Beer, once relegated to the ice-filled bathtubs of dingy frat houses and paired only with pizza or hot dogs, has been elevated to white tablecloth status. Gourmet beers are locally crafted with the utmost skill and artistry. From rich notes of coffee to tart fruit finishes and subtle honeysuckle undertones, craft beer is finding its elbow room at the most discerning epicure’s table, with cutting-edge chefs hosting pop-up dinners where dishes are paired with beer, not wine.
And Birmingham locals are taking note. Not only are these tasty brews bringing complex flavors to our palates, but the city’s breweries are also deeply committed to their local communities, regularly hosting charity events and fundraisers. These breweries are also serving as anchors for neighborhood revitalization and growth, such as in Avondale, where a humble craft brewery has turned a once-forgotten historical enclave into a thriving destination town.
“When I got here in 2005, the best beer I could find was Killian’s,” says Stuart Carter, a native of Edinburgh, Scotland, and director of Birmingham’s Free the Hops organization. “I don’t drink Guiness, because it tastes like watered-down Folger’s. It’s not good beer! And people look at me like I’ve got two heads when I say that.” Beer aficionado Stuart was bemoaning the “beer wasteland” that his new hometown was when a friend told him about a group called Free the Hops, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting brewer- and beer-friendly legislation with the ultimate goal of bringing the world’s best beer to Alabama. Stuart quickly became a member, then president, followed by his current post on its board of directors.
“It’s unusual to have a specific birthdate for good beer,” he says of Free the Hops’ first major piece of legislation. “But in Alabama, the birthday for good beer was Memorial Day weekend 2009, because that’s when the Gourmet Beer Bill was signed into law, which changed our ABV, alcohol by volume, from six percent to 13.9 percent. So it passed the legislature on the Friday, and we got confirmation later that day that Gov. [Bob] Riley signed it. Then everyone in Birmingham apparently piled into the J. Clyde and drank all the beer, literally all the beer.”
In 2011, Free the Hops followed up with the Brewery Modernization Act, which made brewery taprooms possible, a game changer in the economic landscape of owning and operating a brewery in Alabama. “These taprooms are the engine that helps keep the brewery going,” says Stuart, noting that there are even more exciting changes on the horizon for Birmingham beer lovers.
In the meantime, we’ll savor a brewsky in the taprooms of some of the Magic City’s super-cool local breweries! Let’s check out the innovative local beer companies that each started as humble home-brewing operations and are now engines for neighborhood revitalization and growth.
Birmingham’s Craft Breweries
2616 Third Ave. S., Birmingham • (205) 578-2616
“I learned to brew by reading a book and just kind of started doing it on the kitchen stove,” says Cahaba Brewing Co. Brewmaster Eric Meyer of his brewing background. “And then my wife kicked me out into the garage because it stunk up the house, and so then you find yourself doing it in a turkey fryer on the back porch. And it just kept growing from there.”
Cahaba Brewing Co. opened in 2011 with its flagship beer, LiquidAmbar, as well as Oka Uba IPA, Ryezome Rye Stout and the American Blonde Ale—a light, refreshing ale that is winning 40 percent of the brewery’s sales. And subtlety seems to be the name of the game with Cahaba, where the wildest ingredients they’ve used are gentle, yet striking, ingredients like hibiscus and lavender flower.
“We have our own style,” says Jake Hayes, co-owner, who was the original Cahaba beer fan, encouraging his buddy Eric to take his homemade brews to market. “If you look at our core beer lineup against most other craft brewers in town, they’re totally different. You’ll either get sours or this hop-forward stuff, while ours are more light on the palate, really complex. People are starting to figure out that beer is like wine. I mean, now you have beer dinners like you have wine dinners. You can pair beer off with these different flavor profiles and get this really nuanced experience.”
Cahaba Brewing Co. is currently one-tenth the size of the other Birmingham breweries and they work around the clock to keep up with demand, but all of that is about to change. With one can in stores now, they plan to put four more cans on the shelves by the end of 2015’s fourth quarter. They are also moving into a historic cotton and gin mill facility downtown. “It’s just an old-school, 1920s building,” Jake says of the sprawling complex. “It has 10,000 total square feet of people space and a huge, covered outdoor patio that will be a great event space.” The Cahaba Brewing team is eager to move into the new digs, not only to increase production, but also to enjoy the cavernous indoor-outdoor event space for charity and fundraising events. As Jake says, “Our goal from the start was to service the local community and Birmingham—and to have our beer everywhere here for people.”
2721 Fifth Ave. S., Birmingham • (828) 545-4746
Harris and Cheri Stewart, the husband-and-wife duo behind Trim Tab Brewing Co., first started home brewing in Asheville, NC, while in college. Harris, a Buckminster Fuller fan, was inspired by the concept of the trim tab, the small rudder on the back of a boat or an airplane that steers the larger vessel. While in law school, Harris had an epiphany. “He said, ‘I’m not going to be a trim tab if I’m a lawyer,'” recalls Cheri. “‘I’ll be a good lawyer, but I’m not going to be a great lawyer. I’m not going to make a difference, and life’s too short. Let’s do what we love.'”
So the couple settled in the Magic City and began planning their dream company—a brewery and gathering space for creative expression—with Brewmaster Will Crenshaw, who earned his Master Brewers Degree from the University of California, Davis. In 2012, they took a leap of faith that their company, although small, could effect big change in the community; that their craft beer could be a trim tab.
“A lot of the culture here is based on communication, openness, integrity and balance,” says Cheri. “That is a part of everything we do here. The beer is balanced. We don’t do anything that is super high gravity, super heavy, super bitter. We are more about subtlety and balance. Balance is an idea that we celebrate here, but it’s also an idea that we celebrate with people’s lives and having an intregral life. I really encourage our people that work here to live balanced lives beyond these walls.”
The company logo also echoes this philosophy. The circle represents continuum and the triangle is delta for change and the two together represent constant and dynamic evolution and development, “an idea that we strive for as individuals, but also as a company,” says Cheri, who curates the diverse musical guests, DJ nights, yoga classes and special events, as well as the ever-changing art in the Trim Tab Tasting Gallery. And the tasting is perhaps the best part of the gallery, where Trim Tab’s flagship IPA and Pillar to Post Rye Brown are on tap alongside some terrific seasonal brews, such as the Raspberry Berliner Weisse, a tart and refreshing beer that could almost be mistaken for a Prosecco.
201 41st St. S., Birmingham • (205) 777-5456
Memphis, TN, native Nate Darnell moved to Birmingham four years ago to pursue his hobby-turned-dream-career with the Avondale brewing team, where Spring Street Saison is the flagship beer. Belgian-style beers are Avondale Brewing Company’s forte. “We are possibly the only brewery in the state that does open fermentation-style beers, which is how they were traditionally brewed in Belgium,” says Nate. “Most breweries have a Pale Ale or a Golden as their flagship beer, but we wanted ours to be a Saison. It’s great to see people really open up to a style they haven’t tried before.” The flagship beer is joined by Battlefield IPA, Miss Fancy’s Tripel, Vanillaphant Porter and Streetcar Kolsch, as well as other seasonal and experimental brews. And the brewers at Avondale are not afraid to use some really creative ingredients, such as honeysuckle, honeydew, ghost peppers and coconut, not to mention pumpkin, featured in their soon-to-be-released Cold-Blooded Pumpkin beer.
Avondale is one of Birmingham’s hippest neighborhoods, thanks in large part to the brewery’s planting its roots there and actively supporting the local community, which continues to enjoy rapid growth. “Avondale is such a great place,” says Nate. “And there’s always something going on around here. We do a lot of private events in our event space upstairs and host tons of bigger events outside when the weather is nice. Cask & Drum will be an awesome event here on October 17, and Bone Thugs and Harmony will be performing here on Halloween!”
114 14th St. S., Birmingham • (205) 286-2337
“In 2006, when we started getting serious about brewing, there was nothing going on in the Birmingham beer scene, no Free the Hops,” says Michael Sellers, Good People Brewing Company co-owner, who had experienced more robust beers while traveling across Europe and began home brewing stateside. “For us, it was just the love of the beer. There were no grandiose ideas. So there was some equipment available, and we kind of just threw caution to the wind.”
Now, Good People is Birmingham’s largest craft beer operation, distributing its flagship Pale Ale, its popular IPA, Brown Ale, Coffee Oatmeal Stout, Bearded Lady American wheat ale and Snake Handler double-IPA in cans to Alabama and Tennessee. “We’re always experimenting,” says Michael. “We haven’t done a lot of the wacky, fruity stuff. We experiment more with styles than flavors, like our Belgian Red, which is a hybrid of a Belgian beer and an Irish Red.”
Michael says it’s been interesting to be a part of the craft beer movement in Alabama from the beginning. “We’ve done a lot of cutting-edge things. Most of our beers were the firsts in Alabama—our IPA, Snake Handler was the first double-IPA, our first high-gravity beer was Alabama’s first high-gravity beer.” But for all of their exciting experimentation and plans for expansion, Micheal adds, “Quality is everything. It’s more important than experimentation. It’s more important than variety. Quality is at our core. The only thing we want to do is to make the best beer we possibly can.” And you can sample any of their quality beers, as well as new experimental brews, in their taproom across from Regions Field downtown.
If your feeling thirsty, head on over to your local craft brewery’s taproom for a cold one!
Keep up with other innovative local businesses on the SB Birmingham Instagram feed.