Five years ago, in early 2010, there was a single brewery in Huntsville, Alabama. One brewery, the only of its kind to open since the repeal of national prohibition in 1933. The city literally went for a span of 71 years without a single commercially brewed local beer.
As of June, 2015, there are eight breweries in Huntsville, soon to be nine. This smallish southern city, population 180,000, has undergone a total transformation as far as its craft brewing industry is concerned. Like so many other American cities, beer has come into the vogue, but few if any can claim to have experienced such a rapid, radical, city-defining seismic shift. In just five years, “old veteran” brewing presences have been established and a younger generation has come along to reap the rewards of a clientele that continues to refine its taste. It’s still very much a work in progress, but to compare the “before” and “after” statistics is shocking. Thanks to the timely repeal of some antiquated laws that held the brewing industry back—a homebrewing ban, an ABV cap, a ban on large-format bottles—craft beer is now free to thrive.
None of this would likely have happened without that first brewery, the now-defunct Olde Towne Brewing Company, which opened in 2004 to snap the 71-year drought. It’s difficult to overstate how important that venture must have been to the city’s beer scene today. Those brewers entered a landscape where craft beer might as well have been escargot, some symbol of the bourgeois and not the drink of salt-of-the-earth southerners. They kept right on at it after a fire destroyed the original brewing space in downtown Huntsville in 2007, and continued on until 2011 in a new location that is still used by another brewery today. In that sense, Olde Towne is like the biological “Adam,” the distant forebear to every brewery that came along in Huntsville afterward. Beers like their pale ale or hefeweizen—those paved the way and began the long and surely painful process of adjusting local tastes. And it’s the current generation of breweries who are seeing the benefits.
These are all, by and large, things I learned over the course of a weekend. After reading some of Paste’s beer coverage and city beer guides, I was recently contacted by representatives of Downtown Huntsville, an organization that strives to be an “economic engine” for the city’s historic, now-gentrifying downtown district, as well as Huntsville in general. They asked if I’d be interested in coming to Huntsville for a weekend to visit all of the local breweries and drink a bunch of beer. And that’s not really the type of question where one answers “no thanks.” So that’s how I found myself in a city I’d never seen before, conducting interviews and soaking in as much of the beer culture as I possibly could.
Map by designer Sarah Lawrence. Click to enlarge.
1. Straight to Ale
If Olde Towne Brewing Company was the paterfamilias of the Huntsville beer scene, Straight to Ale would be like the overachieving eldest child. They moved straight into Olde Towne’s rebuilt space when they opened in 2010, officially kicking off the second phase of the city’s ongoing beer revolution. As such, they occupy the role of the “veteran” brewery in town, even if that seems kind of absurd, given they’re just now celebrating their fifth birthday. They’re the most widely nationally distributed brewers in town, but a visit to the tap room reminds you that this is still quite the small operation, all things considered—the place is really built for just a few dozen visitors, although the interior of the brewery itself is also used for both visitors and as a performance space for bands.
The lineup is varied and prominently American, although there’s also no shortage of English and Belgian-inspired ales. Notable is the IPA, Monkeynaut, which might accurately be described as the unofficial flagship brew of Huntsville craft brewing in general, at least in terms of consumption. Where Straight to Ale really excels, though, is in their adventurous side and barrel-aged offerings—in this they are fairly unique in the Huntsville scene, because most of the other breweries haven’t been in business long enough to get large-scale, commercial barrel-aging operations underway. In particular, try to find any of the barrel-aged variants of the already superior Laika Russian Imperial Stout. Both the bourbon and cabernet barrel versions performed quite well in Paste’s tasting/ranking of barrel-aged imperial stouts this winter.
Of note: Both Straight to Ale and Yellowhammer Brewing will be taking Huntsville beer to the next level later this year when they open new locations in the same complex, the former Stone Middle School. The school-turned entertainment complex, to be known as Campus No. 805, will house a 40,000 foot Straight to Ale space, a newly constructed Yellowhammer, restaurants and an outdoor amphitheater for concerts.
2. Yellowhammer Brewing
The soon-to-be neighbors of Straight to Ale already have a very nice little brewery, at least from a visiting standpoint. Based in an old, garage-type building, their outdoor backyard/patio must be a very popular summer hangout indeed. Lit softly with strands of lights and built around a pretty, centralized tree, its benches and tables seem like the ideal place to while away a lazy weekday night—which just happens to be what I did while visiting, while a local singer-songwriter played ribald folk songs in the corner.
Of course, you wouldn’t want to hang out somewhere without good beer, and there’s no lack of that. One gets the sense, chatting with people around town, that Yellowhammer brewmaster Keith Yager is pretty much universally considered one of the most gifted brewing professionals in Huntsville, and not afraid by any means to experiment. The brewery’s flagship was once a German schwarzbier—how many breweries lean on a dark lager as a cash cow? These days, the flagship has likely morphed into Yellowhammer’s Belgian white, which I honestly believe is their most perfectly executed beer. It puts a twist on the typical Belgian style with the addition of Kaffir lime leaves and fresh ginger to create a spicy and uniquely refreshing, sessionable pint. If I lived in Huntsville, it’s hard to imagine a beer I’d drink more often in the summer.
3. Blue Pants Brewery
Blue Pants, along with Rocket Republic Brewing Co., reside on the western end of town, in a suburb called Madison, although it’s still only a 10-15 minute drive from downtown Huntsville. They’ve been around almost as long as Straight to Ale, but the story of Blue Pants, according to just about anyone around town, is really a tale of two breweries. There was the original Blue Pants, which made solid beer lacking some kind of x-factor, and then there’s the new and current Blue Pants, which is making some really exceptional brews, especially IPAs.
The reason for the transformation seems to have been brewer Derek Weidenthal’s decision to travel to Chicago and attend the Siebel Institute International Brewing Program, a 12-week, advanced master class for brewers. Upon his return, many Blue Pants recipies were overhauled, and if you ask around town, you’ll hear that just about every beer has been beautifully transformed. In fact, there wasn’t a single opinion I heard so often while in Huntsville—respect for the overall lineup of Blue Pants offerings has shot upward notably in both the bottle shops and other breweries, regardless of who you talk to.
In terms of the beer lineup, it’s definitely heavy on the hop-bursted IPAs, which are uniformly excellent—maybe even world-class. Getting them fresh, the Weedy’s DIPA in particular is a revelation, a huge blast of tropical, juicy hop flavors. They also make multiple variations on the Pinstripe coffee stout, including a peanut butter stout and a “double stuff” stout with vanilla and chocolate, meant to approximate an Oreo. They’re also the only brewery in Huntsville to possess a distillery license, although there’s probably more on the way.
4. Rocket Republic Brewing Co.
The thing one immediately notices, walking into westernmost brewery Rocket Republic, is how well they’ve achieved the aesthetic they were seeking for their tap room—I think it may be the best realized indoor beer-drinking space in the city. The steampunk-ish theme is present everywhere, right down to the beautiful custom-built bar made of pipes and gears, and there’s plenty of open room for people to mill around. It felt closer to the tap rooms of the many other good-sized commercial breweries I’ve visited in the past.
The beer, meanwhile, is a well-balanced mix of typical styles with predictably spacey names—Plasmic Porter, Quantum Wheat, Pomegranate Planet, etc. One of the stand-outs is definitely the Terrestri-Ale Tripel, a relatively light-bodied, dry take on Belgian tripel that emphasizes light spiciness, restrained fruit flavors and dangerous drinkability, considering its ABV. The brewery’s flagship IPA, Mach-1, was also recently chosen by local drinkers as the best IPA in Madison County.
5. Salty Nut Brewery
The tap room of Salty Nut seems a bit like a friend’s basement with its hand-me-down couches, but perhaps it’s not the furniture that makes it feel welcoming so much as the fact that the brewery staff here are incredibly friendly. In fact, of everywhere I visited in Huntsville, Salty Nut was the place that immediately made me feel like a local or regular. There’s an air of authenticity and simplicity to the place that makes you want to pull up a stool, chat with bartenders and stay for hours. The night I returned to visit some more, a tiny Italian woman appeared out of nowhere bearing trays of homemade pizza, crostini and four varieties of homemade pesto—just because she was new to the area and thought the people at the brewery might appreciate her food. That’s the kind of place this is.
The beer selection fits the ambiance—approachable, friendly, solid offerings. The Hop Naughty IPA stands up well against the other hop-forward offerings in town, but it was the Darkness Stout that really stood out to me, likely the best American-style stout I had in Huntsville. You’re likely to find a mix of foundational American craft beer styles, from Irish red ale to nut brown, DIPA and black IPA. If you’re really lucky, you might even get a chance to taste some of the first fruits of the Salty Nut barrel program—while there, I tasted a very nice red wine barrel-aged Belgian tripel.
6. The Brew Stooges
The Brew Stooges might be the most unusual, unique little brewery in Huntsville, and probably the most kitschy-fun to visit. The place feels extremely DIY—a small little garage that my tour guide informed me apparently was once a location where rocket parts (Huntsville is the “Rocket City”) were manufactured. Today it looks more like your grandparents’ basement, if you your grandparents were also craft brewers. There’s a hodgepodge of delightfully mismatched, old furniture here and there, with a lofted seating area that looks straight out of the ‘70s.
The beer, meanwhile, is very eclectic and continuously varied and changing, according to both the owner and bottle shop operators around town. Brew Stooges seems to have a particular interest in experimenting with variations on a single beer—specifically, they took their very solid porter, Knucklehead, and have treated it many different ways. During one visit, you might find vanilla, chocolate, coffee and several other versions of that one beer, although go for the espresso: That beer has picked up some very rich, sweet espresso character. Beyond the Knucklehead, though, it’s hard to know what may be on at Brew Stooges at any given time. Working in small batches, they have completely new offerings available on a nearly weekly basis. If experimentation and eclecticism are your things, this might be your Huntsville brewery.
7. Old Black Bear Brewing
Old Black Bear is the only company making beer in the area that I wasn’t able to physically visit, but I did manage to have a few of their beers while scouring the city. They feel like a brewery trying to focus on classic, approachable styles that serve as entry points to new beer drinkers and everyday drinkers for everyone else. Their tap room isn’t yet open to the public, but you can find their beer in cans around town. Both German and American styles seem to be represented, with a smattering of lighter German-influenced lagers and several different twists on porter. Between Old Black Bear and Brew Stooges, fans of American porter should find themselves well looked-after as far as Huntsville offerings are concerned.
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