Brewing Beer in Downtown’s Grain District

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Tuesday, October 22, 2013


By Jodie Free
HubCity Writers Project

I came to Spartanburg on a summer internship from my graduate school in Oxford, Mississippi, and during the three months that I lived there, RJ Rockers beer became a staple of my diet, and the brewery became one of my favorite places to be downtown.

Founded in 1997 by head brewer and New Jersey native Mark Johnsen, RJ Rockers is a microbrewer with more than a dozen beers. Located in a former Dodge dealership in downtown’s Grain District, Rockers is distributed in the Carolinas and is continuing to grow in neighboring states like Georgia and Florida. Six-packs also have turned up on grocery shelves in places as far flung as New York and Iowa, and even London (but that’s because I took some with me on my last visit home).

Locally, RJ Rockers is known for its Thursday night Tour and Taste: for $5, you get four 4-ounce samples of your choice, plus the option to take a guided tour of the brewery and keep your pint glass. Thanks to a new law, they can now serve full pints ($4 each), and are also opening their doors on Friday nights for Hoppy Hour (5-7pm), often with musical entertainment, and Saturdays at 12-4 pm as well. Once a month, they host Rock on the Dock, featuring local musicians (one of which is the head brewer on the bass guitar). If you want to take something home with you, growlers, six-packs and cases are for sale by the register, as well as hats, T-shirts and koozies.

What’s striking about Thursdays at the brewery is that it’s filled with all different kinds of people. There are professionals in business attire, groups of college students, couples on dates, families with their children. I spoke to a young woman and her father who had come to RJ Rockers both to try the beer and to spend time catching up—clearly this is something that different generations can enjoy together. I am more than a little bit jealous that there is nothing like this in Oxford.

RJ Rockers recently installed a bar, behind which is a blackboard listing all the beers offered, including a description, the alcohol-by-volume, and prices. (There was also a birthday message for Stout, Mark Johnsen’s black lab, who is often seen meandering around getting lots of attention.) I handed over my first ticket and asked for a recommendation for my first sample. I was given their newest creation, Strawbeery Wheat. I am a big fan of fruit beer but am often disappointed by a too-sugary taste. This beer gets the balance just right: it is fragrant, but it does not taste like fruit juice.

At the bar, I asked around about why people like coming here so much.

“This is one of the cool, inexpensive things to do in downtown,” Becca Barnet, a resident of Spartanburg, told me. “Everyone can get together here.”

“It’s the best beer in Spartanburg and a place to see friends,” added Hal Crow. “It’s cool to take the tour and find out what goes into it.”

The tour takes you through the brewing process, starting with the grains. We were given some barley to eat—to me, it tasted like cereal. The guide took us through the journey of making beer: we saw the mash tun, where grains are steeped in water and the starches are converted to sugar; the kettle, where the liquid (“wort”) is brought to a boil and hops are added; the fermentation tank, where the temperature is brought down and yeast is added. I have never been great at understanding science, but the tour gave me an appreciation for the varieties of flavors that brewers put together to make each beer unique.

After finishing the Strawbeery, I tried another fruity wheat ale: Son of a Peach, the beer that RJ Rockers is most famous for. It is a drink for real beer enthusiasts and occasional drinkers alike. Even my friends who are adamant that they are not beer drinkers have been coaxed into trying the traditional South Carolina beverage, and have been surprised by how much they like it. It has a rich peach aroma and a sweetness that is hard to resist in the hot summer months. Being from England, I need all the help I can get to survive the southern humidity!

Not only does RJ Rockers have many beers on tap, customers and staff members have tried many combinations. The list of creations always seems to be growing, but so far includes Dirty Peach (Son of a Peach and Bald Eagle Brown), Rotten Peach (Son of a Peach and Stout), Southern Belle (Bell Ringer and Son of a Peach), Fruit Punch (Son of a Peach and Strawbeery), and Hillybelly (Strawbeery and Bell Ringer). I use my last two tickets to try a Strawbeery and Stout—Joe Power, who served me, calls this a “Chocolate-covered Strawberry”) and a Dirty Peach, my favorite of all.

Due to its popularity, Son of a Peach has been promoted from a summer offering to a year-round drink. Now I hear the staff is brewing the fall’s Gruntled Pumpkin, and later, their winter beer First Snow. I am already thinking up excuses to come back so I can try these.

When the summer was over, I returned home to Mississippi with plenty of RJ Rockers beer. It was passed around during a welcome party for new students in my program. People raved about the beer, especially Son of a Peach, asking who brought it and where they could find more. There are rumors that it’s being sold close by in Memphis, but I told them to visit Spartanburg for the full experience.



Jodie Free, HubCity Writers Project

Jodie Free is a graduate student at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. Originally from England, she is a regular visitor of Spartanburg and spent her summer as an intern for the Hub City Writers Project.


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