A guide to Hank Williams sights in Montgomery

The death of legendary country music star Hank Williams is shrouded in mystery.  However, there is no mystery behind visiting some of the most notable sights associated with Williams in his adopted hometown of Montgomery, Alabama.

In 1937, Hank, his mother, and his siblings moved to Montgomery from nearby Georgiana.  It was in Montgomery that 13-year-old Hiram Williams started using “Hank” as his stage name.  After winning a local talent show and landing a twice-weekly, 15-minute radio show, Hank dropped out of school in 1939 and began touring with The Drifting Cowboys.

He eventually moved to Nashville as his career gained momentum, but Montgomery remained close to his heart.  He regularly visited his mother’s boarding house, and stayed with her briefly following a spinal fusion surgery in 1951.  Hank also visited town in late 1952 before embarking upon what would be his final concert tour.

Montgomery has changed since Williams’s death in 1953, so many sights have changed since his death.  Fans expecting to see places preserved with original pieces and reflecting the 1950s will be disappointed.  However, there are still plenty of sights connected to the country legend to fill an entire day.

Here are the five key spots that every Hanks Williams fan should visit in Montgomery:

#1: Oakwood Cemetery Annex (1304 Upper Wetumpka Road)
Any visit to Montgomery to see sights connected to Hank Williams has to start with his final resting place.  His grave is in the Oakwood Cemetery Annex, which is about a five-minute drive from downtown.

The signage for the Oakwood Cemetery Annex highlights the Hank Williams Memorial.

Fans wishing to pay their final respects to the legend can to follow the aptly-named Hank Williams Memorial Circle to the grave site.  The best parking spot for photographs is on the right-hand side just as you spot the bright artificial grass of the grave site.  If you want to take pictures of the back of the monuments erected to honor Hank and his first wife Audrey, you should park before the grave site so that your car is not in the photograph.

The graves of Hank and Audrey Williams.

#2: The Hank Williams Museum (118 Commerce Street)

The Hank Williams Museum sits in the center of downtown Montgomery.

After paying your respects at his grave, fans should head downtown to visit The Hank Williams Museum.  It houses the largest collection of memorabilia associated with the star.  The museum contains many of his suits made by Nudie’s of Hollywood, his 1939 high school yearbook, and most notably his 1952 Cadillac.  The baby blue Cadillac is notorious for being the vehicle that Hank died in while being driven to a concert in Canton, Ohio.

#3: Hank William Statue (216 Commerce Street)

The statue of Hank Williams sits at the intersection of Commerce and Tallapoosa streets.

Just one block from The Hank Williams Museum is a life-size statue of the country music legend.  It stands in the median of Commerce Street about a block from the city’s River Walk.  It originally stood on North Perry Street across from city hall, which is where his funeral service was held in 1953.   According to a historic marker near city hall, Hank Williams Jr. commissioned Texas sculptors Doug and Sandra McDonald to create the statue.  However, the statue did not attract the crowds city leaders expected, so it was relocated to its current location in 2016.

#4: Municipal Auditorium (103 North Perry Street)

Municipal Auditorium opened in 1940, and served as the city’s primary music venue for many years.

There was only one venue in Montgomery large enough to host Williams’s funeral.  Municipal Auditorium was city’s primary concert venue, and seated 3,000 people.  According to newspaper reports at the time, another 20,000 people lined the street outside the venue to pay their final respects.

After nearly 30 years of neglect, the venue was renovated in 2011.  Since then it has been used as the city council’s chambers.  There is a historic marker across the street from the building that details Williams’s funeral.

#5: Elite Café (121 Montgomery Street)

Hank Williams’s final public performance was an impromptu performance.  On Dec. 28, 1952, Williams was asked to sing during an American Federation of Musicians holiday party at the Elite (pronounced E-light) Café.  The Elite opened in 1911, and was a Montgomery institution before it closed in 1990.

In 2016, D’Road Café opened in the former location of the Elite Café.

After several years of vacancy, D’Road Café filled the the former spot of the Elite in 2016.  The current establishment seats up to 50 people and serves Latin American fare.  So much has changed from when Hank last visited this spot, but the new restaurant allows visitors to sit in the place where he last performed.

Getting Around Town

After starting a tour with a stop at Oakwood Cemetery Annex, it is best to find a parking spot along Commerce Street and walk to the other four sights in downtown.  There are a handful of public lots, but metered parking along most streets costs $1 for two hours.  Many parking spots along Commerce Street now feature digital meters that accept credit cards in addition to coins.

My day with the Saitama Seibu Lions – Sept. 29, 2018

For a long time I have wanted to attend a professional baseball game in Japan.  I don’t remember when I first became interested in watching baseball played outside the United States (and outside of MLB).  However, when the prospect of moving to Japan became a reality, I became excited about being able to experience a Japanese baseball game in person.  So when the prospect of attending a game presented itself after my wife & I had settled into our new home in Japan I jumped at the opportunity.

Although we live in Greater Tokyo, my first baseball game in Japan wasn’t going to be seeing the famed Yomiuri Giants.  Instead my first game was going to be seeing the Saitama Seibu Lions at the MetLife Dome on the western side of the Tokyo metropolitan area.

Instead of taking the train to the ballpark, which is what most fans do when attending games in Japan, Katie & I took a tour bus as part of a day trip organized by the military base where she works.  Although we were in the minority of people taking private transit to the stadium, we were not alone as there were three other tour buses in our parking lot and a smattering of cars as well.  So after the bus parked we walked across a pedestrian bridge to MetLife Dome.

An overview of the MetLife Dome.

Although we were in the minority of fans who arrived at the ballpark via private vehicle, the train station let fans out into the large plaza outside the stadium.  You could tell when a train had arrived as the plaza swelled with people.

Fans pile off a commuter train at the station next to the stadium.

In front of the stadium was a large plaza, which was packed with fans because we were attending the final home game of the regular season.  The plaza offers a variety of amenities ranging from concession stands to a merchandise stand for the visiting team to fan club counters for the home team.

Due to a consistent, but light rain I did not take too many pictures in the plaza and instead hurried into the ballpark.  Additionally, the nearly overflowing volume of fans in the plaza made it difficult to capture images that properly showed off the amenities.

MetLife Dome is an interesting ballpark because it was not built as a domed stadium.  It opened in 1979 without a roof, but one was constructed in two stages following the 1997 and 1998 seasons.  Although the ballpark started the 1999 season as a dome stadium it is an open-air stadium, as the roof only covers the field and stands.  There is no wall that closes the ballpark from the surrounding environment.  So some concession stands around the park sit just beyond the roof, which prevents the concourse from becoming overcrowded.

As I navigated the crowd toward my seat on the third base line I captured a photo of what can best be described as loge boxes.

Fans sit in loge seating along the third base line.

As I passed the loge boxes I decided to walk around the park to a spot behind home plate so I could capture that perspective before the game began.

An overview of the stadium from near home plate.

As the game started at one o’clock, I grabbed some food after perusing the nearby concession stands while walking the concourse.  Stands carried a variety of traditional Japanese fare from bowls of ramen to meat skewers, and even globalized items like KFC and Blue Moon Belgian White beer.

I opted for a simple yet filling option of a beer skewer, mostly because it had a relatively short line and I wanted to be able to enjoy the start of the ballgame instead of missing the pre-game festivities and the first pitch.

A trio of beef skewers.

After devouring my skewers, I settled in to watch the first pitch.

Saitama Seibu Lions right-handed pitcher Tatsuya Imai delivers the first pitch to Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks right fielder Seiji Uebayashi.

I settled into my seat to soak in the experience, so the majority of my photos of the ballpark and the atmosphere were taken from my seat along the third base line.

The ballpark was renovated following the team’s posting of Daisuke Matsuzaka after the 2006 season, which garnered over $50 million for the club.  So it features many of the amenities fans find at MLB ballparks like a large videoboard in center field and luxury seating behind home plate.

Sitting midway down the third base line, I had several opportunities to capture photographs of the pitchers and batters.  So I regularly snapped shots during the game hoping to capture each team’s uniform and the subtle differences in pitching form and batting stance of each player.  By far the coolest moment I captured during the game was when Kazuo Matsui came to the plate late in the game as a pinch-hitter.

Matsui played for the Lions for nine seasons before signing with the New York Mets in 2003 and spending seven seasons playing in the MLB.  After returning to NPB in 2011, Matsui signed with the Lions for his final professional season.

There are a lot of things to take in attending a game at any professional ballpark, but it’s quite different when you’re attending a game in Japan.  There are many similarities between games in the U.S. and Japan, but SO many differences, too.  One of the biggest differences is the delivery of beer.  In Japan, young women carry mini kegs on their backs and pour beer for fans instead of lugging around giant tubs of beers in cans or aluminum bottles.  Additionally, the biiru no uriko (“beer girl”) only sells one brand of beer.  So each woman is outfitted in attire specific to the beer she is pouring.  Although craft beer exists in Japan, the only brands being poured by the beer girls were the major macrobrews like Kirin, Asahi, Suntory, and Yebisu.

Beyond seeing several young women selling beer, women also dominate the majority of vendor positions.  I was able to capture different women selling cotton candy and ice cream later during the game.

One of the better documented aspects of Japanese baseball games is that fans lead the cheers for players instead of the sound system being used to generate excitement.  The fan-led cheering results in unique cheers for each player, and sometimes this brings about unique signs for particular players, too.  I saw that at play with Lions designated hitter Ernesto Mejía, as fans held up Venezuelan flags each time he came up to bat.

Saitama Seibu Lions fans show off Venezuelan flags for designated hitter Ernesto Mejía.

Whenever I attend a baseball game, I always make an effort to get a picture with the team’s mascot.  That is usually more difficult to accomplish at a Major League game, and that experience was no different at today’s Lions’ game.  I saw the team’s mascots a few times on the field, but never saw either walking through the stands.  However, I did get a picture of the pair on the field.

Saitama Seibu Lions mascots Lina and Leo. The pair are based upon characters in shōnen manga “Janguru Taitei” (or “Kimba the White Lion” when dubbed into English).

Without a doubt, the seventh inning was the most unique experience I’ve ever encountered during a baseball game.  In Japan, fans from both teams sing their respective fight songs in the top and bottom of the inning and then release team-colored balloons into the air.  The tradition is called the “Lucky Seventh,” and is a way for fans to help rally their team in the late innings.

Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks fans wave banners and hold their balloons high while singing their team’s fight song during the Lucky Seventh.

In addition to capturing a photo of Hawks’ fans singing their fight song, I got a video of the Lions’ fans singing their team’s fight song entering the bottom of the seventh.

Unfortunately for Lions’ fans hoping to see the team clinch the Pacific League regular-season title, the home team did not come out victorious.  However, players from both teams paid their respects to the fans with the customary post-game bow.  The home Lions lined up along the third base line and bowed multiple times in different directions to show their respect and appreciation for the home fans while the visiting Hawks lined up in right field and bowed to their fans and the home fans as well.

Like many others in attendance, I had hoped to see the Lions clinch the regular-season crown, so I was disappointed to see them lose and miss the opportunity to watch the trophy presentation following the game.  Putting the game result aside, it was a great experience.

It was exciting to be in a packed ballpark.  Despite a packed house, I never felt cramped or fighting for space while walking on the concourse.  The food options met my expectations, although I had not anticipated such long lines to get food.  The food I ate was delicious and satisfying.  The beer was cold and refreshing.  The atmosphere far exceeded my hopes and dreams.  The crowd was loud from start to finish, but it was not a deafening experience because of the unique roof that does not completely enclose the stadium.

Despite traveling by private transportation, I got to enjoy what feels like the quintessential experience at a professional Japanese baseball game.

Final: Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks 3, Saitama Seibu Lions 1
Box Score

A Minor League Baseball road trip through Alabama

People who enjoy baseball, and especially Minor League Baseball, regularly plan their summer vacations around visiting ballparks.  These trips are often based around individual goals, whether it’s to visit new states or new ballparks or to watch top prospects or even the most ambitious goal of seeing all 159 active, affiliated Minor League baseball stadiums.

With good timing, visiting all of the Minor League ballparks in Alabama can be done in a matter of four days.  I undertook this adventure earlier this summer with my wife Katie.

THE BASICS
Currently, Alabama has three Minor League Baseball teams: Birmingham Barons, Mobile BayBears, and Montgomery Biscuits.  From north-to-south, the drive from Birmingham to Mobile is about four hours (266 miles).  The drive between Mobile and Montgomery is about two-and-a-half hours (172 miles), and the drive from Montgomery to Birmingham is about one-and-a-half hours (90 miles).  So for any baseball fan, this is a really easy drive whether you start in Alabama or begin your trip in a neighboring state.

THE PLANNING
Planning this trip is a bit more difficult because a few years ago the Southern League, the Double-A league all three Alabama teams play in, switched from the traditional structure of three-game series to five-game series.  So when one of the Alabama teams hosts another team from the state it can be difficult to visit all three ballparks in quick succession.  Everybody has their own method for organizing schedules to create travel plans.  I am a BIG fan of putting everything into an Excel spreadsheet so I can look at what teams are at home side-by-side.

A spreadsheet showing home games for the three Minor League teams in Alabama for the end of May.

I was fortunate that my goal of seeing all three teams play at home came together over Memorial Day weekend.  Once the dates were settled, then I started working on planning hotels in each of the cities and what other sights my wife Katie and I could see along the way.

PLAY BALL!
As we lived in Tuscaloosa when planning the trip, we headed south to Mobile and worked our way north to see each of the teams.  Due to the Southern League having an off-day on Monday, May 28 (Memorial Day), we were unable to see all three teams on consecutive nights.  However, if schedules align it is quite feasible.  So instead of trying to cram three ballparks into consecutive nights, we added a few extras days to spend in Mobile, Gulf Shores and Montgomery.

GAME ONE: MOBILE BAYBEARS
We visited two breweries (Fairhope Brewing Co. and Serda Brewing Co.) and checked into our hotel in downtown Mobile before heading to Hank Aaron Stadium west of downtown near the junction of Interstate 10 and Interstate 65.  I had previously attended a Mobile BayBears game in 2015, but this was Katie’s first visit to the stadium.

The entrance to Hank Aaron Stadium, home of the Mobile BayBears.

The stadium is located on reclaimed marsh land and is surrounded by a variety of shopping plazas, so there are plenty of parking spots at the ballpark that opened in 1997.  The stadium is named after Mobile-native and Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, but a plaque outside the park honors all of the city’s native sons who have been elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.  The plaque notes that Satchel Paige (Class of 1971, Willie McCovey (Class of 1986), Billy Williams (Class of 1987), and Ozzie Smith (Class of 2002) are also enshrined at Cooperstown alongside Aaron (Class of 1982).

After walking under the gate that proclaim “Hank Aaron Stadium,” fans are immediately greeted with a dose of the team’s history.

The gate to Hank Aaron Stadium.

Many fans may overlook the BayBears Hall of Fame because it is on the left-hand side of the entrance to the ballpark, but it is worth checking out in addition to the banners highlighting former players who have achieved notable levels of success in Major League Baseball.

The stadium has a unique design because the luxury suites are not elevated, as they are at most ballparks.  Instead, the luxury boxes are on the field level and infield seating for the general public is elevated about 20-feet above the field.  So the view for spectators is quite different from what fans experience at other baseball games.  With luxury suites underneath the general seating area, concession stands face the luxury suites.

A view of a concession stand at the Mobile BayBears stadium.

Each concession stand carries the same items, so fans don’t have to go in search of specialty items available at only one stand (as can be the case at some Minor League stadiums).  Fans will find all the typical ballpark items at the concession stands ranging from sunflower seeds and peanuts to hot dogs and hamburgers.  The most unique items with local connections are a foot-long Conecuh sausage and Conecuh jambalaya.  As I had ordered the Conecuh sausage on my previous visit, I opted for the jambalaya.

A view of the jambalaya at Hank Aaron Stadium.

The best sight lines in the stadium are in Sections 106 or 107, which are immediately behind home plate in the seating bowl above the luxury suites.  My seats down the first base line were enjoyable, but the view of home plate was cut off by the luxury suites.  So my recommendation for buying seats would be to find something in either 106 or 107, assuming you actually want to watch the game action.

A view of game action from the first base line.

There are a lot of reasons to attend a Minor League Baseball game, and attending a game at Hank Aaron Stadium offers a particularly unique reason.

A view of the Hank Aaron Childhood Home & Museum on the grounds of the Mobile BayBears stadium.

In 2010, the City of Mobile relocated the childhood home of Hall of Famer Hank Aaron to the ballpark’s site and restored it as a museum (read more here).  Visiting Aaron’s childhood home and museum should be on the must-see list for any baseball fan.  The museum is open to visitors Monday through Friday on non-gamedays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.  Admission costs $5 for adults, and $12 for children under 12 years-old.  However, the museum is open during ALL games and admission is free.

Final: Biloxi 3, Mobile 11
Box Score

GAME TWO: MONTGOMERY BISCUITS
After seeing some sights in Mobile, Katie and I headed to Montgomery for the second game of our road trip.  Due to the Southern League’s schedule, we would not get to watch a baseball game until Tuesday evening.  So we enjoyed a couple of days in town seeing some of the city’s historic sights, and some of its newer sights.

Montgomery had a long history of supporting Minor League teams before the Biscuits arrived in 2004, but the last affiliated team to call the city home, the Southern League’s Montgomery Rebels, left in 1980.  So a downtown ballpark built that incorporated part of an old train shed was welcomed by the community.

An overview of the former train shed and entrance to Riverwalk Stadium.

The downtown location of Riverwalk Stadium means there is limited parking, but it is great if you’re visiting from out-of-town.  Depending where you stay in downtown, walking to the ballpark takes between five and ten minutes.  If you aren’t staying in downtown there is parking on streets around the stadium, but there is are dedicated surface parking lots explicitly for the stadium.

When Katie and I arrived the team’s mascot, Big Mo, was just inside the gate greeting fans.  So we quickly stopped to get our photo with him.

My wife Katie and I with Montgomery Biscuits mascot Big Mo.

Big Mo may look like an aardvark or anteater or some other real or imagined animal, but he is NONE of these.  The Biscuits call him simply, “A Biscuit Lovin’ Beast.”

Regarding biscuits there is NEVER a problem finding them at the park because there is a portable concession stand right behind home plate that sells biscuits, of course!

A concession stand selling solely biscuits, of course!

Maybe if for some unbelievable reason a fan doesn’t like eating biscuits, but instead wants to wear some biscuit paraphernalia then the team store is the place to go.

A view of special Greenbow Biscuits gear available at the Montgomery Biscuits team store.

On the night I visited, I found some special “Greenbow Biscuits” gear for sale.  The team did a special promotion and renamed themselves the “Greenbow Biscuits” in honor of the fictional hometown of Forrest Gump.  However, I was more impressed by the biscuit-shaped “hat” you could purchase that was on display next to the Greenbow Biscuits jerseys.  Naturally, there is a LOT of other team gear available in the store, too.

Like most Minor League baseball stadiums built since 2000, visitors to Riverwalk Stadium enter on the main level and walk down to the seating bowl.  The concourse wraps around the ballpark, so Katie and I explored a bit before settling in to watch some of the game.  The concession stands offer a variety of food options from the common ballpark fare like hot dogs and chicken tenders to the more unique like chicken wings (a special on Tuesday nights) and, of course, biscuits.

We didn’t get food on our first trip around the ballpark, but did find a great selection of craft beers.  Down the right field line there is a bar with a large entertainment stage.  The Club Car Bar is a full-service bar that offers liquor drinks and wine in addition to beer.  There are over a dozen beers on draft in addition to several in cans and bottles.  There is a solid representation of Alabama craft beers as well with brews from Fairhope Brewing, Ghost Train Brewing, Back Forty Beer, and Goat Island Brewing on draft when we visited.

A portable stand by home plate also had a solid selection of craft beers with offerings from Alabama breweries like Back Forty, Fairhope, Folklore Brewing, Ghost Train, and Goat Island.  Seeing these selections shows how much the craft beer industry has grown in Alabama over the past five years, as beer drinkers can support local breweries at the ballpark.

After picking up a beer at the Club Car Bar, Katie and I took our seats behind home plate and settled in to watch some of the game.

A view of the field at Riverwalk Stadium from behind home plate.

The design of the stadium is conducive to great sight lines everywhere, but it is particularly fun watching the trains pass by left field wall.  The luxury suites are elevated above the seating bowl with six built into the old train shed and the remainder in a newer structure down the third base line.

Like my previous visit to Riverwalk Stadium in 2012 (read it here), it was a great time at the park.  The stadium is beautiful with a great downtown location that makes it easily accessible to local fans and visitors alike.  The promotions are unique, and fun.  The food and beverage choices are diverse, and most importantly reflect location connections and options.

Final: Jackson 6, Montgomery 3
Box Score

GAME THREE: BIRMINGHAM BARONS
If you ask baseball fans what’s the oldest stadium in America many of them are likely to say either Fenway Park in Boston or Wrigley Field in Chicago, and both answers would be wrong.  The oldest professional ballpark in the United States is Rickwood Field in the West End neighborhood of Birmingham, Ala.  It opened in 1910, two years before Fenway and four years before Wrigley.

Despite being the old professional baseball stadium in America, Rickwood Field hasn’t hosted a regular tenant since 1987 when the Birmingham Barons relocated to suburban Hoover.  However, since 1996 the Barons and Friends of Rickwood have hosted a throwback game at the stadium.  The game usually takes places during the Barons’ first homestand in late May or early June immediately after Memorial Day weekend.  I previously attended the 20th Rickwood Classic in 2015, but Katie badly wanted to attend the game so it was incorporated into our road trip plans.

Really ambitious baseball fans can attend a Barons’ game at Regions Field, which opened in 2013, in downtown Birmingham, and attend the Rickwood Classic on consecutive days.  Usually the Barons’ schedule has them hosting a game at Regions Field the day and after the Rickwood Classic, so it is possible to see all four Minor League ballparks in Alabama within a relatively short time frame.

Stories say that Rick Woodward, who owned the Birmingham Coal Barons in the early 1900s, used Philadelphia’s Shibe Park and Pittsburgh’s Forbes Fields as the models for his new ballpark.

My wife Katie and I in front of Rickwood Field.

Attending the Rickwood Classic is really like attending a game from another era.  The starting lineups are written in chalk on a board shortly after entering the park.

The lineup for the 2018 Rickwood Classic between the visiting Chattanooga Lookouts and host Birmingham Barons.

Beyond the chalk-written lineups, the game lacks many of the elements of a modern Minor League game.  There are no promotional contests between innings and no walk-up music for batters or music between innings.  The only music is played by a live band behind home plate that plays music fitting each year’s theme.  The 2018 Classic celebrated the “Fabulous Fifties” when the Barons were affiliated with the New York Yankees (1953-56).

The game usually starts at 12:30 p.m. with gates opening at eleven o’clock, so visitors are provided ample time to wander around the ballpark and bask in its history.  It is been painstakingly restored, including the manually-operated scoreboard in left field and the advertisements on the outfield walls that feature vintage-style ads of current companies and one dedicated to Woodward Iron Co. paid for by descendants of Rick Woodward.

After exploring the park, Katie and I settled into our general admission seats near home plate under the roof that was added to the ballpark in the 1920s.

A view of Rickwood Field during the 2018 Rickwood Classic.

One possible short-coming of attending the Rickwood Classic is the lack of unique food items at the game.  The most “unique” items available would be the Polish or Italian sausage available at a tent outside the seating bowl where a grill cooks up a variety of encased meats.  That’s not to say the food is bad because it is quite delicious, but fans will not find as many options at the Rickwood Classic as they would attending a Barons’ game at Regions Field.  One modern convenience is that fans can regularly find personal-sized pizza from Papa John’s at the park.  Beer choices are limited to either Miller Lite or Yuengling, so sadly none of Birmingham’s delicious craft beers are available at the game either.

None of these limitations should affect the enjoyment of the game because the purpose of attending the Rickwood Classic is to bask in the essence of “old timey” baseball before technology became integrated into our enjoyment of the contest.  Watching a baseball game in America’s oldest professional ballpark is about watching the sport in virtually its purest form.

Perhaps the greatest aspect of attending the Rickwood Classic is that fans are allowed onto the field after the game.  At most Minor League stadiums only kids are allowed onto the field to run the bases after certain games, or if people of all ages are allowed onto the field it is only on rare occasions.  As part of being a “living museum,” fans are allowed onto the field to play catch, run the bases, take home some of the infield dirt, or just lay down in the grass and reflect on the history that has occurred at the ballpark.

Final: Chattanooga 1, Birmingham 7
Box Score

WRAP-UP
So after an extended weekend, Katie and I got to see all three of Alabama’s Minor League Baseball teams play at home.  It took us five days to see all three teams, but the additional days provided us the opportunity to see and experience a bit more in each city.  Whether you’re from Alabama or visiting from out-of-state there is a lot to see and do in each city, even if you’ve been to the cities before there is something to explore in each downtown area.  There are several craft breweries and award-winning restaurants in Mobile, Montgomery, and Birmingham, along with a bevy of historic sights and contemporary museums to keep baseball fans of all ages engaged on a road trip to see Alabama’s Minor League teams.

My night with the Lexington Legends – June 12, 2018

The second stop on my trip through the Bluegrass State for baseball and beer was Lexington, Ky.  It is a city that I used to know really well because I attended the University of Kentucky for two years as an undergraduate, but it has been nearly two decades since I was last a student at UK.  So returning to Lexington to explore its budding craft beer scene (yes, BEER not bourbon) while also visiting another Minor League Baseball stadium has been on my “to-do” list for quite a few years.  Finally this summer, I got to make it happen.

So on a Tuesday afternoon following some visits to the city’s local craft breweries, my wife Katie and I made it to Whitaker Bank Ballpark, home of the Lexington Legends.  When I was a student at UK in the mid-1990s there was regularly talk of Lexington seeking a MiLB team, but none of it came to fruition until 2001.  Unlike many other ballparks built during the early-2000s, the Legends’ stadium is not in downtown, but instead northeast of downtown off a ring road (New Circle Road) across from a strip mall.

I didn’t know it at the time we planned our visit, but it was a mystery giveaway night.  It turned out that the Legends were giving away a bobblehead of University of Kentucky head football coach Mark Stoops.  So I neglected to capture my customary stadium entrance photo, as we hurriedly entered to secure out bobblehead.  However, I went back outside to capture the view the typically greets fans arriving at the ballpark.

The main entrance to the ballpark.

There was a LOT going on after entering the ballpark, but in a good way.  Fans see a lot of branding in multiple places, so you have to be oblivious to the environment to be unaware that you are attending a Lexington Legends baseball game.

For fans interesting in scoring the game, you find the home team’s lineup and the South Atlantic League standings.

Although Katie and I hurried through the gate, we had plenty of time before the game started so we wandered the concourse checking out the food options with a brief pit stop at the team gift store.

We didn’t get any food before the game because I wanted to get a picture of the night’s bobblehead honoree, UK head football coach Mark Stoops throwing out the ceremonial first pitch.  So we headed to our seats that were just to the right of home plate.

Following Stoops’s ceremonial first pitch we watched the beginning of the game, which pitted the Columbia Fireflies against the host Legends.

Lexington Legends starting pitcher Janser Lara delivers the first pitch to Columbia Fireflies left fielder Raphael Gladu.

With seats almost immediately behind home plate, we also had easy access to the Kentucky Ale Taproom.  It has a full-service bar and kitchen with many ballpark staples, but also some of the signature food items available at the ballpark like the Larry Mac Burger (more on that later).

After watching some of the action, I went exploring the concourse again.  Along the way I found something most Minor League teams incorporate into their ballpark, and something I had never seen before at a baseball stadium.  Near a display case showing off the team’s current uniform set, I found plaques commemorating all of the players who played for the Legends and made it to the Majors.  The unique item I found was artwork created to commemorate the team’s 15th season in 2015, which was made from signed mini baseball bats.

Speaking of unique items at the ballpark, the Legends feature a collection of wall decals featuring two prominent groups of people: former Legends who made it to the Majors and former University of Kentucky basketball players throwing out ceremonial first pitches.

I’ve seen all sorts of ways Minor League teams commemorate their former players who reach “The Show,” so seeing a collection of generic Fathead decals wasn’t surprising.  It was different, but certainly not surprising.  However, it was very surprising to see wall decals of former UK basketball stars (Patrick Patterson, Willie Cauley-Stein, and others) throwing out ceremonial first pitches.  Wildcat basketball may make the world go ’round in Kentucky, but it was not something I expected to see incorporated into a Minor League stadium in Lexington, even if it is the university’s home city.

The concourse does not wrap around the ballpark, but I was easily able to photograph the bleachers in left field and the Pepsi Party Deck in right field.

There are also multiple spots around the stadium to keep kids entertained.  Down the right field line is a basketball court, which seems unusual at a baseball stadium but also seems completely natural in Kentucky.

An overview of the basketball court and the entrance to the part deck.

Down the left field line is the more traditional kid zone.  The team’s kids club is sponsored by Jif peanut butter, which is produced in Lexington at the world’s largest peanut butter production facility.

At Whitaker Bank Ballpark, the bullpens of both teams are in play.  The home team’s bullpen is down the right field line and the visiting team’s bullpen is down the left field line.  While exploring I was able to capture photos of both bullpens and some other scenes of the ballpark.

Although I walked around the entire stadium to capture the surroundings, I did manage to watch some of the baseball game.  Katie and I literally had front row seats, so there was no shortage of baseball watching this night.  In fact, the Legends starting pitcher Janser Lara, first baseman Nick Pratto, right fielder Seuly Matias, and catcher MJ Melendez are among the Kansas City Royals’ top-30 prospects.

Eventually watching all of these top prospects made Katie and I hungry, so we settled upon the aforementioned Larry Mac Burger, which we found at the Ballpark Favorites concession stand along the third base line.  The burger is a third-pound Kentucky Proud burger topped with either original or jalapeño Larry Mac’s beer cheese, Applewood-smoked bacon, lettuce, tomato, and onion.

My dinner for the night was the Larry Mac Burger.

The version I received was a two quarter-pound beef patties smothered in jalapeño beer cheese.  Unfortunately there was no lettuce, tomato, or onion in sight.  It was a deliciously, gooey, and messy meal though.  In hindsight, I might have opted for the original beer cheese, as the jalapeño-version remained with me throughout the night.

I did not have any beers at the ballpark, but that was not because of any shortage of craft beer options.  The Kentucky Ale Taproom is sponsored by Alltech Lexington Brewing & Distilling Co., which produces the Kentucky Ale line of beers and the Town Branch Distillery spirits.  Craft beer choices are available throughout the stadium, but The Handle Bar (along the first base line) has the largest selection of beer.

The biggest deterrent to having a beer at the ballpark to compliment my Larry Mac Burger was that shortly after ordering my food the skies opened and the tarp came out to cover the field.  Following a 37-minute delay with one out in the bottom of the fifth inning the game was called.  When the game was called the skies had started to clear, but apparently the field was too wet to continue the game and it had progressed far enough to be an official game.

The cloud appear to part after a heavy downpour led to the cancellation of the game after five innings.

Despite an abbreviated game, I had a great experience at Whitaker Bank Ballpark watching a Lexington Legends game.  There is plenty of parking at the stadium, which is a benefit of its outside of downtown location.  The stadium has been well maintained and updated since its opening in 2001.

Most importantly the experience at the ballpark checked off all of the boxes I expect when visiting a Minor League ballpark.  The stadium had a pleasant setting and was well-maintained.  The food and beverage choices were unique and included locally-produced products.  The team offered unique promotions during the game.  The staff was friendly and helpful.  I wish the game had resumed so I could’ve enjoyed the atmosphere at the ballpark more, but it was an enjoyable experience and definitely a family and fan-friendly place.

Final: Columbia 1, Lexington 2 (Five innings)
Box Score

Disclosure: My admission to the Lexington Legends baseball game was provided by the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau (VisitLEX).  I received a media rate for my two-night stay at the Lexington Hilton/Downtown.  Be assured that all words and opinions contained here are 100% my own.

My night with the Louisville Bats – June 11, 2018

There is something to be said for returning to places you have visited before.  If you haven’t been to that place in a number of years you may get to see how it has changed since your last visit.  Sometimes the more you visit a place the more you notice different characteristics.  That was the case this summer when I returned to Louisville, Ky., to attend a Louisville Bats baseball game.

I had previously attends a Bats game in 2005.  So some things had changed and some things had relatively remained the same since my last visit 13 years ago.  The Bats still play at Louisville Slugger Field just east of downtown Louisville.  However, the team’s color scheme changed dramatically ahead of the 2016 season.  The team switched from a purple and black color scheme to a red and blue color scheme, and overhauled their logos.  However, the exterior of the facility appears the same as it did when I visited several years ago.

A view of the ballpark at the intersection of Main and Preston streets with the former Brinly-Hardy Company warehouse being incorporated into the stadium.

Fans walking from downtown will see the former Brinly-Hardy warehouse first, but the “real” entrance to the ballpark is adorned by one of Louisville’s favorite sons: Brooklyn Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese.

The main entrance to Louisville Slugger Field with a statue of Louisville-native and National Baseball Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese.

Although the statue of Pee Wee Reese serves as the welcome to fans attending a Bats baseball game, but it is really a facade before fans get to enter the seating bowl.  The stadium’s incorporation of the Brinly-Hardy warehouse allowed the stadium to enclose all the entrance ways on Main Street, and create a restaurant at the end of the building that is now occupied by Against the Grain Brewery & Smokehouse.  The space between the building and seating bowl also allows the team to decorate with pieces of the franchise’s history.

Fans walking into Louisville Slugger Field will find that they enter the stadium concourse and walk down to their seats unless they’re in the more posh luxury suites upstairs.  As my wife Katie and I arrived at the ballpark just a bit before the first pitch, we took a moment to hang out behind home plate so I could capture the official start of the game.

Louisville Bats starting pitcher Homer Bailey delivers a pitch to Columbus Clippers center fielder Todd Hanks.

With the seating bowl below the concourse there are numerous concession stands around the level, which wraps around the entire field.  As is my habit, I walked around the entire concourse to peruse the food and beverage options and get a feel for the stadium.

In addition to the concession stands and portable stands between the first and third base bags, Katie and I saw some food options down the left field line and on the outfield concourse.  However, it was just beyond the gate in left field that struck my attention during our stroll around the concourse.  So I investigated and found something I did not know existed at the stadium.

A statue of Louisville-native and famed football star Paul Hornung stands at the northwest gate to the stadium.

A statue of famed Green Bay Packer and Notre Dame Fighting Irish running back Paul Hornung.  I was stunned to see this statue outside the stadium because it featured a football star outside a baseball field, but also because until seeing the statue and doing some research I had no clue that he grew up in Louisville.  In hindsight, it still seems a bit odd to see a statue of a famous football player outside a baseball stadium, but it is also cool to see the city commemorate its star athletes.

After capturing a photograph of the Paul Hornung statue I returned to the ballpark to snap shots of the view from the outfield concourse.  One of the first things I saw was an empty chair reserved in honor for POWs.

“One empty seat” as part of the POW-MIA Chair of Honor program sits in left field.

After capturing the Chair of Honor, I turned my attention back to the stadium and the downtown area.  The stadium’s location on the eastern edge of downtown provides a lot of great views of the downtown Louisville skyline.

As Katie and I continued walking around the concourse, we were dwarfed by the scoreboards.  In fact, the primary scoreboard in right field loomed over us so much that I had to capture of photo standing beneath it.

A closeup of the scoreboard in right field.

The concession stand beneath the scoreboard is aptly named because the scoreboard overlooks everything around it, including the kid play zone nearby.

A glimpse of the carousel and kids play area in right field.

After finishing our walk around the stadium, I started to contemplate my food and beverage choices for the night.  While walking around the stadium, I saw the usual ballpark food items (hot dogs, hamburgers, nachos, pizza, etc.), but nothing screamed, “You must eat this food at a Louisville Bats baseball game!”  So while continuing to think about my food choices, I remembered that the Bats had partnered with Against the Grain to create a beer specifically to be served at the ballpark.  After asking a few people working at stands serving alcohol, Katie and I ended up behind home plate at the Diamond Drinks concession stand.

A view of the Diamond Drinks stand behind home plate.

In addition to offering a variety of beers, including some craft beers, Diamond Drinks is notable because the stand serves liquor and wine.  So if you’re not a beer drinker, you can still find a quality drink at the ballpark.  We each ordered our 16-oz. cans of Bats Win! and took our seats.

The beer is a golden ale that checks in with 4.9% ABV.  It is a light, crisp, and clean beer that is great for summer and baseball.  It is among the growing trend of collaborations between Minor League Baseball teams and local craft breweries, which I wrote about in a guest piece for MiLB.com’s Ben Hill (a.k.a. Ben’s Biz).  You can read the piece here if you want to learn more about the trend.

Soon after finishing our beers, Katie and I started discussing food options.  As I try to avoid the “usual suspects” at the ballpark, I remembered that a few years prior the Bats had entered a grilled pork chop sandwich in the annual MiLB Food Fight.  We also happened upon a sign advertising the delectable treat, and decided that was the right choice to fill our bellies.  We located it at the outfield grill in center field.

The sandwich did not come with the advertised lettuce, tomato, or onion, which would have really complimented the deliciously grilled pork.  However, the sandwich was filling and definitely a unique food item that I’ve not seen or read about being served at other ballparks.

With my stomach full and my thirst quenched, I turned my focus to capturing the sights of the ballparks.  I realized that during my walk I had photographed much of the park except for a closeup of the seating bowl and the scoreboards in the outfield.

As I took pictures of the scoreboards, I got to witness one of the between-innings contests put on by the Bats.  As is common practice at baseball games, teams have people race around the bases or sometimes around the warning track.  Often times these races incorporate a local connection to make it more unique.  In Louisville, home of the Kentucky Derby, the team has people dress as horses and race around the bases.  It was a nice twist to a classic ballgame contest.

Although my focus was not as much on the game at hand, I did get to enjoy watching Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Homer Bailey make a rehabilitation start with the Bats.  Additionally, I got to watch some of the top prospects for the Cleveland Indians like catcher Eric Haase and infielder Yu-Cheng Chang and some of the top prospects for the Cincinnati Reds like infielder Nick Senzel, who is the fourth-rated prospect in all of Minor League Baseball, and reliever Tanner Rainey.

Although ogling over star prospects and rehabilitating Major Leaguers draws some people out to the ballpark, my focus is always on the experience.  I come to the stadium to eat some great food, drink some good craft beer, and enjoy the atmosphere.  Without the doubt, I got to do all of those things at Louisville Slugger Field.  The stadium does not show its age, despite opening in 2000.  Most importantly, the Bats do a great job of keeping fans involved in the game with some local twists on the between-inning contests.

Final Score: Columbus 7, Louisville 4
Box Score

Disclosure: My admission to the Louisville Bats baseball game was provided by Louisville Tourism.  I received a media rate for my two-night stay at the Aloft Louisville Downtown.  Be assured that all words and opinions contained here are 100% my own.

Touring Hank Aaron’s childhood home in Mobile

It’s not every day that a ticket to a baseball game also gets you admission to the childhood home of a baseball Hall of Famer.  However, that is precisely what you will find at Hank Aaron Stadium in Mobile, Ala., home of the Mobile BayBears.  In 2008, the city moved the childhood home of Mobile-native Henry Louis (“Hank”) Aaron to the grounds of the stadium that bears his name.

HISTORY OF THE HOME
Herbert Aaron, Hank’s father, built the house in 1942.  It initially consisted of three rooms, but the Aaron family gradually expanded the house.  It now has seven rooms, and it is possible to see where the Aaron family added an extension to the rear of the house.  In 2008, the home was moved from its original location in the Toulminville section of Mobile, restored, and dedicated on April 14, 2010, as the Hank Aaron Childhood Home & Museum.

INSIDE THE HOME
When visitors enter the home they are greeted by Hank Aaron’s voice detailing his childhood in segregated Mobile, and see a sign detailing the transformation of the home into a museum.

A sign displaying the restoration of the historic home.

The first room to the left used to be the bedroom of Hank and his brothers.  It has now been converted into a room that preserves Aaron family pieces, including a dress worn by his mother Estella.

Items from the Aaron family home including a china cabinet.

The only room in the house that resembles its original appearance is the kitchen.

A view of the kitchen.

The remainder of the exhibits chronicle Aaron’s illustrious baseball career starting with playing semi-professional baseball for an independent Negro League team and concluding with his final season in the Major Leagues playing for the Milwaukee Brewers.

Most notable among the exhibits are the items associated with hitting the record-breaking 715th career homerun, which made him the Major League homerun king.

Hank Aaron received numerous accolades after hitting his 715th career homerun to become the all-time homerun leader in Major League Baseball history.

The exhibits focus primarily on the accomplishments of Hank Aaron, but his younger brother Tommie also played and later coached in the Major Leagues.  So  two lockers feature items from Hank and Tommie’s careers in baseball, including photographs of them as teammates on the Atlanta Braves.

Lockers reflecting the career of siblings Hank and Tommie Aaron.

The home centers around what Hank Aaron accomplished on the baseball field, but it was first and foremost a family home.  As visitors exit the home you see a portrait of Hank’s parents, Herbert and Estella Aaron.  It was commissioned by MLB Commissioner Bud Selig in honor of the dedication of the home museum on April 14, 2010.

A painting of Herbert and Estella Aaron commissioned by MLB Commissioner Bud Selig.

If you want to visit the home of this National Baseball Hall of Famer and cannot attend a baseball game, it is also open Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.  Admission is $5.

A new home brings about a new name

If you know me beyond my web presence, you already know that a LOT has changed in my life over the past three months.  However, if you only (or primarily) know me as a travel writer/blogger then you probably are unaware of the dramatic change that has taken place.

I have moved to Tokyo, Japan!

Yep, this Southern-raised, Northern-born college geography professor has left the academic life (at least as a full-time academic) and relocated to Japan.  There is a LOT behind this move, but it boils down to my wife Katie securing a job teaching at a Department of Defense school in Tokyo and us deciding this was the move we wanted to make.

So we packed up our apartment and moved to Tokyo (technically the western side of metropolitan Tokyo).  She will start work later in August, as a teacher of students with visual impairments (TVI), but I have not yet secured a full-time job.  So with her support, I am using this opportunity to focus on travel writing full-time.  With the shift to full-time travel writing, I have also made the decision to rename my blog from “My Geography Lessons” to “Steven on the Move.”

The content of the blog will not change much, as I will continue writing about sports (especially now that I get to experience baseball in Japan), beer, culture, and history with a dash of food.  However, I felt that now was an opportune time to rename the blog to highlight my content as travel writing and NOT academic writing about the discipline of geography (if you want to read my academic thoughts go here).

If you don’t already follow me on the usual social media platforms, I hope that you will “like” my page on Facebook, “follow” me on Twitter and Instagram, and if you want to see what beers I’m drinking send me a friend request on Untappd.

So as we say in Japan when toasting, “Kampai!”

A pint at Big Beach Brewing Co. in Gulf Shores, Ala.

Opening a brewery takes a lot of time, effort, and patience.  However, Jim and Julie Shamburger navigated the process relatively quickly to open Big Beach Brewing Co. in Gulf Shores, Ala.  Jim started homebrewing after his daughter bought him a Mr Beer kit, but he quickly advanced and in July 2015 petitioned the city to open a brewery.  Construction of the building was completed and the brewery opened its doors in October 2016.

The brewery sits on the corner of East 2nd Street and East 24th Avenue in the Waterway Village District, so it is easily accessible to locals or people coming for a beach vacation.  During a recent visit I talked with brewmaster Rod Murray about the beers he brews at Big Beach while my wife Katie and I checked out the taproom and sampled some of their beers.

An overview of the brewery from the street.

The exterior of the brewery is very welcoming, but the trees can make it difficult to locate the parking lot behind the building.  So visitors instead see…

A view of the entrance.

Moments after walking in the door, Katie and I were greeted by Rod and we went straight to the production side of the facility to talk about beer.

Currently the brewery operates a 10-barrel brewhouse with six fermenters and two brite tanks.  Visitors are unable to see the production side of the brewery from the taproom, but there is limited seating behind a window that allows people to drink beer while watching Rod brews.

Like any brewery, Big Beach has a varied selection of merchandise available for purchase.  The selection of T-shirts and other items adorn a wall facing the production side of the brewery.

A collection of merchandise available for purchase.

The seating area is very spacious with a beautiful bar top and ample seating at various heights.  There are high-top tables and regular tables along with a couple of sofas that allow people to choose their experience at the taproom.

So onto the beer…

When we visited there were eight beers on draft, so Katie and I got a flight with each half of the menu.  The left side of the menu included Catman Kölsch, Czech It Out (a Czech pilsner), Ale of Two Cities Scottish 70 (a wee heavy/Scottish ale), and Amy (a wheat ale with honey and basil).  The right side of the menu had Rod’s Reel Cream Ale, Small Town Brown Ale, Dixie’s Heart Red Ale (an Irish red ale), Hundred Daze IPA (a hazy India pale ale).  The brewery’s introductory beer is Rod’s Reel Cream Ale, which is a light, crisp beer that is perfect for the beach.  It along with Amy, which is a wheat ale with basil and honey, were my favorites on draft.  A beer like Amy can be an acquired taste because it is strong on basil with a hint of honey on the finish, but if you like those flavors it is a deliciously well-executed brew.

Rod prides himself on brewing beers to style, which means adhering to the standards set forth by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP).  He follows these guidelines because of his award-winning experience as a homebrewer and commercial brewer when he worked in Missouri.  So the beers at Big Beach Brewing Co. may be different than beers at other breweries that are the same style.  The difference means that the beers people find at Big Beach are closer to the historical style of that beer.

The interesting part of Rod’s story is that he found Jim and Julie searching for a brewmaster as he was seeking to “retire” and find a place near the beach.  Clearly Rod hasn’t retired and is still brewing some delicious ales for a town that uses “Small Town, Big Beaches” as part of its marketing campaign.

Visitors to Alabama’s southernmost brewery will find a fresh, new building with an appropriately beach-influenced taproom, delicious brews, and a wonderful small-town feeling.

A pint at Serda Brewing Co. in Mobile, Ala.

Opening a brewery is a labor of love for a lot of reasons.  One of the primary reasons is because of the long time it can take for a brewery to go from being someone’s idea to becoming a reality that craft beer lovers can visit.

A great example of this process is Serda Brewing Company in Mobile, Ala. The idea started with John Serda and his father Ed in 2013, but did not come to fruition until late in 2017.  The plan started to come together after the father-son duo found a vacant former Goodyear Tire Store in downtown, but even after identifying the building it took several months before the company was brewing beer.  What visitors see now is a far cry from what used to exist on the site, as guests pull up to a fully-renovated building with bright, vibrant colors proclaiming the rebirth of the site.

A view of the main entrance.

My wife Katie and I walked to the brewery from our downtown hotel, so we did not have to worry about parking out car.  However, there is plenty of parking available behind the brewery and on adjacent streets.  Walking up to the building there are two potential entrances: one to the taproom and one to the production facility.

Entrances to the taproom and production facility.

We walked into the taproom, surveyed the taproom seating arrangements and orders a pair of flights.  But before I delve into beers we should take a look around the taproom as there are several seating options for visitors.

The beer menu is to the right of the bar.

The beer list.

Visitors pass a large merchandise area almost immediately after walking into the taproom.

An overview of the merchandise available for sale.

So after ordering our flights, Katie and I saw down at a high-top table to have our first taste of beer from Serda Brewing Company.

One advantage of visiting a brewery a few months after it has opened is that they tend to progress beyond just their flagship beers and usually offer a few one-off brews.  So I ordered a flight of flagship beers while Katie put together a flight of one-off brews.  My flight consisted of Hook Line & Lager (a German pilsner), Tidewater (a Vienna-style lager), Mobile Bay IPA (an international IPA), and Clear Prop (a Baltic porter).  Katie’s flight included Espresso Porter (an American porter), Home Port (a hefeweizen), a Randall-version of Mobile Bay IPA with a variety of fruits, and Kellerbier (an unfiltered pilsner).  Out of the eight brews, my favorites were the Espresso Porter, which was very smooth but had a big espresso nose and pronounced coffee notes, and Clear Prop, which has nice roasted flavors but was not heavy.

The brewery focuses on German styles with a unique American twist.  That is clear in the German pilsner, Vienna-style lager, hefeweizen, and other beers on draft when I visited.

After finishing our flights, I explored the production side of the brewery and captured pictures of the brewery’s three-vessel, 30-barrel brewhouse.  They also have four 60-barrel fermenters and two 60-barrel brite tanks.

In addition to the indoor space, Serda Brewing also has an extensive outdoor space.  There is an alley behind the brewery that regularly hosts food trucks.

An overview of Food Truck Alley.

Additionally, there are tables underneath tents that extend out from the production building that offer visitors plenty of outdoor space to enjoy a beer.

An overview of outdoor seating.

Overall, the brewery and taproom are very inviting with splashes of bright color incorporated into the logo, the taproom decor, and even the awnings covering the outdoor space.  The beers are approachable and well-executed by head brewer Todd Hicks, who has over 20 years of professional brewing experience.  Serda Brewing is downtown Mobile’s first craft brewery, which makes it accessible to residents and visitors alike.

A pint at Fairhope Brewing Co. in Fairhope, Ala.

A town of approximately 15,000 people may not seem like the ideal location for a brewery, but it was precisely the place Brian Kane and Jim Foley thought would be perfect for a brewery.  Just over five years ago, the pair opened Fairhope Brewing Company in Fairhope, Ala.  Not only has the brewery survived for five years, it has thrived and expanded about three years ago.

The brewery consists of two buildings, one used exclusively for production and one that serves as a taproom.  The production facility recently had a mural added to it while the taproom sits next door.

An overview of the mural on the brewery’s brewhouse.

Local artist Sarah Rutledge Fischer painted the mural, which covers the entire length of the production facility.  Next door the taproom occupies a brick-faced building that features the brewery’s logo above the front door.

An overview of the brewery’s taproom.

My wife Katie and I arrived early on a Saturday afternoon when the brewery was hosting the Mobile Baykeeper organization and released Hop in the Bay IPA with sales of the beer going to support the charity.

Mobile Baykeeper information table at the Hop in the Bay release party.

Shortly after arriving, we met with assistant brewer Brandon Fischer and co-owner Brian Kane.  Katie and I waited a few minutes as some other folks joined us for a tour of the facility.  The tour starts by taking people from the taproom building into the production building under a covered walkway.  Visitors immediately see the large fermentation tanks when they arrive in the production building, but we went past them to the grain mill.

Like most breweries, we moved from the grain to the brewhouse, which is a 30-barrel system.

The brewery’s mash tuns.

Immediately in front of the brewhouse are the fermenters.

An overview of the brewery’s fermenters.

If you stand with your back to the brewhouse the fermenters are immediately in front of you and to the left are a pair of brite tanks.  With the brewery’s bottling line not far away.

The next stop was the taproom storage space, which contains additional grains not stored in the production building and the brewery’s barrel program.

Not officially part of a tour because of space constraints, the brewery does have a smaller brewhouse and fermentation tanks in the taproom that are utilized for taproom only production.  As we wrapped up the tour, I was able to take a quick photo of the space.

A glimpse of the brewery’s taproom brewhouse system.

If you’re interested in participating in a tour, the brewery regularly runs them on Saturdays at noon.  More details can be found on Fairhope Brewing’s website.

After concluding the tour, Katie and I ordered a flight and talk more with Brandon and Brian about Fairhope’s history and their beer.  Brandon emphasized that the brewery focuses on “making beer we want to drink” instead of necessarily chasing trends.  However, that doesn’t mean visitors won’t find unique and experimental beers in the taproom.

On my flight, I order Tarts & Crafts (a cherry Berliner Weisse), Fairhope 51 (an American pale ale), UP-Dog (a Mosaic pale ale), Everyday Ale (an American blonde), and Liter of Cola (a Belgian saison).  Katie ordered Cheap Sunglasses (a Kölsch), Carole (a sour with ginger and orange peel), A Long Came a Cider Strawberry-Lime (a strawberry-lime cider), Dauphin (a New England IPA), and Hop in the Bay IPA (a session IPA).  Between the two of us we had a good mix of Fairhope’s year-round beers and some taproom-only brews.  Among my favorites were Cheap Sunglasses, which was crisp and clean and a fantastic beer to enjoy during the summer.  We both enjoyed Dauphin, as well.  However, our favorite taster was the strawberry-lime cider, which was a great mix of sweet and tart along with the apple base.  In fact, we enjoyed it so much that we purchased a 32-oz. crowler to take home with us.

While sampling our beers, I asked Brian more about the history of the brewery and what led to choosing Fairhope as the location.  He said that from all of traveling he and his wife Michele did around the U.S. that they particularly enjoyed visiting small-town breweries and the small town concept.  So Fairhope was appealing to the Mobile-native because as he said, “The town carries its own weight.  It is well-known for arts and crafts.”  Plus it has great water that only has to be filtered for particulates, so there is not additional expense to treating the water for brewing.

With an emphasis on being a small-town brewery the name was easy for Brian and his other partner Jim Foley to settle upon.  The logo, which features a capital letter “F” with a pelican inside it, took more time to agree upon.  Working with a design firm, the team struggled to agree upon a design because it initially centered around sunsets, but they felt like that would not translate well onto T-shirts and other items.  Eventually the graphic artist came up with the “F” with the pelican occupying negative space.  The pelican was the animal of choice because of their prominent appearance at the Grand Hotel in downtown Fairhope just a few miles away.

After the conversation with Brian and Brandon, Katie and I stayed around the taproom and enjoyed some food from the Bleus Burger food truck while watching people fill the place to support Mobile Baykeeper and listen to The Orange Constant perform.

Although the taproom was full when we left, it has lots of space and tables for visitors to enjoy a beer while watching TV, listening to a band, or just talking with friends.  Food trucks are regularly at the brewery on the weekends, but guests are welcome to bring their own food anytime.  The beers at Fairhope Brewing Company are a blend of approachable flavors for newcomers to craft beer like the Everyday Ale and experimental like UP-Dog for the adventurous beer drinker who wants to try something new when visiting a brewery.