Blue Pants Brewery began as a reaction to the limited local craft beer options in Alabama. Mike Spratley and his wife Allison became enamored with craft beer after a brief stint in Seattle and were frustrated at the minimal local selection after moving back to Mike’s home-town of Huntsville, Alabama. Unlike most folks, Mike and Allison decided to actually do something about the problem and they began developing plans to open their own nanobrewery.
Opening a nanobrewery is a true labor of love. Profits are minimal at best and the businesses tend to be run on shoe-string budgets. You have to cash in favors, be extraordinarily creative, and be willing to do pretty much everything yourself. Add that to the fact that most nanobrewers have other full-time jobs, and you can quickly understand how challenging such an endeavor can be.
But Mike and Alison have somehow made it work. Blue Pants Brewery is currently one of six native breweries in ‘Bama (along with Good People and Avondale Brewing in Birmingham, Back Forty in Gadsden, and Straight to Ale and Yellowhammer in Huntsville). They’re developing a reputation as a thoughtful, experimental ale factory and they had many happy patrons at last weekend’s Magic City Brewfest. I enjoyed their brews so much that I decided to conduct a little interview with the man behind the Pants:
BROTHER BARLEY: What’s the long-term strategy for Blue Pants?
MIKE SPRATLEY: We’d like to grow some time in the near future so that we can support more products full-time. We don’t really have a feel for how big we could be and the main interest is on more styles.
BB: Take our readers through the steps in starting a nanobrewery.
MS: I have a pretty unique startup. Most of my equipment was acquired for free from a winery in Mississippi and I modified it to my purposes. It was pretty minimal in the startup except for the acquisition of kegs. Birmingham Beverages, our distributor had a great reputation and the people we talked with were incredible. Knickerbocker Red was our first run beer, selected because it’s a unique beer that I had had the most time to develop.
BB: Speaking of your first-run brews, how long did it take you to perfect the recipes? Had you been working on the Knickerbocker Red, Corduroy Rye IPA and the Pinstripe Stout for awhile? Or did you decide that those were the best styles to make for the market?
MS: The Red and the Rye IPA were both long development beers. The Red is a unique offering and I can’t tell you how many times people have commiserated that no one really brews reds. The Rye was in existence prior to the brewery opening, but we really couldnt support it and wanted to save it for the spring. Throughout the winter we were tweaking the recipe to get it to where we needed it to be. Pinstripe Stout was a beer I brewed for fun first at the brewery. We’ve been evolving it with later batches and letting the consumer really see it develop.
BB: Where does the name “Blue Pants” come from? Can we expect all of your creations to be named after pants (Corduroy, Pinstripe, Knickerbocker)? Is there a Hot Pants Hefe in your future? A Culottes Kölsch? Breeches Brown? Trousers Tripel?
MS: Blue Pants is a combination of my wife and my nicknames. I was “Pants” throughout college and my nickname for her is “Blue”. The Pants-named beer idea was Blue’s and we’ve had a lot of fun with it. All those are pretty good suggestions and we love the idea of having people try to come up with Pants-named beers. We let people put suggestions in for the name of our pale ale and plan to do the same when we struggle in the future.
BB: Most brewers seem less interested in staying within the rigid guidelines of certain styles and just try to focus on making great beer. That said, how do you determine the “base” style for each beer? How much experimentation do you do with grain percentages and hop additions? Could you walk us through how the Corduroy was developed so we can get a sense of your “process” (without giving away trade secrets, of course!)?
MS: We like to start with the style guidelines, but do something unique with them. Corduroy was set in the IPA style guideline, but there are so many out there that we really wanted to pull in some other unique aspects like the rye. Most of how we develop grain percentages and hop additions is based on experience and our personal tastes regarding grain types. With hops, we use simple formulas for determining bitterness, but have personal tastes for each type of hop. Usually I get it pretty close on the first batch after thinking about the beer for a long time and then tweak it within one or two percent on subsequent batches.
BB: What sets Blue Pants apart? Interesting takes on classic styles? Easy-drinking session beers? Just stuff that Mike Spratley loves?
MS: I’d say its the first one and the third one, but definitely not the second one. I know all our beers seem like session beers, but the staples are 7% ABV. We like to keep them smooth with lots of complex and interesting flavors. Usually there is a lot going on in the palate with our beers. That’s the aspect I like best about American breweries right now.
BB: Which other breweries excite you right now? What’s your favorite Blue Pants brew and can you name some of your favorite beers from other breweries so we know what kind of flavor profiles interest you?
MS: I’m really trying to branch out on my beer lately and I’ll grab a couple specialty bottles wherever I go. The list would be exhaustive on other breweries so I’m going to take the easy way out and avoid the question. Really there are more that I want to try and I just havent found a way to get access to them yet. My favorite Blue Pants Brew is still Knickerbocker Red, but I’m also very happy with the Saison and Corduroy right now especially since they are more in season. I think I’m going to avoid the favorite beer question too. Just so tough.
There you have it folks. If you don’t like the beer selection in your hometown, do what Mike Spratley did and start making your own! Sure, it’s tough work, but it can also be VERY rewarding (if you like beer as a reward, of course). And if you’re ever in the Huntsville area and want to sample an innovative take on a classic beer style, find a bar serving up some Blue Pants. You won’t be disappointed.