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.
Next: Huntsville beer bars and bottle shops
8. Below the Radar Brewhouse
Below the Radar is an interesting place, and something you don’t see all that often in the modern American craft beer landscape—a brewpub that also has a ton of guest taps. Since opening in 2012 they’ve offered their own product contract brewed by Yellowhammer, while working on the necessary licensing and construction to eventually move the brewing operations in-house. This was completed just weeks ago, and Below the Radar is now pouring a (soon to be growing) lineup of BTR brews.
The fact that they also have several dozen guest taps, however, is a pretty rare thing. Even more unusual is the fact that they’ve filled those guest taps with offerings from other local breweries such as Blue Pants, Straight to Ale and Yellowhammer—they’re essentially selling their own competition. I believe this speaks to the atmosphere of camaraderie between local breweries in Huntsville, as well as a certain confidence from the BTR owners in their own product. Now that they’re making their own brews in-house, it will undoubtedly be at its freshest, but Below the Radar will remain a destination for great craft beer in general, whether or not it hails from the Huntsville area.
9. The Nook
The Nook is probably Huntsville’s preeminent craft beer bar, but you would not know that from the outside. The squat little building has been a bar of all kinds since the 1950s, and its low ceilings remind one of a basement bar or little Italian restaurant in a city like Chicago or New York. It’s been retrofitted over time to have as many craft taps as possible, and that haphazard construction has resulted in a totally unique, unusual layout—there are literally taps everywhere. Taps behind the actual bar, of course. Taps outside on the patio. Taps around the corner in the room that is still under construction. Even a few extra taps coming from a kegerator that has been nestled into the only place it would fit, a recessed gap in the wall opposite the main bar. I’ve never seen a bar with the draft menu spread out into so many locations. It must take a lot of memorization for servers.
Locals mostly congregate outside on the patio, especially in the warmer months—when I visited, the interior was completely deserted, but the outside was lively and filled with tables of diverse, laughing craft beer drinkers of all ages. The draft and bottle menu are both sprawling, although with more of a focus on what might call “good value” and not a ton of rarer, more expensive beer—although they do have special variants of some local beers, such as a wee heavy from Yellowhammer that they aged in Jack Daniels barrels. On the patio, mini lanterns mounted on the wooden beams bathe everything in soft, yellow light. It’s a characterful, eccentric little beer bar.
10. Old Town Beer Exchange
Walking into Old Town Beer Exchange was really the moment when I was reminded of how differing law makes for different types of establishments, because a place like this could not legally exist in Atlanta. It’s many things at once: A craft beer bar. A beer and wine shop. A growler-filling station. It keeps liquor store hours but serves full pints and has a beautiful, high-topped bar. Its clientele can stroll in, order a snifter of DIPA, browse the shelves, chat with a sommelier about what wine to pair with dinner, and then be on their merry way. How could you walk in here and not want every bottle shop to offer the exact same range of services?
There’s a lot of little things I appreciated about this shop in particular. They have a sharp-looking electronic board detailing all of the draft options, which not only conveys all the style and statistical information you could want, but even tells you how much is left in the keg. The shelves are organized by region, which also puts all of the offerings from each brewery together—note to bottle shop owners, but this is greatly preferable to sorting beers by style. The employees are knowledgeable and friendly, likely understanding that their role is key in expanding the beer consciousness of their city. It’s simply a great beer store.
11. Liquor Express and Craft Beer
Decidedly less shiny than the nearby Beer Exchange, Liquor Express is a full liquor store, although it also can boast a fairly strong collection of craft bottles. Like OTBX it also offers growler fills, although I did a bit of a double take when seeing that the vessel of choice was plastic milk gallons and half-gallons, something I’ve never seen at another growler fill station in my life. Call me crazy, but it doesn’t seem like the plastic milk jug would be able to match either the cleanliness or the oxygen barrier of a regular glass or metal growler, which would certainly make me hesitant to use them. Still, locals didn’t seem to have a problem with the concept. But I’d probably consume that growler very quickly, if I were you.
12. Wish You Were Beer
Winners of the Best Name Award is Wish You Were Beer, which has a bit of an isolated location on the northwestern side of what is simultaneously the western edge of Huntsville and the northern edge of Madison. It’s worth a slight trek out from downtown Huntsville, though—like OTBX, it’s very much a one-stop-shop for anything beer-related. Beers are available via draft—you can buy full pints and shoot the breeze at the long wooden tables—or growler fill, in addition to a large, sprawling bottle selection. It’s tough to say who has the biggest overall selection, but in terms of just bottles, I might have to give the slight edge to Wish You Were Beer. Like OTBX, they’re also organized by geographical area, which is helpful.
Of special note is the fact that Wish You Were Beer also contains a small homebrewing section, which is the only one of its kind that I saw while in Huntsville. The mere fact that so many breweries have opened in the last few years tells us that the local homebrewing culture must be strong, so it’s nice to see a local shop catering to that market, rather than Huntsville residents having to buy all their equipment and ingredients via shops on the web.
Next: Three Huntsville beers you have to drink
Yellowhammer Brewing Belgian White
When you see a brewery with a Belgian white as its flagship of sorts, the cynical craft beer drinker would likely make the assumption they were going after the Blue Moon demographic—super citrusy, artificial, meant to appeal to those with a sweet tooth. But Yellowhammer’s Belgian witbier isn’t that—and it’s not even a better version of a traditional wit either, but something completely different. In fact, they probably wouldn’t be too far off if they chose to call it their “Thai witbier” or something instead, because rather than the usual orange peel/coriander combo, their beer instead features a transformative citrus/spice twist by using kaffir lime leaves and ginger. That might not sound like a huge twist, but the result is really intriguing—the lime contributes a very refreshingly crisp citrus character, and the ginger is the oomph of spice complexity and even a touch of heat. The ginger is really what makes it, because as just about any homebrewer who’s dabbled in spice beers will tell you, it’s a very tough balance to get right. Here it’s in perfect harmony—there’s no way to miss that component, but it’s still insanely drinkable. This should be Huntsville’s official summer beer.
Salty Nut Brewery Darkness Stout
There was probably a time, a decade ago, when just about every brewery in the country made a good ‘ole American-style stout, that old brewpub staple. “It’s the one we make that’s dark,” they would presumably have said, stroking their beard, if brewers still had beards back in those days that are now lost to prehistory. But the stouts were definitely there. They were ubiquitous.
Now, though? I’m not so sure. As craft beer careens ever outward into the experimental regions and what was once extreme becomes the norm, I feel like I see far fewer regular old stouts—mid-strength stouts with no additional twist, adjuncts or flavoring. After all, if you’re a brewery with an imperial stout on the menu already, why make a regular stout where you could just have a brown ale or porter? And yet, those just don’t always hit the flavor profile I’m looking for. What I really want is a moderately strong, roast-heavy, dry, moderately hoppy, dark-as-the-night American stout. And that’s what Salty Nut has. And it’s awesome.
Darkness Stout takes those things one might enjoy about a classic Irish dry stout and amplifies them—bigger, chewier, ashy roast, a touch of smoke, bittersweet dark chocolate. There’s more body, but it stops before developing all of those dark/dried fruit flavors that a few more degrees of ABV and more crystal malt would bring out. It stays dry, and thus drinkable. I’d call it perfect session beer if it wasn’t 6.4% ABV.
Any hop-bursted IPA at Blue Pants
There’s plenty of solid offerings at Blue Pants, but it’s the hop-heads who are really going to fall in love with the place. You really can’t go wrong up and down the line up, although you’ll probably want to start with the session IPA and work your way up for a full appreciation. That reminds me: Having brought home a Blue Pants “Hop Box” of four IPA styles, enjoying them in sequence is actually a fairly good argument for the session IPA label. That first, low-ABV beer is very dry but still bursting with crisp, citrusy hops, and it drinks like a dream. Each step upward from there—the regular hop-bursted IPA and the Weedy’s Double IPA—is another step forward in malt presence, but at the same time balanced by an even more aggressive degree of in-your-face fruity hops. Note that I didn’t say “bitterness,” because the hop-bursting process aims to deliver intensely fruity hop flavors and aromatics without extracting an overwhelming degree of bitterness. What that leaves you with is powerfully perfumed IPAs that start dry and citric and work their way up to huge, rich and tropical. They even make some fruit-treated IPAs, such as the very authentic-tasting, peach-infused variant I was able to sample. In a blind tasting, these IPAs would stand up well against just about anyone’s.
Given the still very recent development of the Huntsville craft beer scene, it’s no surprise that the microdistilling scene is far less developed still. But there are a few projects up and coming.
Blue Pants Brewery
Of the local breweries, Blue Pants is the only one to also hold a distiller’s license. This means they’re able to make spirits in a “separate location,” which is to say, a different building on the same grounds that has a sturdy lock on it. As the owners describe it, “the state knows the names of every person with a key.” Here, they’re able to start some experimentation with craft spirits, currently producing things such as limoncello and creme liqueur, neither of which I had time to personally sample, given that I was totally focused on the beer. But still, a neat extra feature.
Irons Distillery is an upcoming project in Huntsville’s Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment, a historic (read: old) textile mill that has been refurbished into what they now describe as “America’s largest independent center for the arts.” I highly recommend you check it out if you’re in Huntsville visiting—it’s a very cool place to walk around and admire the hundred-something artist studios. The distillery project will apparently be housed in one of those studios, making the expected collection of unaged (vodka, gin) and aged (whiskey) spirits, but there’s no word yet on when it will be open.
13. The Boot Pizzeria
Unlike Stem and Stein, The Boot is a restaurant that was never devised as a craft beer or fine wine destination—it’s just something that happened along the way. I was told about the place by drinkers at the Old Town Beer Exchange, who painted the picture of a place that was sort of a beloved local oddity, a family-owned pizzeria where the owners once knew nothing about the concept of better beer. However, after owner Edoardo De Baggis started hanging around with members of the local beer community, he fell headfirst into beer fandom, and the number of taps at his restaurant, The Boot, began to grow. It now boasts 33, far more than one would expect from a pizzeria that in every other respect just looks like a fun neighborhood staple.
Perhaps it’s simply just representative of the restaurant market in 2015—a business where the concept of beer isn’t the reason for its existence, and yet it’s still packed to the gills with great local brews. If anything, the fact that the locals support all those beer taps is the most encouraging thing. It paints a picture of Huntsville as a city that continues to grow into its own as a community ready to support its craft beer community.
14. The Stem and Stein
A neat little combination restaurant and wine shop on the extreme western edge of town, near Huntsville International Airport, The Stem and Stein feels like a place built on the concept of wine and food that has also welcomed craft beer into the fold. The wine selection is huge and impressive—the beer selection smaller, but pretty solid as well. The menu of small plates and appetizers leans toward Italian and Mediterranean inspirations, in addition to charcuterie, salads and small pizzas—all with ready-made wine pairings. In a city that hasn’t seemed to develop a huge number of “gastropub” settings to date, it’s definitely one of the locations where the beverage program seems to have equal importance to the food.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor, and this was the first time he’s ever set foot in Alabama. He now wishes he could get more Huntsville beer at his local bottle shop. You can follow him on Twitter.