Alabama Memorial Day weekend road trip preview

As the summer travel season is almost upon us, my wife Katie and I will be making our first extended trip of the year over the Memorial Day weekend.  The inspiration for our upcoming trip is baseball and craft beer, as we are setting out to see every Minor League Baseball team that plays in Alabama while also visiting more of the state’s craft breweries.

Our schedule is built around attending MiLB games, but we will assuredly be visiting craft breweries and seeing other local sights.  Here is our schedule…

Saturday, May 26:Biloxi Shuckers at Mobile BayBears, 7:05 p.m.

Tuesday, May 29:Jackson Generals at Montgomery Biscuits, 6:35 p.m.

Wednesday, May 30:Chattanooga Lookouts at Birmingham Barons, 12:30 p.m. (Rickwood Classic)

In addition to seeing games at every Minor League ballpark in the state, Katie will get to attend the Rickwood Classic.  We regularly attend Barons games at Regions Field in the Southside District, but she has never been to the annual game at Rickwood Field.  So this year, we are making it happen.

In addition to the baseball games, we plan on visiting the following breweries…

Fairhope Brewing Co. in Fairhope

Serda Brewing in Mobile

Big Beach Brewing Co. in Gulf Shores

For good measure, we’ll also be exploring some Civil Rights sights in Montgomery and Selma, too.

To see everything together, you can check out the Google Map I created that combines two of my favorite interests and some of the other sights we plan to visit during our trip.

You can follow along with our trip on the usual social media accounts.  I’ll be posting regularly on Twitter (@StevenOnTheMove) and Instagram (@StevenOnTheMove).  If you enjoy craft beer, you can follow my check-ins on Untappd (StevenOnTheMove) by sending me a friend request.

A pint at TrimTab Brewing Co. in Birmingham, Ala.

Someone who enrolls in law school and influenced by the philosophy of Buckminster Fuller is sure to create a unique brewery.  That is without a doubt what people will find when they visit TrimTab Brewing Company in the Lakeview District of Birmingham.

While enrolled at the University of Alabama School of Law Harris Stewart spent his spare time homebrewing and researching hop varieties before pursuing his calling of brewing craft beer full-time in 2012.  Stewart won a contest to re-purpose a lot in downtown from George Barber as “TrimTab Brewhouse & Hot Chicken Kitchen,” but ultimately realized the brewery operation would need more space.  Stewart convinced Barber to lease him another piece of property on 5th Avenue South that had previously housed Barber’s motorcycle collection, which is now housed at the Barber Motorsports Museum.

It is here that my visit began.

The brewery’s main signage.

Despite clear signage on the building, the entrance to the taproom, err tasting gallery, isn’t quite as clear.  The majority of parking at the brewery is in front of the facility where visitors will see a mural that hearkens back to Birmingham during the 1950s.

A slogan from the 1950s adorns a shed roof at the brewery.

Visitors who park underneath the mural may enter the brewery through its courtyard, where you can often find a food truck, or you can walk down the alley into the tasting gallery.  My wife Katie and I opted to enter the brewery through the alleyway.

The main entrance to the brewery.

Walking down the alley leads you directly into the taproom, where on the weekends you may be fortunate enough to find Stewart spinning vinyl.

DJ Sex Panther helping create the vibe.

After walking into the tasting gallery, I met my point of contact.  My wife Katie and I met with sales manager Jimmy Stewart, so I grabbed a flight of beer and we talked about the history of the brewery.  Stewart’s inspiration for the brewery’s name come from Buckminster Fuller piece about social responsibility.  He espoused that even on giant boats that there tiniest rudder could dramatically change the course of the entire vessel.  The tiny rudder attached to the main rudder is called a trim tab, which is the piece that can redirect the entire ship.  Fuller advocated that even the smallest act of social responsibility could change the direction of society.  The idea of the “trim tab” is why the brewery doesn’t have a taproom, but a “tasting gallery” where local artists can sell their artwork without a fee.

However, we came to drink beer.  So onto my flight.

A flight of beers.

TrimTab is widely available across Alabama, so I’ve had the majority of their flagship beers.  So on this visit, I decided to take advantage of sampling beers that have primarily only been available in the tasting gallery or in limited release on draft.  I ordered the Bankston Citrus Blonde, Cloud Hollows, Dry Hopped Blueberry, and Pillar to Post Rye Brown.  Of the four, my favorite was by far Cloud Hollows.  It is a really unique zero-IBU New England IPA.  So it is juicy and fruity with wonderful orange notes, but technically no bitterness.  If you prefer staples like an IPA or the brewery’s Paradise Now, which is a raspberry Berliner Weisse, you’ll find those on draft, too.  Additionally, each Friday the brewery releases a new small-batch beer that is only available at the tasting gallery.

After finishing my flight, Jimmy introduced Katie and I to head brewer Marc Fishel, who took us on an impromptu tour of the production side of the brewery.  The facility is like most similarly sized craft breweries, so we got to see the grain elevator, the mash tun, the fermenters, and canning line.

However, there are a few unique things visitors need to seek out that set the brewery apart from the rest of the scene.  If you’re lucky, you may find that one fermenter has been dedicated to former Alabama politician Dixon Hall Lewis, who is known for being one of the heaviest members of Congress.

The brewery’s largest tank is dedicated to former Alabama politician Dixon Hall Lewis.

In many cases, dogs are synonymous with visiting a brewery and spending time in a taproom.  However, TrimTab Brewing has its own “brewery dog” who wanders around the production side and occasionally makes her way into the tasting gallery.

Head brewer Marc Fishel with his dog Roxie talks about the brewery’s pilot system.

The atmosphere in the tasting gallery is light, bright, and colorful.  After all, it’s not just a taproom it’s an art gallery that serves its own beer.

If you prefer to sit outdoors, there is a courtyard that opens into the production side of the brewery.

An overview of the courtyard.

Regardless of where you choose to enjoy your beer at TrimTab Brewing, you will enjoy a unique brew that differentiates itself.  You may also be inspired to buy some art and be a small piece in major change.

A pint at Good People Brewing Co. in Birmingham, Ala.

After operating for two years in the Five Points South area of Birmingham, Good People Brewing Company relocated to its current location near Railroad Park.  After moving into a former warehouse, the company former Auburn University graduates Jason Malone and Mike Sellers started has blossomed into one of the biggest craft breweries in Alabama.  Despite its tremendous growth, Good People remains true to its roots as a brewery aiming to serve Alabama and neighboring states where you can find “good people” drinking great beer.

The main entrance to the brewery.

Upon arriving at the brewery, I met with sales team manager Stefano Daneri.  We immediately dove into a tour of the production side of the brewery.  I was fortunate to tour the facility on a Friday afternoon, but the brewery regularly runs tours on Saturdays at 1, 2, 3, and 4 p.m.  Tours cost $15 per person and include a collectible glass and a pint of beer.

An overview of the production side.

There is a LOT to see on the tour, so even if you’ve been on brewery tours before you are likely to see and/or learn something new here.  However, some things remain the same like seeing a canning line, fermentation tanks, and freshly kegged beer.

Some of the unique things my wife Katie and I saw on the tour include the brewery’s quality-control lab.

A glimpse into the lab.

A quality-control laboratory isn’t unique to Good People, but it is bar far the largest I have seen at a craft brewery.  In particular, it was interesting to see the refrigerator, which holds a sample from each batch of beer brewed over the last three months.  A sample is kept for testing in case there are problems with the beer after it has been packaged and distributed.

Although not unique, it was interesting to see the brewery’s original system that was used when they operated at Pickwick Plaza in Five Points South.

A view of the brewery’s original fermentation tanks that are now used for its pilot system.

Seeing the original system, which is still used for small batches, provides a lot of perspective about how much things have changed for Good People Brewing Co.  The quality of beer has not changed though, so it was with a view of the original system that we moved to the taproom to enjoy some fresh suds.

An overview of the bar.

With a facility in a former warehouse, it is difficult to capture the entire taproom in one photo because something is automatically left out of the visitor’s eyesight.

As a geographer, the mural of Alabama and its counties caught my eye.  I have visited the taproom multiple times, but somehow had never paid attention to the mural until this visit.  Not only is it cool geographic artwork, but it illustrates the brewery’s commitment to its home state.

Speaking of cool artwork, the brewery has a VERY extensive merchandise offering that occupies a corner of the taproom.

However, we came for beer not to buy merchandise.  Although there is plenty of cool merchandise available for purchase.

A flight of beers.

Good People Brewing is one of the largest (by volume) brewery’s in the state, so it is extremely easy to find their beers at restaurants, bars, and stores.  So when constructing our flight, Katie and I focused on the variety of taproom-only beers available on the day we visited.  We opted for the IPL (an India pale lager), HoDo Brown, Test Batch IPA, and Hazy Pale Wheat.  I enjoyed all of them, but the HoDo Brown was by far my favorite.  It had roasted notes and was quite smooth.  If you prefer more “traditional” beer choices, don’t fret.  The taproom carries the brewery’s mainstays and seasonal beers like their IPA, Bearded Lady, Muchacho, and others.

The taproom is usually quite crowded on the weekends, but there is plenty of outdoor space for visitors to utilize.  Good People has a covered patio where they offer yoga in the evenings (although that was not happening when I visited), and there is a courtyard in front of the building, too.

Although we arrived too early to enjoy it, the brewery has a daily rotation of food trucks that park near the courtyard to serve visitors.  The weekly list is usually posted on the brewery’s social media sites at the beginning of the week, and also each day.

Although people can easily find beer from Good People across Alabama and the region (as the brewery recently started distribution in Georgia and Tennessee), it is more than worthwhile to visit the taproom.  It is an active and exciting atmosphere with plenty of seating options, a beer list that caters to beer drinkers seeking something familiar and those searching for something new, and a great view of the Birmingham skyline.

A pint at Ghost Train Brewing Co. in Birmingham, Ala.

Within a year of brewing and distributing its beer, Ghost Train Brewing Company went from a startup brewing contracting its production to opening its own brewery and taproom in the Lakeview district of Birmingham.  The husband-and-wife team of Taylor and Paige DeBoer began operations in 2015 brewing their beer at a facility in Mississippi before moving into the former home of Cahaba Brewing Company off 3rd Avenue South in Lakeview in 2016.  The brewery sits in the shadow of U.S. 280 as it heads out to the Birmingham suburbs, which is where my visit began.

An overview of the building.

The brewery’s space is quite compact, but despite its size there is a lot inside the building.  I visited on a Friday evening, so there was a band performing and it seemed as though every seat in the taproom was filled.

A band performs at the front of the taproom.

The bar sits in the back of the taproom, so my wife Katie and I navigated our way through the crowd to find a pair of seats at the bar to order some beers.  We have drank many of Ghost Train’s beers because they are widely available in our area, but there were a few on draft that we had never tried before.  So we ordered a flight to split that included all of these beers.

A flight of beers.

We ordered the Shamrock Kiwi Wheatgrass Sour, Train Wreck Pale Ale, Judge Juicy (a New England IPA), and Craft Lager.  All were very well done, but my favorite was the Shamrock Kiwi Wheatgrass Sour.  It had a good pucker with noticeable kiwi flavors.  Craft Lager was my other favorite because it was tasty unto itself, but just a bit better with the lime squeezed into it.

After finishing our flight, Katie and I explored the brewery a bit so I could capture the rest of the landscape.

Like many brewery taprooms, the equipment is surrounded by seating.  So it was difficult navigating the crowd to take pictures of the canning line and fermenters.  The most interesting space I found was the game room in the back.

An overview of the game room.

A collection of pinball machines accompany a pool table and Foosball table to offer visitors additional entertainment options.  The game room was noticeable quieter than the taproom with the band performing, and provided a nice respite from the crowd.

Birmingham’s history as a stop for seven railway companies led the DeBoers to draw from the city’s former Birmingham Terminal Station, which was the city’s main train station until the 1950s, to incorporate a railroad theme into the name of the brewery and ultimately a beer named after the station.  A ghost train is a phantom locomotive that grew in American folklore has etched into popular culture in a variety of ways.  Visitors will notice the railroad theme in the brewery’s logo.

The taproom seemed like a busy train station the night I visited with tons of people coming and going.  Visitors may not find the namesake Terminal Station Brown on draft at Ghost Train Brewing, but are sure to find a unique collection of beers to enjoy.

A pint at Cahaba Brewing Co. in Birmingham, Ala.

A positive sign of the growth of craft beer in any place is breweries growing and moving to new, larger spaces.  After four years operating at a location off 3rd Avenue South in the Lakeview district, Cahaba Brewing Company moved to a former industrial site in the Avondale neighborhood.  The brewery opened the new taproom on Jan. 19, 2016 in an expansive 51,000-square-foot building that used to be part of the Continental Gin.  It isn’t always easy to find the brewery when driving north on 5th Avenue South, even though a sign points visitors in the right direction.

The sign near the street directing people to the brewery.

The brewery draws its name from the longest free-flowing river in Alabama, the Cahaba, which has its headwaters near Birmingham.  So building on an nature-oriented concept, we Jump In to explore the expansive space that houses the brewery.

Main entrance to the brewery.

Immediately after entering the brewery visitors have options for where to explore.  Turning right leads people to the primary seating area of the taproom with the bar and a view into the production side of the facility.  Turning left takes visitors to a lounge area and a bank of pinball machines sure to entertain kids of all ages.

The ability to have a dimly-lit lounge and arcade space in addition to a traditional bar and taproom illustrates the size of the building.  So turning my attention to the taproom, I captured a few photos before meeting with sales representative extraordinaire Randy Bressner and production manager Jared Subock.

It was at a high-top table that my wife Katie and I shared a couple of flights to sample all of the beers currently on draft at the brewery.

The flights were created to accentuate similarity in styles.  One flight consisted solely of India pale ales while the other flight focused on maltier beers.  The malty flight had Bohemian Pilsner, American Blonde, Oktoberfest, and Irish Stout.  The IPA flight had Pale Ale, White IPA, Oka Uba IPA, and Oak-Aged Oka Uba.  With the move to its current location, Cahaba went from using a 3.5-barrel brewhouse to a 30-barrel brewhouse, so I have sampled many of their beers.  Of the eight I tried during this visit, my favorites were the Irish Stout and the Pale Ale.  The Irish stout is dry and reminiscent of Guinness while the Pale Ale was piney and hoppy like a classic American pale ale.  The American Blonde is the brewery’s benchmark beer, but according to Subock it was an accidental discovery.  It was originally brewed for Cullman’s Oktoberfest in 2011, but is not truly a lager and instead is Helles-like brew.  It has been the brewery’s most popular beer, and is a great introductory beer for people who have not tried craft beers before.

As a geographer, my favorite thing about trying a flight of beer was the flight board.  It was cool to see the brewery accentuate its location in the state of Alabama by using flight boards shaped like the state, including the unique tail of the Tennessee River that forms the state’s boundary with Mississippi.  In fact, I liked it so much that I bought a flight board and set of glasses for myself.

After finishing our beer, Jared took us on a tour of the facility.  We started with the event space immediately next to the taproom, which used to house the brewery’s barrel program and other equipment.  The barrels and equipment were relocated because too many people interfered with the barrel-aging process by removing plugs.  So after passing quickly through the event space we came into the production side of the brewery.

An overview of the brewery’s production side.

When Cahaba moved to its current location in late 2015, the brewery kept its original brewhouse and now uses it for small batches.

The brewery’s old equipment is utilized to brew small batches for the taproom.

Near the pilot system is where the brewery now stores its barrel far away from meddling guests.

Barrels are stored near the brewery’s pilot system.

Although the taproom has a cutout that allows visitors to see the production facility, it is quite awe-inspiring to be on the other side of the glass and see just how LARGE the facility really is.  Cahaba now has three 60-barrel fermenters, three 120-barrel fermenters, one 60-barrel brite tank, and one 120-barrel brite tank.  However, there is still plenty of room for future expansion.

Speaking of expansion, I got to see one of the latest additions to the production side of the facility…

A view of the canning line.

the canning line.

It does not take up a significant amount of space, but is critical because it reduces costs for the brewery.  Previously Cahaba has been canning its beer through a mobile-canning company that came to the brewery at scheduled appointments, which meant that production had to be carefully kept on time or else the company would miss its opportunity to can its beer, and have to wait before the company would cycle back around.

Not far from the canning line are two pieces that made the move from the company’s former location on 3rd Avenue South.

The original cooler and the chalkboard beer list both made their way to the new facility.  The cooler is still used, but the chalkboard is simply preserved to honor the hard work of the bartenders who had to write out the list each time it changed.

Past the production side is the brewery’s primary storage area, which really gives visitors an idea of how much space the brewery holds in its current location.

An overview of the brewery’s storage space, which contains cans, kegs, and grains.

Among all the storage space there is another cold storage facility and the brewery’s grain elevator.

There is also some office space that the brewery leases out to other businesses.

The most unique thing that I got to see on the tour was the brewery’s lab.

An overview of the brewery’s lab that helps ensure quality control of the finished product.

While most brewery should have a laboratory to ensure the quality of their product, Cahaba’s is unique because of how Subock has acquired much of the equipment for it.  Due to the brewery’s location in Birmingham and the top-rated UAB School of Medicine, Jared has purchased several pieces of equipment through the university’s surplus sales.  Most visitors who tour the brewery won’t get to see the laboratory, but if you get an offer it is worthwhile checking out.

There is a LOT to like about Cahaba Brewing’s taproom and facility.  It is a huge space with plenty of seating and several game options to entertain people whether it’s pinball or Skee-Ball.  There is also a large stage for music performances.  If visitors don’t want to be indoors there is a long, covered patio that stretches the length of the building that is a great space on days with nice weather.  Although best known for its American Blonde, Cahaba offers a variety of beers sure to please any palate.  Although removed from the hustle and bustle of the Avondale neighborhood that centers around Avondale Park, Cahaba regularly has food trucks on site serving appropriate pub grub.  So Jump In, and enjoy a pint at the former Continental Gin building.

Exploring New Orleans with Two Chicks Walking Tours

The list of “must-do” activities for visitors to New Orleans can be quite extensive depending on the length of your stay, your interests, where you’re staying in the city, and all litany of other factors.  However, exploring the city’s cemeteries usually appears on most lists.  Often hailed as “Cities of the Dead,” there are about a half-dozen well-known cemeteries throughout the city worth visiting.  And there are a lot of ways to explore the cemeteries through walking tours.  I opted to go on a tour with Two Chicks Walking Tours, which operates small-group tours throughout the city.

While I easily determined what tour company I wanted to use, it was more difficult deciding which tour to take.  Two Chicks offer four different tours of cemeteries with two focused on Lafayette Cemetery #1 and two focused on St. Louis Cemetery #1.  I opted the Dead Sexy Tour because it included St. Louis Cemetery #1 and Storyville, the city’s red-light district during the late-1800s and early-1900s.

THE MEETING SPOT
Instead of starting the tour at the cemetery, the tour meets at Backatown Coffee Parlour (301 Basin St.), which is half a block from the cemetery.  The coffee shop is quite spacious with a variety of baked goods, so if you need to fuel up before the tour this is a great place to spend some time.

THE ENTRANCE
If visiting St. Louis Cemetery #1 is high on your must-do list, the only way you can visit the cemetery is with a license tour guide.  Due to damage over the years, the New Orleans Archdiocese has restricted access to the cemetery since 2015.

Entrance to St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.

Volunteers at the gate carefully check-in the entire group, so there is no opportunity to “sneak in” with another group if you have not paid to be part of a tour.  In fact, as my group entered the cemetery there were about four people with wristbands from another tour group who attempted to enter the cemetery without their tour guide present, but were denied admission.

HISTORY, MYTHS, AND TOMBS
If you’re a history buff, you’ll love the tour because you learn not only about the tombs, graves, and the people buried in the cemetery but also about the development of New Orleans over time.  My tour guide Karen took the group into the cemetery, and succinctly detailed the history of the architecture of the graves we would see.

Karen talking to the group during the tour.

So my tour started with learning about the typical step grave and the famous weeping angel.

The tour of St. Louis Cemetery #1 lasts about an hour, but can sometimes be longer because it is a popular destination and is being used by many tour groups.  So there is not always a set route through the cemetery, but visitors are assured of seeing all the notable graves and tombs.

The Italian Benevolent Society Tomb is famed for its architecture and inclusion in the movie “Easy Rider.”

There are multiple tombs created by benevolent societies, but the Italian Benevolent Society Tomb is one of the most famous because of its appearance in the film “Easy Rider.”  In the scene, Wyatt (played by Peter Fonda) suffered a bad trip from ingesting LSD, and climbs onto the statue and talks to it.

Another notable movie film is one constructed by Nicolas Cage.

Tomb built by Nicolas Cage.

Cage’s tomb is controversial for a variety of reasons.  He purchased the plots to build his tomb in 2010, although he does not have familial ties to the city.  Additionally, the pyramid shape does not blend in with the surrounding tombs.

The most famous grave is of voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, who also has two “faux Laveau” tombs in the cemetery.

Famed voodoo priestess Marie Laveau is believed to be buried in the Glapion family tomb.

There is a lot known and unknown about Marie Laveau, which makes her such a compelling figure in the city’s history.  Laveau worked as a hair dresser, so typically people leave hair ties as a memento at her tomb.  However, it is not confirmed whether her remains lay in the Glapion family tomb or not, which perpetuates the mythical nature of her life.

THE RED-LIGHT DISTRICT
In the 1890s, the area north of St. Louis Cemetery #1 developed into the city’s red-light district.  It was established by municipal code to regulate prostitution and drugs.  However, many of these buildings associated with the district known as Storyville were torn down in the 1930s to be replaced by public housing projects.  Although Storyville was created to regulate prostitution, there were many famous brothels elsewhere in the city.  So it was here that we delved into the unsavory history of New Orleans.

Outside the parlor house of Madame Norma Wallace.

We learned about Norma Wallace, whose legacy has been preserved in the book The Last Madam.  In 1964, Wallace sold her last brothel (located at 1026 Conti Street), which has been converted into apartments.  The building was also home to E.J. Bellocq, who photographed the women of Storyville in the early-1900s.

The tour concludes in the French Quarter where visitors can experience a drink in another famed brothel, May Baily’s Place.

May Baily operated a bordello on the fringe of Storyville, and legend has it paid the mayor of New Orleans an untold sum of money to keep police officers from raiding her house.  The mayor had not expected such a large sum, and issued Baily an operating license, which essentially made her brothel a legal business entity.  The cottage has been relocated from its original location, and now sits next to the Dauphine Orleans Hotel and serves as the hotel’s bar.

WRAP UP
Over the two-hour tour, I learned a lot about New Orleans history and got to hear some great stories about the city and its people.  The physical demand was quite low because the tour proceeds at a very leisurely pace.  However, it is New Orleans, so it can be hot and humid during spring and summer months, so visitors should bring water to stay hydrated during the tour.

There is a lot to like about the tour, but the emphasis on a small-group setting separates it from other tours.  I saw a lot of tour groups wandering through St. Louis Cemetery #1 that had twenty or more people, and many guides had to wait before talking to the group about a grave or tomb.  Sometimes people on the tour weren’t sure where to go because they had lost sight of the tour guide, too.  With Two Chicks Walking Tours, I was always among the people on the tour and could see my tour guide the entire time.  It was also great that Karen regularly asked the group if we had questions, which allowed us all to engage in the tour as active participants.

Disclosure: My tour fee was provided by Two Chicks Walking Tours.  Be assured that all words and opinions contained here, are 100% my own.

A pint at Red Hills Brewing Co. in Birmingham, Ala.

Nestled in a plaza on Central Avenue in a former A&P grocery store, Red Hills Brewing Co. may get overlooked by visitors who focus on the nearby dining establishments.  In fact, as visitors drive to the brewery they may overlook it because it is tucked into the corner of the plaza.  However, there is plenty of space to enjoy a cold beer in the shadow of Red Mountain.

A view of the brewery’s main entrance.

Once inside the building, there is no mistaking that you are in a brewery taproom.  The numerous tanks are visible in the distance the moment you walk in the door.  The bar sits in the center of the wall with two large TVs hovering around the counter top.  Additional seating is distributed throughout the remaining space, which provides guests with ample spots to relax and enjoy their beer.

As my wife Katie and I walked into the taproom, we made a bee line for the bar and sat down to order a flight.  Like many breweries in Birmingham, we have had several beers from Red Hills so we patiently took time double-checking the beers we had drank according to Untappd before ordering our flight.  We got A New Tella Porter, Geoffrey the Graff, Hipster’s Delight, and Nitro Hipster’s Delight.  We also shared a taster of Redtails.  A New Tella Porter is a chocolate and hazelnut porter.  Geoffrey the Graff is a blend of cider and gluten-free beer.  Hipster’s Delight is an espresso latte imperial stout made with Higher Ground coffee, which is a coffee company in Vestavia Hills that sells fair-trade coffee.  Redtails is an American amber brewed with peanuts.  Of the five brews we had during our visit, the Nitro Hipster’s Delight was the best beer.  It had noticeable chocolate and coffee notes and was smoother on nitrogen than the CO2 version.

After finishing the flight, I took advantage of a fairly quiet opening period on this Saturday to take a few more pictures of the taproom.  The mural over the bar is the most notable piece at the brewery.

An overview of the bar area.

While the mural primarily focuses on the fermentation tanks used in brewing and the chemistry of different components used in the beer, the most notable part of the mural is to the right near the hallway.

Artwork depicting the Vulcan statue and a Red Hills salamander.

The right side of the mural features one of Birmingham’s most visible symbols, the statue of Vulcan that sits atop Red Mountain.  Taking a unique twist on incorporating Vulcan, the mural shows his posterior as that is the portion of the statue that faces the Homewood neighborhood.  Next to Vulcan is a Red Hills salamander, which is the namesake of the brewery and Alabama’s official state amphibian.  Despite the brewery’s location near Red Mountain, the Red Hills salamander is not native to the area, but instead resides in the Gulf Coastal Plain.

Not far from the mural down a hallway is another homage to the brewery’s namesake amphibian.

The “Salamander Crossing” sign in the back hallway.

On top of the bar counter is a setup displaying the brewery’s merchandise along with some unrefrigerated beer for sale.

A view of some merchandise for sale.

In a display of typical Southern hospitality, there is a painted sign above the doorway as people leave.

A view of the artwork above the doorway encouraging people to visit again.

With its location in a bustling shopping area, it is very likely that visitors to Red Hills Brewing will come back again.  Like many taprooms, the beer select offers something for just about everyone.  The mural is humorous and delightful.  The space is eclectic and relaxed.

A pint at Avondale Brewing Co. in Birmingham, Ala.

Nestled in the area that formerly housed the Birmingham Zoo is a budding restaurant and brewery district.  The district lends its name to one of Birmingham’s earliest craft breweries, as Avondale Brewing Co. opened its doors in 2011.

With its location in the heart of the Avondale neighborhood, the brewery lacks significant parking as it sits near the intersection of 4th Avenue South and 41st Street South.

Main entrance to the brewery.

The building has a long and interesting history that has been incorporated into the brewery’s beers.  It was originally built in 1885 and served as a bunkhouse for railroad workers.  It was later used as a bank, a candy company, and a saloon.  The front facade was rebuilt before the brewery’s taproom opened in November 2011.  The building looks huge from the outside, but has a much more intimate feeling once you get through the front door.  You’re almost immediately greeted by the bar in front of you with the brewing equipment to the left and some seating to the right.

As I learned later, the mash ton tanks were imported from Germany and are capable of brewing 15 barrels at a time.  So brewing at the facility usually takes two shifts to completely fill a fermentation tanks.

After taking a few pictures of the bar area, my wife Katie and I ordered a flight of beers as we waited to meet up with my contact at the brewery.  Avondale’s beers are widely available around Alabama, so we had a tough time selecting a flight to ensure we tried something new.  However, we were able to put together four brews we’d never had at Avondale Brewing before.

A flight of beers.

The four brews we chose were the Hazy IPA, Mexican Lager, Warning Shot Double IPA, and Farmhouse Cider.  We did not realize that the beer labeled “Mexican Lager” was not actually an Avondale beer, but instead Good People Brewing’s Muchacho (Good People and Avondale are now under the same umbrella, so visitors to the taproom will find a few Good People beers at Avondale and a few Avondale beers at Good People).  So we’d actually had that beer previously without realizing it when ordering.  It’s a very solid, light lager that honestly does go better with a lime.

The Hazy IPA is a New England-style IPA that needs a bit more orange.  However, it’s not overly bitter and is quite smooth.  I don’t typically order double IPAs, but Warning Shot is a great representation of the style.  It has a big floral nose and a slightly bitter finish.  The Farmhouse Cider may have been the best among the quartet.  It was light and crisp, but with a dry finish.  So it was not overly sweet, as can be the case for many ciders.

Shortly after finishing our flight, we were met by sales representative Dallas Henderson, who gave us a tour of the facility.  We started our tour of the facility by going outdoors to the brewery’s huge entertainment space.

An overview of the brewery’s extensive outdoor entertainment space.

Part of the expansive outdoor area includes the brewery’s grain mill, a performance stage, an outdoor bar, and plenty of paved space for food trucks.

Walking back toward the brewery and taproom, visitors see images that connect Avondale Brewing Co. to the history of its surrounding community.  As visitors walk toward the taproom, they see the company’s logo, which includes noted Avondale Park resident Miss Fancy.

There are a lot of stories about how Miss Fancy ended up in Birmingham, but the crux of all stories is that she ended up at the Birmingham Zoo when it was located in Avondale Park.  The commonly-believed myth that inspired the use of Miss Fancy as part of the brewery’s logo is that she enjoyed drinking confiscated alcohol during Prohibition to sooth her stomach ailments.  In addition to being part of the company’s logo, a painting recreating a famous photograph of Miss Fancy with her caretaker John Todd.

The upstairs of the brewery is a unique entertainment space that people can rent, and is utilized on Sundays for community yoga.

Tucked behind the bar in the event space is the photograph that inspired the painting on the side of the building.  If you’re fortunate enough to see the event space, you’ll notice two photographs behind the bar.

A photograph of Miss Fancy in the brewery’s event space.

After seeing the brewery’s event space, we journeyed back downstairs where I captured a few more photos of the taproom and some of the unique decor on its walls.

After getting a detailed tour of the taproom and brewery, Katie and I each ordered a Long Branch Scottish Ale to honor one of the building’s former owners.  At one point the place was known as the Long Branch Saloon, and fortunate visitors may spot his business card tacked to a shelf just behind the bar.  The brew is a bit smoky, but a great representation of the style.

Steeped in history and local culture with a variety of brews, Avondale Brewing offers visitors an intimate indoor drinking environment and differentiates itself from its competitors with a gigantic outdoor entertainment space that is typically filled to the brim on weekends during the warmer months of the year.

A pint at Interstellar Ginger Beer & Exploration Co. in Alabaster, Ala.

In a craft beer scene getting more and more crowded, it is getting difficult for newcomers to make their mark on the landscape.  So when Shane Kelly and Daniel Sims decided to open a brewery, they decided to differentiate themselves in the marketplace by brewing ginger beer.  The duo settled on a location south of Birmingham in Alabaster off Interstate 65 near the Shelby County Airport in order to sell their product to an under-served population.  So the first thing visitors see when coming to the brewery is its signage at the entrance to an industrial park.

Signage at the entrance to the industrial park.

The building that houses the brewery is at the end of a cul-de-sac on the right-hand side of the street.

Main entrance to the brewery.

There are several parking spots in the lot or on the side of the street.

Visitors walk immediately into the seating area with the bar in the back of the building.  The seating area has an area setup for live music, which happens about once a week at the brewery.  The coolest feature of the seating area is the nook tucked with two small couches.

Some indoors seating.

Just a few steps beyond the seating is the bar, which is usually staffed by the owners or a volunteer.

The tap list is written out on a whiteboard behind the bar with details explaining what flavors were added to make each ginger beer.  So if you’ve never tried ginger beer before or are unfamiliar with the options, you’ll be well informed when making your selection.  When my wife Katie & I arrived, we opted for two flights.  So the beertender set us up with two flights covering all the brews on tap.  We each got the staples with a little variety, too.

A flight of beers.

Each flight had the brewery’s two staples: First Contact and Space Mule (both of which I’ve had at beer festivals in the area).  Additionally, my flight had Ginger Colada, Ginger Sour, and Martian Mojito.  Katie’s flight also had Ginger Colada along with Andromeda Ambrosia and Blue Nebula Ginger Tonic.  For first time ginger beer drinkers, if you don’t try a flight I’d suggest ordering First Contact or Space Mule.  They are the most approachable and consist of flavors people typically find in other beverages.  First Contact combines ginger and lemon flavors while Space Mule has ginger and lime flavors.

If you’re a bit more adventurous and enjoy coconut, then you should try Ginger Colada, which tastes like its inspiration – a piña colada.  It is big on coconut, so be warned.  Ginger Sour is the brewery’s take on a whiskey sour.  Andromeda Ambrosia is a blend of hibiscus and bitter along with orange peel and ginger.  It is a vibrant pink brew, and very tasty.  Although I failed to capture a good photo, Blue Nebula Ginger Tonic glows in the dark and tastes like a gin and tonic.  So if you enjoy that hard liquor drink, you’d enjoy this ginger beer.  My favorite beer was Martian Mojito, which is a combination of ginger and mint flavors.  Based on its name, it tastes a lot like a mojito.  If you order a full pour of the Martian Mojito you will received it with a lime garnish, which is a nice compliment to the flavors in the brew.

Shortly after finishing our flights, Shane offered to take us on a tour of the facility.  Interestingly, the first stop was much closer than I expected as we walked into the cooler immediately behind the bar.  And what did I see?

A trio of movable fermentation tanks the cooler.

I saw a trio of fermentation tanks along with a few kegs.  Shane uses the coolers to drop the temperature of the ginger beer immediately after brewing it.  So instead of working with large, immovable equipment, Interstellar Ginger Beer & Exploration Company utilizes smaller, movable fermenters.

In a room just beyond the bar is where the brewing and kegging of the beer occurs.

Shane Kelly explaining the process of brewing ginger beer.

In the background, is the tank used at the brewery to move beer into kegs.  Although there are no scheduled tours, Kelly explained the process of brewing ginger beer to a rapt group of people who were also making their first visit to the brewery.  All their beers start as a simple water and sugar boil before the addition of yeast and any additional flavors as the wort is put into the movable fermenters.

The ginger used at the brewery is imported from China, and then cleaned and chopped up using a modified kitchen garbage disposal in another space.

A view of the ginger extractor used at the brewery.

In the third suite of the building Interstellar rents is where Kelly hopes to bottle their beer for distribution.

An overview of the bottling line.

Kelly bottled a small amount of the company’s flagship beer, First Contact, by April 5.  In the Star Trek universe, First Contact commemorates the first time humans had interaction with the Vulcans.  Star Trek and other science fiction materials have influenced the theme of the brewery, but Kelly explained that his real interest was just in outer space and setting the brewery apart from others in the area.

The space at the taproom is intimate, but visitors will not feel crowded as the seating extends into the parking lot to provide a lot of options for visitors.  If you’re a fan of science fiction and/or space, you’ll relish the decor of the taproom that evokes exploration.  The brews are not what many people expect when visiting a brewery taproom because they brew ginger beer, but the flavors are out of this world.  To truly appreciate and enjoy the taproom experience, visitors should set aside their preconceptions about a brewery and just focus on the flavors in the beers.

A beercation in Birmingham

Craft beer drinkers don’t usually think of visiting cities in the Southern United States, aside from Asheville, N.C., for a craft beer vacation, but recent changes in alcohol laws have led to a growth of breweries in Birmingham, Ala.  So with an extended break, my wife Katie and I decided to visit the Magic City for our own beercation over a two-day period.

We’ll start our trip on Friday, March 30, by visiting the five breweries around downtown Birmingham (Avondale Brewing Co., Cahaba Brewing Co., Ghost Train Brewing Co., Good People Brewing Co., and TrimTab Brewing Co. ).  On Saturday, March 31, we will head to the suburbs to visit breweries in Homewood (Red Hills Brewing Co.) and Alabaster (Interstellar Ginger Beer & Exploration Co.).  There are other breweries in the works around metro Birmingham, but none have announced definitive opening dates.  So we will have to make another trip to check out these breweries.

If you’ve never thought about doing a beercation in Birmingham, it’s a great spot because the downtown breweries are within five miles of each other.  The especially ambitious beer explorer could visit the five downtown breweries and visit Homewood and Alabaster in one day, but because our goal is to enjoy and explore the taprooms we are visiting the outer breweries on Saturday afternoon.

If you’ve yet to make the trek to Birmingham, I hope you’ll follow along this weekend on social media.  I’ll be posting updates to Twitter (@StevenOnTheMove) and Instagram (@stevenonthemove).  If you want to see the beers I’m drinking you should add me as a friend on Untappd (@StevenOnTheMove).  I will also write up my taproom visits, so be sure to check back for a more detailed look into each of the breweries and their taprooms.