In 2007, Free the Hops launched the inaugural Magic City Brewfest in Birmingham. It quickly became the city’s premiere (oh, let’s face it, ONLY) craft beer festival and has grown in leaps and bounds over the past five years. I skipped the festivities my first year in town (2008) because the state restrictions at the time limited beer in Alabama to 6% ABV or below. As you might imagine, this limitation severely curtailed the variety of craft beer available in the state and the first two Magic City Brewfests only had so many options to entice a pompous Alehead like myself. But all that changed in 2009. Just weeks before that year’s Brewfest, the Governor signed into law the Gourmet Beer Bill, a Free the Hops-sponsored piece of legislation that upped the ABV cap on Alabama beer to 13.9% (I’d prefer no cap at all, but you take what you can get).
That first post-Gourmet Beer Bill Brewfest was wonderful. There was an energetic vibe in the air as Alabama’s craft beer fans celebrated their first real victory. People were having fun, making friends, and talking about the future of the fermented arts in a state that had been a beer wasteland for too long.
I’m happy to report that this year’s Magic City Brewfest was just as fun and spirited as the ’09 edition. I wisely decided to attend the Friday night session this year (normally I would attend the Saturday afternoon session, but Alabama is in the grips of a brutal heat wave right now and the 4pm start time on Saturday sounded daunting). There was a much larger selection than I remembered, and it felt a “little” more crowded, but the event went as smoothly as you could hope for when you have thousands of young, drunken revelers sweltering in the 90-degree Alabama heat. My only quibble with the event isn’t really a quibble at all…actually, I think it’s kind of a great thing. Many of the brewery tents “held back” on certain prestige beers until specific times. Bell’s held onto their HopSlam until 9pm sharp (and since they only brought one case, it was gone by 9:04pm). Good People’s massive El Gordo came out at 8:30pm and the line for the brewery’s tent immediately went from “the longest at the Brewfest” to “the longerest at the Brewfest”. And don’t get me started about the line at the Free the Hops “Specialty” tent which was serving Cigar City’s Oatmeal Raisin Cookie.
These “prestige” brews weren’t really available at the first post-Gourmet Beer Bill Brewfest in ’09 so this “hoarding” simply didn’t happen. And more importantly, even if such beers WERE available in 2009, most Alabamans weren’t big enough “beer geeks” to appreciate them (yet). Because the Gourmet Beer Bill had only been law for less than a month, craft beer appreciation in the state was still in its infancy. At the time, the Brewfest revelers were just happy to have something other than Sierra Nevada and Sam Adams to drink. We went from booth to booth sampling whatever was put in front of us and being profoundly grateful that we now had options. Two years later, Alabama craft beer fans are MUCH more educated. We know that the HopSlam is a best-in-class DIPA. We know that a Cigar City one-off is a must-drink brew. We know that Good People’s El Gordo is a rare brew indeed and that we need to savor it during those precious moments when it’s around. Sure, this leads to long lines when those beers make their presence known at the Brewfest…and yes, I’m sure there was some frustration when patrons finally got to the front of the Bell’s line only to realize that the HopSlam was gone in less than 5 minutes. But I still contend that this is a good thing…no, a GREAT thing!
Alabama’s craft beer fans are no longer content with just “something new”. We’re tuned into the industry. We know what’s exceptional and what’s mediocre. We know which breweries can do no wrong and which ones are hit or miss. When a populace becomes educated as the craft beer enthusiasts of Alabama have, it will naturally lead to some preferential treatment at an event like the Magic City Brewfest. Witness the long lines at Avondale Brewing Company…a local ale factory that was serving their wares for the very first time at the Brewfest. Most people I talked to have been aware of Avondale for months now and were eager to sample their suds. Meanwhile, the tents for Red Brick, Magic Hat, Tommyknocker, and Abita were remarkably sparse. Those aren’t terrible breweries, of course, but they don’t have the best reputations in the craft beer industry and the Brewfest attendees simply didn’t see a need to spend much of their valuable time standing in line for a Pick Axe Pale Ale or a Red Brick Blonde.
I found it most heartening that the local breweries…Good People, Avondale, Back Forty, Blue Pants and Straight to Ale…had the longest lines. Clearly Alabamans crave local breweries and are absolutely willing to support them. I think this is probably true everywhere, but because Alabama faces restrictions that other states don’t, the locals seem even MORE committed to growing the industry here. Interestingly, I noticed that this local support was truly Alabama-centric. The tents for Terrapin, Sweetwater, Yazoo and Wild Heaven (makers of the Ode to Mercy…one of the best brews in the South) were all relatively sparsely attended despite those breweries being located just a few hours from Birmingham. That’s not to say those breweries aren’t popular around here (they all are), it’s just that the locals desperately want a vibrant, dynamic beer scene to call our own. There’s nothing better than fresh craft beer, and there’s nothing fresher than local.
Alas, I was unable to sample all 200+ beers at the Brewfest. My liver is now more than 30 years old and it has its limits. I tried to eschew the brews I could get at any Publix or Piggly Wiggly and focused more on those that aren’t quite as easy to find on my package store shelves. I won’t bore you with breathless tasting notes on every brew I sampled, but I hope you won’t begrudge me some quick-hit tasting notes for a twelve-pack of cool brews:
Good People Hitchhiker: The star of the show for me, Good People’s Hitch is one of those ass-kicking American IPAs that recklessly blurs the line between IPA and Imperial IPA. It’s a little more robust than other top IPAs like the Ballast Point Sculpin or Cigar City Jai Alai and has a thicker, sweeter malt backbone…but don’t worry, there are still enough hops in there to choke a horse. It’s an all-day beer that I would have drank all day if I didn’t have 200 other options surrounding me. I can’t wait for GP to start canning this sucker. When Alabama finally gets its due in the American craft beer scene, it will be the Hitchhiker that puts the state on the map. 4 easy Hops.
Good People El Gordo: A massive Russian Imperial Stout that somehow miraculously clocks in at exactly 13.9% ABV (amazing how it perfectly hits the ABV limit of Alabama beers!), the Gordo is big in every sense of the word. Big aroma, big complex flavor filled with chocolate, coffee, and plums, a big, chewy mouthfeel, and a big, overpowering finish. There were some minor tap issues at the Brewfest that prevented the Gordo from being perfectly poured, but that didn’t detract from its deliciousness. I remarked to Cask Beerouac (who was manning the Good People tent) that it was an incredible beer, but I still preferred Good People’s slightly less muscular Fatso Imperial Stout. He looked at me like I had three heads and told me to leave the tent. But I still contend that the more delicate Fatso, by dint of being an easier-drinking, smoother brew, showcases Good People’s brewing chops a little better. That’s just picking nits though…the Gordo is a spectacular beer and I hope it becomes a more regular player in Good People’s line-up. 4 Hops.
Avondale Spring Street Saison: My first brew from the much-anticipated Avondale Brewing Company. The Spring Street was a well-balanced, well-executed Saison that I could see quickly becoming their flagship. A nice, floral nose and a light, crisp body with just a touch of spice in the finish. Thirst-quenching and eminently drinkable, this was one of the most talked-about beers at the Brewfest. 3.5 Hops.
Avondale Battlefield IPA: I’ll give Avondale a pass on this one since the beer was NOT pouring well (a definite issue at the Brewfest…I think the unseasonably hot weather was wreaking havoc on the kegs). It came out very flat and a little syrupy. Seems like there’s a decent IPA hiding amongst the wreckage so I won’t bother rating this one until I get a chance to sample it again in a more controlled environment. Stay tuned.
Straight to Ale Charon Robust Porter: One of the hardest posts I ever wrote was my first impression of Straight to Ale, the up-and-coming Huntsville brewery. I had sampled their Monkeynaut IPA and Wernher Von Brown Ale and while I loved their approach, I found some clear issues with their beers. I’m happy to report that whatever minor concerns I had about StA initially have been cleared up. The Monkeynaut is VASTLY improved, their Unobtanium Old Ale was a thick, sweet treat, and their Stop Work 689 Kolsch was very true to style and drinkable. Perhaps their best of the evening was the Charon Robust Porter…a dark, rich brew that straddled the line between Porter and straight-up Stout and was redolent with chocolate, toffee, and a faint kick of booze in the finish. An excellent brew from an ale factory to keep an eye on. 3.5 Hops.
Straight to Ale Brother Joseph Dubbel: I’m always game for trying a Dubbel even if it’s a style many American breweries have a hard time nailing. The Brother Joseph was a decent attempt. Not as complex or rewarding as something like Ommegang’s Abbey Ale, but it had some nice fruit undertones and a pleasant, sweet malt backbone. A little thin for a Dubbel and could have used more of that classic Belgian yeast character, but I found it easy-drinking and enjoyable. 3 Hops.
Blue Pants Corduroy Rye IPA: Blue Pants was showcasing a number of different brews, but I thought their two best were an everyday IPA and a tasty Stout. The Corduroy Rye IPA is like a hopped-up version of Terrapin’s classic Rye Ale…plenty of spice and that wonderful, cloud-like rye mouthfeel along with a bracing rush of hops and a crisp finish. A definite winner which should become Blue Pants’ flagship in my humble opinion. 3.5 Hops
Blue Pants Pinstripe Stout: A no-frills, no-nonsense Stout which hides its 8% ABV remarkably well and drinks as smooth and easy as a Guinness (with 100 times more flavor). The Pinstripe is a workmanlike dark beer, but sometimes that’s a good thing. If it weren’t for its reasonably high alcohol payload, the Pinstripe would be a great cool-weather session beer and I think its exceptional balance is a harbinger of good things to come from the Blue Pants crew. 3 Hops.
Back Forty Kudzu Porter: This Gadsden-based ale factory has been churning out their tasty Naked Pig Pale Ale and Truck Stop Honey Brown for quite some time now, but the 2011 Brewfest was my first chance to sample something different from Back Forty. My favorite brew at their tent was their delicious Kudzu Porter. While their Naked Pig and Truck Stop are mostly true to style, the Kudzu Porter rolls the dice a little relative to other porters. Much sharper and more fragrant than a traditional English version of the style, the Kudzu sample I tried actually had a touch of Cascadian Dark Ale aroma and flavor to it. 3.5 Hops.
Back Forty Kolsch: More in line with their other “brewed to style” offerings, the Kolsch is Back Forty’s solid take on a subtle, classic German brew. Actually, I was a bit surprised to see a number of Kolschs on tap at the Brewfest (as mentioned, Straight to Ale was showcasing one as well). Is the dry, hoppy, delicate German ale about to become a popular style in the States? If more breweries make one like Back Forty, I certainly wouldn’t mind. Theirs was crisp and clean with a nice, floral hoppiness and a very light body. Perfect for a hot, Alabama day…thirst-quenching and tasty. 3 Hops.
Cigar City Oatmeal Raisin Cookie: For my last two quick-hit tasting notes, I’m staying in the Southeast but moving away from ‘Bama. Cigar City’s Oatmeal Raisin Cookie was probably the most anticipated brew of the night for many people and during it’s 30-minute release window, it created a crazy-long line as people eagerly waited for a taste. Fortunately, I spotted a friend walking away from the booth with the beer in hand and I was able to split his sample glass with him without having to stand in line. The Oatmeal Raisin Cookie is Cigar City’s phenomenal Maduro Oatmeal Brown Ale brewed with raisins, vanilla and cinnamon. Sound delicious? Yeah, it is. Way too cloying and sweet to be an everyday beer, the Oatmeal Raisin is a once-in-awhile dessert brew that is an absolute treat. It’s a fun, if gimmicky brew, and definitely worth a sample if you’re in Cigar City’s distribution region. 3 Hops.
Highland Tasgall Ale: One of (or perhaps THE) best Scotch Ales in America, I had never had a chance to sample this brew on draught…so imagine my surprise to see the Tasgall tap handle sitting next to the expected Oatmeal Porter and Gaelic Ale (it wasn’t listed on the “official” beer manifest). Needless to say, I parked myself in front of the Highland booth for awhile and had the equivalent of two pints of Tasgall via my four-ounce sample glass (your Magic City Brewfest ticket gets you unlimited free samples of all 200+ beers, but you have to use the provided glass). It’s just as tasty on tap as I was expecting…rich and sweet like a Scotch Ale should be, but with plenty o’ peat and hops to keep it dangerously drinkable. Between the Tasgall and Good People’s Hitchhiker, I was in Alehead heaven.
So for any Alehead looking to see the Alabama craft beer scene at its best, swing by the Magic City Brewfest next year. You won’t be disappointed.