Friday, May 29, 2015

Old Town Beer Exchange: Huntsville, Alabama

Why am I, a Minnesotan beer blogger, writing about a beer store in Alabama?  Why, I'm glad you asked!

My story begins way back in college at Emory in Atlanta.  There I met the woman who would eventually become my wonderful wife.  Her hometown was Huntsville, Alabama--home of Space Camp, the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, Redstone Arsenal, and a whole slew of Southerners.  As a larger city with so many technological jobs available, Huntsville has accumulated a fair number of folks from other states and countries (post WWII German scientists...) and as a result is a bit more metropolitan than a lot of other cities in the Deep South.  Also with all those scientists and engineers around, the geeky hobby of homebrewing has been popular for some time.  However, only in 2013 did the state legalize homebrewing, sneaking in just under the wire to get the hobby legalized and active before neighboring Mississippi.  Take that Mississippi!

When I first visited Huntsville, there was really no craft beer culture to speak of at all.  Nothing.  Several years later, (around 2005) I was excited to find Olde Towne Brewing had started up as the first craft brewery in the city.  Laws were still pretty strict, and brewery taprooms were not allowed.   In 2010 that brewery shut down, but they opened the door for several more craft breweries in town.  Since then Straight To Ale, Yellowhammer, Salty Nut, Blue Pants, and more have arrived on the scene.  Much like all of the USA, craft beer has arrived!  However, the caveat here is that the craft beer drinker is still much in the minority in the area, and the scene is still a bit fledgling compared to many other states and cities.

On a recent trip to Asheville, NC, my wife Sarajo and I decided to tack a few days onto our road trip and visit her mom in Huntsville.  We were excited to discover that one of Sj's high school class-mates, Bill Fowler, had just that week opened a beverage store specializing in craft beer.  We made sure to swing by the shop and he took some time to talk with us about his new venture.

The Old Town Beer Exchange is located, shockingly, in Olde Town, virtually across the street from Below the Radar Brewpub.  In a modern looking, somewhat understated building, a glass door with the OTBX logo emblazoned upon it welcomes one to the shop.  Inside, the place is cozy without being small.  Directly across from the entrance is a beautiful bar constructed of light-colored bricks from the old Coca-Cola Bottling plant in town, and topped with a ruggedly solid wooden bar top.  A large screen behind the bar lists all of the 32 craft beers they have on tap, with up to the minute information on how much beer is left in the keg!

To the left of the bar is the main store space, including refrigerated cases and copious shelf space for beers.  Windows are darkly tinted to discourage sunlight from injuring the beers on the shelves.  Some beers are organized by country (Belgium, Germany, Europ-ish), while American beers are organized by region rather than by style.  Bill tells me that he hopes this method of shelving will encourage people to discover other styles of beers by breweries they already enjoy, rather than automatically going to the IPA section and ignoring all the other good products to be found.  I like it!  They had a great selection of imports, larger regional breweries like Stone and Lagunitas, as well as a good amount of beers from Alabama and The South. So many of these beers are not available where I live, that I was like a kid in a candy store while exploring!  Oh, and they have a selection of wines in the center of the store if you are not a huge beer fan.

Bill sat down with us at one of the sturdy tables along the outside edge of the place.  I could tell he was busy--putting out small fires (not literal ones), greeting new and returning customers, organizing for the upcoming Rocket City Brewfest, etc.  I really appreciate him taking the time to hang out with us and tell his story.

Bill and three local friends had been planning this venture since the spring of 2014, combining backgrounds of medical sales, software CEO, law, and marketing into a cohesive whole.  The one thing the group shared was a love of craft beer and the desire to see a higher quality and availability of craft beer in Huntsville.  The company's tag line is "Southern, Craft, Culture".  After talking to Bill I truly feel that this is not just a clever marketing tool, but a credo that the owners live by.  Bill talked extensively about his desire to create a better craft beer environment in Huntsville, but in a way that embraces the deep (and sometimes shunned or ignored) history of the area.  As a start to this, they sourced as many things from the local area as possible for the building itself--from that amazing bar, to the reclaimed barn wood for tables, to the local craftsmen who fashioned them into usable furniture.  We did get to meet the talented carpenter, Ben Niemitz, and I could feel the pride in his work radiating out of him as he watched all the folks clustered around that bar.

While we talked, Sj and I shared some Minnesota beers with the staff, including Surly Pentagram and Schells Black Forest.  Bill shared a couple of local beers with us as well, including Straight To Ale's 5th Anniversary Belgian Quad that was lovely.  Meanwhile people continued to flow through the place at a steady clip--ordering a beer at the bar, wandering about eyeing the shelves of beer, and just plain enjoying themselves.  All of the folks working at OTBX were incredibly friendly, excited about what they were doing, and Bill hopes to have everyone properly Ciccerone (basically a beer sommelier) trained to improve and maintain their beer knowledge.

Some interesting notes as a Minnesotan visiting a beer store in Alabama before I wind down.  Despite being slow to legalize homebrewing and still having dry counties, Alabama has been rapidly improving its beer-related blue laws in the past few years.  A lot of that push has come from grassroots groups like Free The Hops.  Now breweries can sell on-premise and have taprooms.  As of 2012 Alabamanians can buy 750 ML bottles (now that one was a dinosaur!).  And you can buy beer on Sunday.  Oh, and you can get growlers filled with commercial beer at beer stores!  There are a few onerous restrictions remaining like brewpubs only being allowed in a county that had a brewery prior to Prohibition (seriously, what?) and not being able to bottle beers.  Still, considering how far behind this state was, they have made up time quickly, resulting in a new and vibrant craft beer scene in the area.  Here in Minnesota, we mainly struggle these days with being one of the few states to still outlaw Sunday liquor sales (resulting in a mass migration into Wisconsin every weekend), and our beer/liquor stores can't serve pints or fill growlers.  Strange but impressive that the traditionally conservative Deep South is lapping us on some of these issues!

Beyond just sharing his valuable time, Bill also went above and beyond the fabled Southern Hospitality by giving the two of us tickets to the next evening's Brewfest.  Getting to a brewfest in my wife's home town?  Amazing!  Oh, I'll be writing that experience up as well since it had some interesting differences from such fests back home...We had a fantastic time visiting the Old Town Beer Exchange and wish them much prosperity in the days to come.  I also hope that Bill and his partners can really have an impact on continuing to improve the craft beer scene in Huntsville for the future.  I know I'm more excited about heading back to town next time!

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