Monday, December 31, 2007

How German Beer Came to the Carolinas: A True Story

This is a great story that I was lucky enough to report for my column in this week's Weekly Surge.


By Colin Burch
For Weekly Surge

When Werner Hoppe helped build the Georgetown Steel Mill in 1969, the crates of equipment from Germany often held a special reminder of home. The good-hearted workers in Germany stashed German wine or beer into the shipment, he said.

But then, one day, the United States government did what it does best. It stole the joy of Hoppe and other Germans working on the mill. Customs agents discovered that alcohol was arriving in the equipment crates, and said, in so many words, "You can't do that."

So Werner Hoppe went down to the customs office and found out about the procedures for importing alcohol into the U.S. Soon, the native of Cologne, Germany, decided to set up his own import business in Georgetown.

W.H. Company started with German wine, and eventually added beers including Bitburger Pils, Maisel's Weisse, and more, even some English brews. He continued working with the Georgetown steel mill until 1975, when he went into the import business full-time.

His son, Andy Hoppe, a tennis coach at Carolina Forest High School and Georgetown native, said it took some effort on his father's part to get the company off the ground. "It was a lot of hard work at first, trying to learn how alcohol is bought and sold in this country," he said.

But Werner Hoppe figured it out. He got his own warehouse in Georgetown and trucks for distribution. He had distributors up and down the East coast, Andy Hoppe said. When the orders for German imports became big enough, the exporters were able to deliver directly to the distributors, so the warehouse and the trucks were no longer necessary. Werner Hoppe was able to run the import business from his home.

Werner Hoppe has scaled back his operations in recent years. He stopped carrying wine 15 years ago. More recently, he returned the rights to sell Bitburger to the brewery back in Germany. In a technical sense, he still oversees Bitburger's import into North Carolina, but he is no longer involved with the marketing.

Today, W.H. Company imports only Maisel's Weisse in two varieties, the original which includes yeast, and the filtered version called Kristallklar, which was hailed by the late beer expert Michael Jackson as one of the best beers in the world. And W.H. Company only brings Maisel's Weisse into two states, working with Southern Wine and Spirits in South Carolina, and two distributors in North Carolina: Highland Distribution Co. and Mutual Distribution Co., said Andy Hoppe.

So if you drink Maisel's Weisse in the Carolinas, thank Werner Hoppe.

Still speaking with a strong German accent, he scaled back his import operation because he wanted to do other things at this stage in his life. He recently wrote a book, "Justice Comes After Death," which is available at Horst Gasthaus in North Myrtle Beach and River Room in Georgetown, where the purchase of the book comes with a free Maisel's Weisse glass. The book is also available at My Sister's Books in Pawleys Island, at which a book-signing is tentatively scheduled for January 15.

Despite his new endeavors, Werner Hoppe didn't sound like he wants to stop with the two Maisel's Weisse brews. He said a Maisel's Weisse sister brewery has a lager that he'll probably add to his imports.

Andy Hoppe said he'll eventually take over the business.

I asked him what he and his father think about the big American domestic beers. "We tend to avoid those whenever possible," he said with a laugh.


I'm taking a couple of weeks off. Let's keep all the Surge readers out of the slammer - don't drive after you've been drinking, and have a Happy New Year.

- Contact Colin Burch - the Beerman - at

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