Shawn Johnson, Birds Fly South’s brewer and cofounder, has a straightforward way of speaking. Perhaps it’s a vestige of his 22 years in the Coast Guard, during which he took every part-time brewing job he could find as he and his wife Lindsay (the brewery’s other cofounder) migrated around the country. The decades spent in his first career make him a bit older than many of the 20-somethings founding breweries today, but he doesn’t think age brings any added wisdom.
“Just Motrin,” he says.
Birds Fly South contract brewed out of fellow Greenville outfit Thomas Creek Brewery for about a year and a half before opening its brick-and-mortar in September 2016. Since then, word has spread about its mostly mixed-culture, farmhouse-inspired wild ales. The brewery thrust itself into an even brighter spotlight this summer when it announced it would host the inaugural Funk Collective Festival in early July. The festival was an indie alternative to the Wicked Weed Funkatorium Invitational, which organizers cancelled when guest breweries pulled out following Asheville, North Carolina-based Wicked Weed’s sale to Anheuser-Busch InBev in May.
Johnson said some of those breweries already had booked travel arrangements to Asheville, which is only 45 minutes from Greenville. A few West Coast brewing friends asked him if they could instead pour at Birds Fly South; he agreed, and subsequently woke up to 19 text messages and emails asking him to organize an alternative festival.
“That festival did so much good, and I was so excited to be pouring in it; it shouldn’t just be gone because of one decision,” Johnson says “I get it, [Wicked Weed] can’t host it, but why can’t somebody else?”
After about a week of deliberation and a courtesy phone call to Wicked Weed cofounder Walt Dickinson, Johnson announced the festival. Its first year was a success, bringing hundreds of wild and sour beer lovers to Birds Fly South for a low-key, bottle share-style festival.
In the calm after the festival, Johnson’s taken a brief vacation before getting back to the task at hand: brewing more beer to meet demand.
Birds Fly South began with a 6,000-square foot space, but the popularity of its wood-aged wild ales (which take up both time and space for foeders and barrels) required expanding the building to 15,000 square feet and adding a second bar.
“I did not think that Greenville, South Carolina, light lager beer central with five other breweries in town, would buy into an 80 percent farmhouse/sour beer producer as big as they have,” Johnson says. “When you take a straw poll around here, a lot of people’s first sours are Birds Fly South sours. Now people come into the brewery on a Sunday afternoon and they’re like ‘You only have two sours on? Don’t you usually have three?’”
Johnson’s lineup isn’t all sour, though. At any given time, the brewery is likely pouring 10-12 beers: two to three “clean” beers like an IPA or pilsner, three to four sours (which include both acetic Flanders-style ales and strongly lactic, “American-style” sours), and four or five saisons.
To lasso all of these varied beers into a phrase, Johnson calls his creations “progressively old-school.” The old-school half refers to his fermentation techniques; he estimates 80 percent of his beers are open-fermented and most benefit from ambient house yeast. (It’s a technique he learned during a job at Saint Somewhere Brewing in Tarpon Springs, Florida.) The progressive portion means that Johnson tries to push the envelope and rarely brews true to style, preferring to “grow with the beers.”
“I’m an engineer by trade and at heart, so I like when there’s structure but I have a lot of creativity I can get from tweaking variables, whereas brewing to style is more of a structured approach,” he says. “We don’t always make the beer, we let the beer become itself and then we find a way to present it.”
Johnson’s preference for dry, traditional farmhouse beer is also a major contributor to his drive to create what he calls “Greenville saisons.” (“I really wanted to open a farm brewery but my wife was like ‘There’s no way. We don’t have any time; we have three kids.’”) His house culture tends more toward a classic European take on saison, in contrast to a more acidic, new-school version.
“The small variations of flavor that can be grabbed on to wow me,” he says. “Our house presence is earthy, it’s crunchy, there’s a little more roughness around it. It’s more of a traditional flavor profile as opposed to an American-style profile.”
Americans’ growing appreciation for sour and wild beer is a double-edged sword for Johnson, who counts on it to drive interest in his beers but also recognizes other breweries as potential competitors.
“Everyone has a wild program or is opening a wild brewery. … I guess it’s one of the things about being on the business side, it’s sobering. You need to be thinking about continual evolution and growth because everyone is chomping at the next thing,” he says. “It’s also trying to figure out how to keep your niche. That’s not a constraint, that’s a learning thing for me as a business owner.”
Birds Fly South has distinguished its beers enough to expand not just the brewery but its distribution footprint, which currently include both North and South Carolina. Around the time of this year’s upcoming Shelton Brothers Festival in Atlanta, the brewery will expand distribution to Georgia as well. After that, Johnson says his plans are just to stay steady as it goes.
“My hope for the next year is to still be in business. That’s all I’ve got right now. I want to keep on putting out the beers we need to put out and dumping the ones we don’t,” he says. “It’s about understanding good pressure and bad pressure; good pressure is where you want to be.”
Johnson’s three to try
Brand New Eyes table saison
“This is our 5% ABV table saison, fermented with our house mixed culture and then solera’d through red wine puncheons. Brand New Eyes is a simple, three-grain profile, a very traditional saison-type grist. The flavor profile is funky Brett when young and then in the bottle with time it gains a little more tartness to it but never really gets sour. It just has a tart element that comes through with hints of red wine over oak on that one.”
Rustic Sunday rye farmhouse blended ale
“This beer is a similar concept to Brand New Eyes, but using sauvignon blanc puncheons, Hallertau Blanc hops and pretty substantial rye in the grist. It tends to be a little more tart at the beginning and maintains that tartness level. It gets more of that skunky farmhouse flavor over time in the bottle; it really drinks at the beginning like a [Brouwerij] De Ranke-style beer and then it turns into more of our house flavor, I guess, with a little more tartness and dryness to it. The rye component leaves a nice rocky Belgian-style head.”
“Rumblefish is more exotic; it’s got a lot going on. It’s a white wine solera Belgian pale ale, also mixed-culture and open-fermented, hopped with Calypso and Citra. It drinks like a tart Palm almost. The hops are present but it’s not like an American-style hoppy saison; it’s more of a balanced Belgian hopping profile. We do use a little caramel malt in that so it has a little darker hue to it and a little more of a malt background, but it dries out. That tends to grab a little more oak than white wine. It’s a jamboree of flavor.”