And you realize, ‘Whoa, this person is amazing.’ And then you get the heart explosion. Like: I’m gonna drag that person back to the cave.”
I was gonna say it tasted like my favorite Mexican dessert, sopapillas, pillows of deep fried dough coated in honey, sugar and cinnamon. But yeah, that too.
The proper name for the heart explosion/primal lust liquid is Mexican Cake: a 10.5% alcohol Imperial stout, brewed with cacao nibs, vanilla beans, cinnamon and habenero peppers, brewed once a year on a special anniversary, half its batch turned into special editions aged in a variety of barrels that previously held things like red wine, tequila, rum, bourbon, or maple syrup. People say it tastes like a lot of things: chocolate mole sauce, a dark chocolate bar, espresso topped with cinnamon. It all tastes like a hit.
Also, like a valuable secret kept under lock and key. When my photographer takes the whole range of bottles outside for a photograph, Morgan and the other brewers grow noticeably tense. These bottles are only sold at the brewery, and the Westbrook team very strictly doesn’t let them outside of it. This is because of their high price, from $12 to $150 per bottle, and their rarity, since Westbrook only makes 120 barrels, or around 20,000 22-ounce bottles of the regular beer and 120 barrels of the special barrel-aged editions a year. It’s also because every year, without fail, some make their way to the “beer black market.” There, they’re sold online between rabid collectors, with prices that skyrocket to between $300 and $900 a bottle. One New York beer bar owner said that high end is the most he’s ever heard an American-made craft beer going for. (This puts them in a realm with super-high-end Belgian Cantillon lambic beers, which regularly go for what I spent on my first car, a 1997 Subaru Legacy lemon.)
The black market prices are a divisive subject. For the brewers it’s vindication of the quality of their product — “A gold star each time I see it,” brewer Will Roberts says. But Morgan is a former school teacher who remembers not being able to buy expensive bottles herself. “It makes me uncomfortable,” she says. “And then people complain about the pricing that we charge. I say, ‘Really, did you see what this person just bought it for [online]?'”
The big-name bourbon-barrel versions like Pappy Van Winkle (that’s the one that commands up to $900) are hype monsters, but the most important ingredient for the beer in all its forms is the habeneros. “Chile beers” are a dime a dozen, but the only really good ones are Imperial stouts. The Mayans would tell you it’s obvious: hot peppers and chocolate have been paired together in drinks for thousands of years. In an Imperial stout like Mexican Cake, the peppers add a tingle of spiciness that builds to a dull roar in the back of the throat, but the real value is the heat’s odd ability to add layers of flavor, pulling out the cinnamon and vanilla bean in equal measure. It’s a hot symphony of flavors. Of BeerAdvocate’s list of the 250 best beers of all time, only a handful are chile beers. Those are all Imperial stouts. (Mexican Cake, by the way, ranks 217th on that list.)
But spiciness in a beer is a fine line to walk, and not many breweries are willing to try the style. For that ingredient in Mexican Cake, beer fans have Morgan Westbrook, and her brassy declaration of love for her husband, to thank. “We wanted to have our beer at our wedding,” she says. “Edward originally wanted it to be a chocolate stout. And because I’m a pervert, I was like, well this is gonna be about us, and I want everyone to know we’re passionate people. So we put peppers in it.”
So, near the anniversary of their wedding and the opening of their brewery, they release the beer. Things go nuts. They sell out in hours.
The attention is great, but sometimes the spotlight feels a little too bright. “We tell people we brew here and the first thing they say is, ‘Oh, you make Mexican Cake,'” said brewer Ryan Marcom. “Well, yes — once a year. We’re making a lot of other stuff, too.”
You see, Mexican Cake is not a diamond in the rough. It’s one weird, delicious beer in a portfolio of weird, delicious beers. Morgan Westbrook, I learn as I tour the brewery’s crowded barrel room with two brewers, is not the only one around here who’s unafraid to be bold. It’s practically the brewery’s motto. “We don’t go after [the beers] people are looking for necessarily, beyond what any business does based on what consumers want,” says Roberts, who’s been brewing since 2 a.m. this morning. He points to an enormous wooden barrel, the sort of which a resourceful brewer might turn into a hot tub. “For instance, this is us going after something that’s not popular.” They’ve put a beer into a foudre that was filled with red wine in France. And over there is a slightly sour beer aging in barrels that used to hold maple syrup; beyond it, a version of their salty gose soaking in eucalyptus leaves. “It might come out to be something that people have never really ever freaking tasted. That’s the point. What we’re trying to do is make a flavor that we and no one else even knows about,” Roberts says.
If they want to keep brewing like mad scientists, the brewers will soon have to move next door, to the enormous new canning line with a separate barrel room twice the size of their current facility. The barrel room is already filled with 200 barrels, everything from Willet and Pappy Van Winkle bourbon to wine barrels and smaller casks first used for bourbon, then for maple syrup.
The canning line across the room is a frozen behemoth of potential. When it roars to life, it will increase the brewery’s output by four times. It will also unleash a steadier output of flagship beers, and therefore help the brewing team focus more on the weird barrel-aged stuff.
It’s also an opportunity to increase output on Mexican Cake. The question is obvious: will Morgan Westbrook and her husband can their golden goose, Mexican Cake, and profit from it on a huge scale across the country? I can already see it: four-packs of 12-ounce cans for $25. People paying it. Me paying it.
Morgan shakes her head, politely. “When you put a beer in a can, it’s for convenience, it’s a more casual thing. When you open a bottle, it feels like more of an occasion. With Mexican Cake, obviously it’s more of a special occasion when I drink it.”
She’s right. Love — spicy, fermented, bottled love — isn’t a commodity. And it’s more delectable if it costs half your paycheck. Or, better yet, if you’ve journeyed far and long to taste it.