On a recent trip to Huntsville, Alabama to visit my wonderful mother-in-law we were lucky enough to score tickets to the seventh Rocket City Brewfest (thanks Bill Fowler and the folks from OTBX!) Being the super beer geek that I am, being in my wife's hometown on the exact weekend that they were hosting their beer festival was an amazing stroke of luck. Or fate? I already posted my blog entry on our visit to the recently opened Old Town Beer Exchange HERE, so feel free to check that out for some back story--especially on how much the beer scene has changed over the past several years. As an outsider only making my way down every few years, the changes are even more dramatic!
The Brewfest itself was a two day affair over May 8 and 9 of this year. The event is primarily a fund-raiser for Free The Hops--an Alabama based lobbying and education organization with lofty goals of improving the craft beer laws and attitudes in the state. The website for the event is one of the best such sites I've seen--featuring good explanations, lists of the beers, and a countdown to the next year's event. They also hosted an app for smart phones this year so you could figure out what brewery was serving what beer. Traditionally the first (Friday night) session tends to a younger/rowdier crowd, while the Saturday late afternoon session is a bit more laid back. We missed the first day, but were able to make the second day--probably perfect for our style.
I can't speak to previous year's events, but this was a great beer fest and run very smoothly. Located on the grounds of the old Depot building, one has a good view of some of the old city, and its an easy walk to some of the downtown area. After getting your ID checked, wristband (featuring a slightly tasteless advert for DUI defense), and taster glass, you are let loose on the grounds.
The brewery booths were a bit more spaced out than many such festivals, allowing for easier maneuvering and line management. The local breweries almost all had their own tented booths, most with a separately run line for buying swag. This is something I wish MN brewery fests would do, very few bring any glasses, hats, T-shirts, signs, etc. to sell us tipsy consumers. Wasted opportunity! Non-local and import breweries were serviced by combined booths, featuring beers from all over. I focused more on the local stuff, but was excited to find the rare Tilquin Geueze from Belgium being poured at one station. We also saw several of the breweries from North Carolina where we had just spent a week prior. We also bought an awesome hand-made glazed ceramic growler with giant Grolsch swing-top from local Southern Growler--check them out HERE.
Let's talk water. This particular fine spring day boasted temps over 90 degrees, but luckily some clouds drifted in to give us a little cover from the direct frying heat of the Alabama sun. Every pouring station had a 2.5 gallon jug of potable water with a spigot as well as a dump bucket. This made rinsing your glass out between and IPA and an Imperial stout a breeze! Also if the beer in your glass was nasty, it was easy to dispose of the evidence. Not that I had that happen very often. This is in contrast to the otherwise well-run Minnesota Brewer's Guild events where they usually have only two dump/rinse stations for the entire festival. There was also a booth handing out free bottles of ice cold water! These guys know how to deal with preventing dehydration.
And food? Oh, there was plenty of food available, though they were handled through annoying tokens. Our favorite food option was the fantastic Sugar Belle Cupcake Truck that was serving a bunch of treats made with local craft beers. Monkeynaught IPA cupcakes? Heck Yeah!
We had a chance to try a lot of different beers, with extra attention paid to Alabama and other southern brews of course. Some arcane law prohibits free samples of beers in the state, so each station has a bucket requesting a penny a pour. If you forget, you can give a quarter to another bucket and count this as credit for 25 pours. Strange. Star local brewery Straight To Ale (celebrating it's 5th anniversary) had a constantly rotating line-up of over 20 beers--I really enjoyed most of them. They also had a poor guy dressed in a suit (90 degrees!) and made up like a devil pouring samples of their 5th anniversary Belgian Quad from a tank on his back!
I enjoyed most of the things I tried from Yellowhammer. One of the biggest lines in the fest was for Salty Nut, but all four of the beers we tried from them were just average to my palate. We also got served beer from taps set into the side of a firetruck--best kegerator ever!
Going regional, we tried no less than 4 peanut butter beers! I have brewed one of these with fair success in the past, but have never had a good commercial version. Our favorite of them was the Rocket Republic brown ale that was then run through a randall filled with peanut butter chips. Yum! We actually went back for more of that one. The rest of the RR beers were quite tasty as well--and I feel all the happier to display their rocket shaped tap handle that my niece Anna sent to me last year.
Overall this was a very well-run, and well-maintained beer festival. For variety, water accessibility, and smoothness it was one of the best I've been to. Top that off with the fact that almost every beer there was new to me and I was quite happy! The beer quality was very good, but I would say that they are perhaps a bit behind where the general state of Minnesota breweries are these days. We do have about five times the number of breweries to choose from here though...
|If this came to emergencies there would be a LOT more false alarms...|
The festival ended at 8 PM with dusk starting to cool things off outside. My wife and I had snacked on amazing cupcakes, but were ready for something a bit more substantial to fill our bellies, so we walked a few blocks to Below The Radar. This is a brewpub (one can see the fermenters through glass from the bar) but at the time we were there, the house beers were not on tap yet. Instead they had a good selection of tap and bottled beers with a lean toward local/southern beers. The food was fairly standard selections for a brewpub or bar, but the quality was above average. The staff seemed friendly, but at least one server had no clue about beer at all...something they really need to fix if they are planning on being a real brewery!
A great day spent in Huntsville, and far more impressive from a craft beer standpoint than I would EVER have guessed the city to become. I'm excited to go back and see how things progress!