Thursday, October 24, 2013

Beer Scene: Huntsville, Alabama

To finish up our tour of the Deep South, we ended up in my sweet wife's hometown of Huntsville, Alabama.  Having visited new breweries in Nashville and Birmingham, I had already been pleasantly surprised by the rise of craft beer south of the Mason-Dixon Line.  Nothing could have prepared me for the changes I would find in Huntsville.  The last time I visited the area was probably about 3 years ago.  At the time, there was one recently opened brewery called Old Town that served a couple of understated quasi-craft beers in a few local bars--and despite going the way of the dodo, they seem to have paved the way for what was to come.  Let me refrain: three years ago I could not find a craft beer on tap in this town to save my life.  At the time of my current visit there were nine breweries in (and around) the city!  For background, Huntsville is the fourth largest city in Alabama and had roughly  395,645 citizens as of the 2008 census.  Many of the people in the area have come for work in the aeronautics industry (NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and the United States Army Aviation and Missile Command,) and as a result the city has a more cosmopolitan feel than many Deep South cities.

On my first night in town, having a late dinner at the hotel Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, I was able to have a Straight To Ale Monkeynaut served to me in a proper beer glass with absolutely no strange looks from our kind server.  Speaking of the aforementioned beer--the can art for this beer is one of the wackiest I've seen: named for the monkey-manned early space flights back in the 1960's.  The beer itself was a boldly hopped IPA, that had a bit too much alcohol heat to make it into my favorites...but this was a legitimate local craft beer!  Rubbing my fingers together eagerly, I began to plan my trips to further explore this unexpected change in the area. 

A bit devilish for Alabama...

The following day, after fighting with my mother-in-law's ancient modem and 4 power-strip plug octopus for hours, I was finally free to visit Straight To Ale Brewing.  Hidden behind a large gym, and located in an unassuming warehouse off the beaten path, we had a difficult time finding the place.  A metal sign with their devilish logo hanging off the front of the building is all the notation they apparently want or need.  There was no visible entrance at the front of the building, but not to be distracted from my goal, I walked around to the side.  A small door with an even smaller Straight To Ale stencil on it (looking like an un-official worker's only entrance) yielded to my attacks and allowed us access to the tiny tasting room.  A very small bar across from the entrance boasted a friendly server, a television and a glowing crimson brewery symbol.  One other patron sat at the bar sipping at a drink and gazing at the television's blue glow.  A large rocket hung from the ceiling, piloted by two stuffed monkeynauts.  Posters and framed can artwork for the brewery were placed sporadically upon the walls.  My personal favorite (also playing off Huntsville's NASA past) was the Wernher Von Brown Ale.

Rocket City here I come!

We tried all the beers, served to us in trippy hand-made rocket shaped wooden sampler trays.  All of the beers were good to very good.  I especially liked the Lilly Flagg Milk Stout and the Brother Joseph's Dubbel: fine examples of their styles.  The lagers were a bit less perfect--perhaps fermentation temperature issues--but still drinkable.  I spent a nice and relaxing hour here with my wife and her older sister, talking and trying out these local beers.  Not until heading out did I realize that they had a small arcade with old fashioned pinball machines in a room around the corner.  Our server suggested looking for their recently released bourbon aged Laika Russian Imperial Stout (named after the Russian dog sent into space in 1957) and I did find a bottle the next day to bring back to Minnesota.  I haven't tried it yet, but have high hopes!

The next day I spent more time in battle with ancient technology, hooking my mother-in-law's old tube TV's to cable boxes and finishing an upgrade to a wireless home network.  I also spent a bit of time out in the muggy Alabama air tearing apart a rotting and now dangerous wooden ramp in front of her house.  Beneath that aged ramp were a good number of enormous cockroaches, primitive looking two inch hopping camel crickets, and a petrified possum.  Yech!  After a much needed shower we headed out to continue our exploration of the city's beer scene.

Our next stop was Blue Pants Brewery, located within a warehouse in the suburb of Madison.  The building isn't much to look at, but has size in its favor with plenty of room for them to grow into it.  I guess that this is a recent expansion and I got the feeling that they haven't quite settled in fully yet.  There wasn't a lot of branding/signage on the outside nor the inside of the tasting room, but I knew we were in the right place when I saw the Blue Pantry Food Truck parked outside.  The brewers started out as homebrewers (not surprising now days, especially in a town filled with science geeks!)

Sj and I ordered the full sampler so we could try everything.  I saw funny blue-pants shaped wooden sampler trays on display behind the bar but we didn't get one so no good pictures for you my reader.  Our beers were served in plastic cups with the names written in Sharpie by our pleasant bartender.  The laminated cards describing the beers were a little sticky and gross, so I didn't look too close at the details.  One of my favorites was the Workman Common, a hoppier take on a classic Steam beer.  Most of the others were fair representations of the style (Pale Ale, Double IPA, Black IPA) but none of them really wowed me.  A few--like the Highwater Hoppy Tripel--had some fermentation flaws that detracted from my enjoyment.  Their special release cabernet barrel aged Belgian Red was served from a wax-topped bottle and had quite a bit going on.  I actually picked up a bottle of this to take home when I ran into it later that day.  The brewery's tag line is: "We like to make unusually good beer."  I think they are close to that description, but perhaps not quite there yet.  I will certainly check them out next time I'm in town to see how they have improved. 

Our bartender at Blue Pants was very good and pointed us toward our next goal:  Wish You Were Beer.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Madison had its very own all beer store!  Just down the road from Blue Pants, we headed out.  Located in a small strip-mall, the store front itself lacks bells and whistles, but has a large easy to see sign on the façade.  With fingers crossed I stepped into what became one of my favorite places we visited in the city.  Founded in June of 2012, (but only opening for business a few months before my trip in Fall of 2013) by owner Damon Eubanks, the store aims to sell only craft beer, cider, and meads.  Damon was at the store and I had the chance to talk to him a bit about his new store.  He is a Cicerone Beer Server and is currently studying to become a Certified Cicerone, also encourages his staff to also seek certification.  Interestingly he modeled (at least in part) his store after The Four Firkins in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.  Our own Jason Alvey was breaking new ground by opening an all beer store in Minnesota and continues to show other people how to do it across the country! 

Can I live here?

The front of the store is small, but the wall shelves and center stacks are packed with local and regional micro-brews.  With different distribution than Minnesota, there were many beers that we can't find back home like Stillwater Artisanal, and Oscar Blues.  Large coolers host even more beers--most local.  Damon sells most of his beers in singles as well, so one can try more beers without having to settle on a full six pack.  Unlike The Firkins, Damon can actually sell pints of beer in his establishment.  I was happy to taste the local Salty Nut Brewery's brown ale, as well as have a full pint of Avondale Brewing's Vanillaphant while perusing the store.  They can also fill growlers from the taps for you take home and drink at your leisure.  We are unable to do either of these things back in Minnesota due to old Blue Laws that are still on the books.  The store also sells a limited amount of homebrew supplies, now that Alabama has finally legalized my favorite hobby.  Damon told me the story of an un-named liquor store in Birmingham that got in trouble with the law over that last year.

I stocked up on a bunch of Alabama brews to take home with me, including several special releases like the bourbon aged Laika and the Blue Pants Belgian.  I love the concept of the store and I was intrigued with what Damon has been able to do with the place already.  Once people find out about Wish You Were Beer, I think he will be able to expand his line-up even more and start having special events.  If you are anywhere in Huntsville and like craft beer this is a must-visit place!

As a wrap-up from my visit to the South, I wanted to touch on some of the big changes I've seen in just the past 3 years.  Traditionally the Southern states have not been big into drinking alcohol in the first place, and many people I know down there either don't drink at all or drink only in private where fellow church members won't see them.  When folks do drink beer, they tend to go with American macro-lagers.  From a craft-beer waste-land, the region has started to blossom with small breweries, beer stores and craft beer bars.  They still have a ways to go to catch up to Minnesota (they are about 6 years behind by my reckoning) but are on the right track.  Strangely, many of the stubborn post-prohibition era laws that plague us here in Minnesota are absent down in the Bible Belt state of Alabama.  Really, I can buy a sixer of craft beer on a Sunday in Alabama, but not in progressive Minnesota??? 

Regional differences in palate are easily apparent with most breweries having sweeter brown ales and porters in their portfolios, and big hoppy beers are just starting to trend up.  On this trip I could literally taste how these brewers are experimenting with higher hopping rates--some pulling it off and others needing more trial and error yet. 

Local restaurants and bars seem to be embracing these new local beer options and nearly every place I went for food (minus having intolerance-chicken at Chick-fil-a) had at least one local beer available.  I'm exited and proud of those craft beer pioneers, breaking trail and braving the wilderness for the good of the craft beer movement in The South.  Since I have written this, The Salty Nut has already opened a tap room in the Huntsville area...and more breweries are sure to follow.  This is a truly untapped market that seems ripe for the taking.  I look forward to the new options to be discovered on my next trip down.

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