The Birmingham craft beer scene has come a long way since I first moved to the Magic City in 2007. When I settled into town, the only Alabama-based craft brewery was Olde Towne, a Huntsville-based outfit which fizzled out last year. Beer over 6% ABV was illegal, breweries couldn’t have taprooms, and beer couldn’t be sold in bottles over 16 ounces.
Fast-forward to 2012 and the local craft culture has changed dramatically. Most of the backwards legislation has been eliminated or vastly improved. Birmingham now has four local breweries: Good People, Avondale, Cahaba, and the new kid on the block, Beer Engineers (plus a fifth brewery, Back Forty, in nearby Gadsden). And then there’s Huntsville. Located about 100 miles north of Birmingham, the Rocket City will soon be host to five breweries: Yellowhammer, Blue Pants, Straight to Ale, and the soon-to-open Salty Nut and Below the Radar (the latter will be the first brewpub in Alabama in many a year).
Granted, Alabama’s got nothing on states that embraced the craft beer revolution decades ago like Oregon, California, Colorado, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. And yes, there’s still a fair percentage of the population that thinks craft beer is rife with elitism and snobbery and that the only thing worth drinking is a cold can of Busch. But many of those old stereotypes are falling and the incredible growth of the local brewery scene is creating a large and passionate group of Alabama Aleheads. Most pundits believe the Southeast will be THE growth region for craft in the coming years. We’ve developed a thirst for well-made, flavorful beers and the market is poised to explode. In short, we’re making progress…and no event showcases that progress more dramatically than the Magic City Brewfest.
The Magic City Brewfest is run by Free the Hops, the grassroots group of craft beer evangelists who changed the game in Alabama. They’re the organization that passed the Gourmet Beer Bill (upping the allowable ABV of beer to 13.9%), the Brewery Modernization Act (which allowed breweries to open taprooms…amongst other improvements), and the Gourmet Bottle Bill (which changes the 16-ounce restriction to 25.4 ounces and comes into effect this summer).
The Brewfest has grown and matured every year. This year saw some new innovations like a pricier “VIP” ticket which gave the bearer access to a roped-off area where a number of rarities and prestige beers were being poured. There were also far more “Swag” booths this year thanks to the recent proliferation of local breweries. But the overall feel of the Brewfest remains the same. It’s a fun, lively, but respectful beer festival filled with Aleheads and newbies alike. Everyone is there for the beer and the camaraderie and, despite the free-flowing alcohol and the sun beating down, everyone is shockingly well behaved. Any Alabama legislators that were nervous about the negative societal impact of “unleashing” craft beer on the populace need only spend an hour or two at the Magic City Brewfest to have those fears alleviated.
Gabe Harris, Free the Hops’ hard-working President, was gracious enough to offer me a Press Pass to the event which got me in for free and even allowed me to slip in through the VIP entrance (it didn’t grant me access to the VIP beers, but since I didn’t pay a dime to attend, I can hardly complain).
In the past, the Brewfest has been sweltering, but the Gods of Beer shone their favor on us this year and kept the event comfortably in the high 70s. It’s almost entirely an outdoor event…held at Sloss Furnaces, a decommissioned steel mill that functions as a museum these days. It’s a cool, slightly creepy setting with lots of rusty, giant equipment and a massive “shed” which hosts the musical acts for the day and a handful of brewery booths. The rest of the booths (the vast majority, actually) are completely outdoors and surround a central water feature. There were over 50 breweries represented at the event, some of which were just offering two or three beers while others had taps numbering in the double-digits. There were plenty of food booths as well, with food trucks and kiosks representing some favorite local eateries.
I can’t say I tried “every” beer at the event, but I came damn near close. When you arrive, the volunteers stamp your hand, give you a four-ounce taster glass, and send you on your way. You don’t pay a cent for the beer*, so it’s really just a matter of walking up to a booth, waiting at most 2 minutes (and even that long a wait is VERY rare…it’s usually more like 10 seconds), and asking one of the many, generous volunteers to fill you up.
*OK, so “technically” you’re supposed to pay a penny per pour. It’s an odd quirk of Alabama state law and ABC regulations that you can’t be given free, unlimited samples at an event like this. To get around the problem, the organizers put penny buckets at each booth and you’re supposed to drop in a cent for each beer you drink with all of the proceeds going to charity. However, it works on the honor system, so in theory you could just claim that you dropped a dollar in a bucket at one booth and get 100 pours from another booth because of it. I actually DID put a couple bucks into one bucket…mostly because I’m a philanthropic son-of-a-bitch, but also because I’m a law-abiding citizen.
There were too many highlights to list. I went back for Sierra Nevada’s Hoptimum at least 6 times and also had my fill of Westbrook’s Covert Hops, Tallgrass’s Velvet Rooster, and Green Flash’s Le Freak amongst hundreds of other wonderful brews.
But it’s the local outfits that have always shone the brightest at the Magic City Brewfest and this year was no exception. It’s telling that the longest lines are ALWAYS for the local brewery booths. Granted, that may be because they usually have the most offerings available, but I think there’s a fair amount of home town pride as well. In keeping with last year’s write-up, I’ll give a quick review of the 8 local breweries present at the festival:
Avondale Brewing: Since they opened their taproom doors last year, I’ve been to Avondale at least a half-dozen times. It’s a wonderful space built with a ton of natural materials and they clearly put a lot of thought into making the taproom a true neighborhood meeting space. At the Brewfest, they showcased their flagship Spring Street Saison and popular Battlefield IPA along with their big, bold Miss Fancy’s Tripel and a tasty Kölsch. They busted out a Strawberry Kölsch as a specialty beer for the event and it was surprisingly well-executed and not at all over-sweet or over-flavored. Avondale is quickly becoming a beloved institution in town for good reason.
Back Forty: Back Forty used to be known for just one beer…the well-hopped Naked Pig Pale Ale. But in the past two years, Back Forty has opened their own production facility, won a Silver medal at the GABF for their Truck Stop Honey Brown, and now produces a well-made IPA (the Frecklebelly) and very tasty dark ale (the Kudzu Porter) which you can find flowing from many local restaurant and bar taps. They also featured a Kölsch (which seems to be the “style du jour” these days) and a Dark Saison. Good stuff, as always, from the Gadsden crew.
Beer Engineers: I had read about this newcomer to the Birmingham beer scene just weeks ago and was thrilled to see their booth at the Brewfest (their focus is on high-gravity, experimental beers…music to this Alehead’s ears). They only brought a handful of beers to the event, but they showed a lot of promise. I sampled their Velocity IPA, Breakfast Stout, Peanut Butter Porter and Braggot. Really interesting beers with some funky twists on classic styles. They were using forced air for some of their taps (rather than a true draft system) which has a tendency to mess with the beer, so I’ll reserve judgement until I get to sample their offerings in a more conducive environment. Still, I’m giddy to have Beer Engineers in town and can’t wait to get a chance to try their offerings again.
Blue Pants: I’ve always been a fan of Blue Pants up in Huntsville. Besides giving their beers cheeky, pants-related nicknames, they were also one of the first breweries to grant an interview to Aleheads. They brought their Corduroy Rye IPA, Knickerbocker Red, Pinstripe Stout, Breeches ESB, and a couple of specialty brews. They had a nicely-hopped dark ale which I think they just called their Black IPA and a great, oaked version of their Stout. Pants’ (the head brewer) sent his brother to work the crowds and he did a great job talking up the brewery and discussing future plans. Look for big things from this little, Huntsville brewery in the coming years.
Cahaba Brewing: Full disclosure…I was VERY excited to hear about Cahaba Brewing Company opening up shop near my office. I was set to do a tour and interview with the brewers, but the plans fell through a couple of times and then Baby McHops #2 was born and life got in the way and blah blah blah. The end result is that the Brewfest was the first time I was able to actually try Cahaba’s beers. Their focus seems to be on drinkable, sessionable brews without a lot of fuss. Their flagship was a light-bodied, easy-drinking amber ale called the Liquidambar which would make a good gateway brew for those not sure about this whole “craft beer” thing. They also featured a very mildly-hopped IPA called the Oka Uba and a well-roasted, delicious rye stout called the Ryezome. I missed out on their Kiwi Kölsch as I was pretty well Kölsched out by that point.*
*Seriously people…what’s with all the Kölsches? Who was really complaining about a lack of Kölsch in their life?
Good People Brewing: The biggest brewery in the state and an Aleheads fave, Good People brought their standard line-up of Brown Ale, IPA, Coffee Oatmeal Stout, Pale Ale and high-octane Snake Handler (a great, rich DIPA) and added a few specialty beers to the mix. Their Brett IPA is always a favorite of mine…they minimize the Brett mildew aroma while still allowing some of those classic fruity, funky flavors to shine through. They also had a keg of El Gordo available…their massive Imperial Stout which seems to get better every year. As for their Bearded Lady, a summery, sessionable wheat ale…it is what it is. A well made, easy-to-quaff brew…but after the Gordo, it tasted like water. Even the brewers seemed indifferent to it.
Straight to Ale: This Huntsville-based ale factory always brings the heat at the Brewfest and they unloaded everything but the kitchen sink on the festival-goers. Their Brother Joseph Belgian Dubbel, Lily Flagg Milk Stout, Stop Work Kölsch (aaaah!), and Monkeynaut IPA were all tasty, as was their incredibly rich Unobtainium Old Ale. But for my money, their best offering was a Cognac barrel-aged version of their Laika, a BIG Russian Imperial Stout. It was complex, redolent and pulled some wonderful notes from the barrel without overwhelming it with booze. Really nice job with this one.
Yellowhammer: I don’t write about this Huntsville brewery enough, but they continue to impress me. They focus on traditional, European-style brews but give them a distinct American twist. I thoroughly enjoyed everything I tried from them at the Brewfest. They featured a schwarzbier called the Lost Highway, a Belgian White, an Imperial Red called Tobacco Road, a Double Alt, and a wickedly delicious DIPA called the Hop Revivial. Considering their usual focus on European flavors and subtlety, the brash Hop Revival was a revelation. Yellowhammer killed it at the Brewfest this year.
Thanks again to Gabe Harris for his generosity and to the rest of Free the Hops, all the breweries, distributors, and especially the hard-working volunteers. The Magic City Brewfest is proof that craft beer brings people together and creates robust, thoughtful communities. Well done, everyone. Can’t wait for next year!