Recapping the 2018 Birmingham Winter Beer Fest

Ever since I moved to Tuscaloosa nearly five years ago I’ve been making occasional trips to Birmingham to enjoy the city’s burgeoning craft beer scene.  For the second time in as many years, my wife Katie and I traveled to the Magic City to attend the Birmingham Winter Beer Fest.  Before the festival we met up with one of my wife’s friends, and took a ride-share to the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex for the event.  We arrived around 2:40 because we had purchased general admission tickets, and that session began at 3 p.m.

So after entering the BJCC, we waited in line for about 20 minutes before grabbing our sampling mugs.  As we stood near the front of the line, we saw the crowd grow.  So I was quite pleased when I took a picture of the front of the line to see that there were at least three times as many people standing behind us in line.

A small crowd waiting to enter the BJCC’s East Exhibit Hall.

Once we were inside we started checking out the booths, and started with the local Birmingham breweries that were mostly clustered on one side of a beer garden.  However, “beer garden” may be a slightly misleading label, as there were multiple tables side-by-side with a hanging curtain behind people to create separation from the breweries on the other side.

In addition to the beer gardens there were a variety of other activities for festival goers, which depending on your objectives are a welcome respite or a distraction from sampling new beers.  There was a beer and cheese demonstration sponsored by Guinness, a karaoke area, a cornhole competition sponsored by SweetWater Brewing Company, a silent disco, a concession stand serving food, and a live band performing on a stage.

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Although we picked up a festival guide booklet upon entering the East Exhibit Hall, I did not use it much because of it was a bit oversized.  It contained information about the breweries at the event, the beers that were expected to be available, and a map displaying the location of the different breweries.  So while it had a lot of information I didn’t use it as much as I could have because once we got through the doors, we started visiting the brewery booths and sampling beer.  If we had been able to get out mugs and get oriented before beer starting pouring, I might have use the booklet more.

However, very few people go to a beer festival to read a booklet.  We go to beer festivals to drink, and hopefully find some new brews to enjoy.  If you use Untappd, you saw my timeline take off with 39 check-ins during the event.  If you don’t utilize Untappd, but follow me on Twitter then you saw that timeline populated with the various samples I drank.  I won’t recap each beer because some were just OK, but there were a variety of beers (some old and some new) that I found and really enjoyed.  When reviewing my rankings of the beers on Untappd I find that two beers separated themselves from the pack and nine beers fell into a nine-way tie for my third favorite beer at the festival.

The two beers that I rated the highest were Yellowhammer Nussknacker, which I have had before this event (and rated it a 4.5 out of 5.0), and Anderson Valley Thribble Currant, which I drank for the first time ever at the festival (and rated it a 4.25 out of 5.0).  Of the nine beers that I rated a 4.0 out of 5, I had drank three previously (Avondale Vanillaphant Porter, Blackberry Farm Classic Saison, and InnerSpace Sky Farmer).  So I’m going to recap the six new beers I sampled at the event in more detail along with Nussknacker and Thribble Currant.  The six other beers are…

  • Boulevard Bourbon Barrel Quad
  • Harpoon Vanilla Bean Porter
  • Interstellar Ginger Beer & Exploration First Contact
  • Singin’ River IPAcalypse Now
  • Slag Heap Jerry’s Cherry Vanilla Porter
  • Terrapin Beyond the Galaxy

Yellowhammer Brewing’s Nussknacker is a holiday bock.  It has the typical spice flavors you’d expect from a darker winter ale.  It check-ins at 6.5% ABV, and like many beers at the festival is available in packaging throughout the state.

Anderson Valley Brewing Co.’s Thribble Currant is a unique American wild ale.  It begins as Brother David’s Triple and then the wort is transferred to wine barrels before black currants are added.  The result is a deliciously dark and complex sour ale.  Although it is aged in wine barrels, which helps boost the ABV, and despite checking in at 10.5% ABV you don’t notice any boozy flavors.

Boulevard Brewing Co.’s Bourbon Barrel Quad is a deliciously sweet and smooth beer.  It carries at 11.2% ABV, and the booziness is quite noticeable.  However, the bourbon barrel flavors do not overpower the beer.  So if you enjoy barrel-aged beers and Belgian-style ales this is a great combination of both.

Harpoon Brewery’s Vanilla Bean Porter is a great winter beer.  The vanilla adds a touch of sweetness to a relatively robust brew.  It checks-in at a very mild 5% ABV, which makes it an excellent dessert beer.  I would love to try it with vanilla ice cream as an adult root beer float.

Interstellar Ginger Beer & Exploration Co. is one of the most unique breweries in Alabama, as they brew alcoholic ginger beer.  First Contact is meant to be an ideal introductory beer for those who have not had an alcoholic ginger beer.  It is sweet and smooth and checks-in at 6.9% ABV, so it carries a bit more alcohol than people may expect.

Singin’ River Brewing Co.’s IPAcalypse Now isn’t a beer I’d usually drink because I don’t typically enjoy India Pale Ales (IPAs).  However, I always try to sample beers I wouldn’t normally drink when I’m at a beer festival.  Although it isn’t brewed to be a New England-style IPA, it was incredibly juicy and smooth.  It checks in at 7.1% ABV, so it’s definitely not a session beer for the spring or summer.

Terrapin Beer Co.’s Beyond the Galaxy is an IPA brewed with Galaxy hops.  It was a juicy and smooth, but had a hint of bitterness on the finish.  It checks in at 6.3% ABV, so it was a good start to my time at the festival.

Slag Heap Brewing Co.’s Jerry’s Cherry Vanilla Porter is the last of the new beers I tried at the festival that made its way into my “best of the festival” list.  Slag Heap is opening later this year in Trussville, just outside of Birmingham.  It was one of the breweries I really wanted to see at the festival.  I hoped to sample all the beers they brought, but sadly I arrived too late and only got to try Jerry’s Cherry Vanilla Porter.  I got a lot of dark cherry flavors from the beer with minimal vanilla notes.  However, at 5.5% ABV it is a very smooth and drinkable winter beer.

A view of the Slag Heap Brewing Company booth setup.

As I reflect on the festival, I am happy that I bought only the general admission ticket for the event.  I visited just about every booth, whether I drank beer from that brewery or not.  I focused on trying new beers instead of trying everything that I liked.  So I maximized my time, even though I did get sidetracked a few times talking with brewery representatives that I know from going out to events in my town.  As I reviewed the full beer list in the booklet the other night, I don’t feel like I really “missed out” on a beer.  Of course, I would enjoy more time to chat with people and sample more beers, but I definitely feel like I got my money’s worth at the event.

One particularly interesting thing regarding the beers available at the festival is that I did not tend to see too many small batches or one-off brews.  Every brewery chooses what beers they want to bring to a festival, but I found it interesting that very few breweries brought kegs of beer.  Instead most tended to have bottles or cans of their products.  So while I drank new beers at the event, I feel like I have seen most of the beers available in the craft beer bars and stores around the state.

Although this was my first time using a ride-share program to get to and from a beer festival, it was relatively reasonably priced when split between three people.  We used two different services coming and leaving the BJCC, but paid about $30 to travel out to Hoover.  So it’s something I may use in the future instead of relying on a friend to pick me up afterward.

In comparison to last year’s festival it seemed as though attendance was greater, which as a craft beer fan makes me happy because I enjoy attending beer festivals and know that attendance is critical to seeing the event happen next year.  One downside was that the East Exhibit Hall seemed very packed and crowded, and it was difficult to discern if people were standing in line for a beer or just standing toward the back to drink their beers.  I’m not sure how to resolve this issue except to use more space and spread out the tables further to allow more room for people to mingle and chat.  However, I understand that every event is a learning process and that the organizers will make adjustments before the 2019 Birmingham Winter Beer Fest.  Skål y’all!

A pint at Green Bus Brewing in Huntsville, Ala.

In downtown Huntsville just off the courthouse square in a former law office is a homebrewer’s dream come true.  It’s not a homebrew store, but Green Bus Brewing.  It is a homebrewer’s dream come true because that’s what happened for Green Bus’s owner Jason Sledd.  In advance of my visit to Huntsville’s first nanobrewery, I happened to hear Jason’s interview with Beer Guys Radio, which shed a lot of light onto his journey from homebrewer to brewery owner (listen to it here).

Back to the Rocket City and the Madison County Courthouse Square, where you find Green Bus Brewing on an idyllic tree-lined street.

Main entrance to the brewery.

When visitors enter the brewery they immediately see a few tables and the bar to the left side with a set of stairs on the right.

An overview of the bar.

Just past the bar are a few more tables.

The side of the bar.

Perhaps the coolest part of the table around the bar is the grain.

A closeup of a table with grains underneath.

There are a variety of grains underneath the glass tabletops, which is cool to see as a craft beer fan.  However, the really unique and fun part is the informational sheets with each type of grain.  For example, in the front right corner of the previous photo you can see black patent malt with details about how the grain is utilized in the brewing process and the different flavors it brings to beer.  So the tables are educational in addition to being decorative.

Speaking of grain, the storage area is just beyond the seating area.  So visitors get a very unique taproom experience when visiting Green Bus Brewing because unlike larger breweries, there is not enough space to separate storage areas for necessities like grain.

Grain storage in the back of the brewery.

The brewery’s size is intentional according to Sledd, who says he aspires to be Downtown Huntsville’s neighborhood brewery and does not have plans to distribute or package his beer.  The nanobrewery concept is new to Alabama, as there have not been others to open just yet.

The story behind the name of the brewery is particularly fun because if you visit the brewery you see artwork that evokes the green bus.  According to Jason’s interview on Beer Guys Radio, he owned an old green Volkswagen bus, and after being ribbed by brewers at another local brewery about what he was going to call his brewery he jokingly replied, “Green Bus Brewing.”  Soon after the teasing about when he was going to open his own brewery began, so when Sledd set his sights on opening a brewery the name was already set.  In homage to the old, green VW bus, which Sledd still owns and occasionally appears at beer festivals around town, the brewery features a variety of pieces depicting a Volkswagen bus.

Now onto the beer, which usually covers a spectrum of styles.  There are usually at least a dozen beers on draft.  So when I visited I saw selections ranging from a milk stout to a double IPA to a blonde ale to an English bitter.  If you want to know ahead of time what is on draft, you can check out the brewery’s beer menu on Untappd.  Whether you’re an experienced craft beer drinker or a newbie, you’ll find a beer that’s just right for your taste buds.

From my visits to the brewery, I’ve had Camper Von Blonde, Sour Pale, Downtown Julie Brown, Schwarzbier, Dominant Red, ESB, and Tiramisu Milk Stout.  All are solid representations of their style, but by far my favorite one is the Tiramisu Milk Stout.  At the name evokes, it is a chocolate and coffee milk stout.  So it’s smooth like a milk stout and checks in at 5% ABV, but it carries the chocolate and coffee flavors you typically find in heavier, boozier stouts.  It was intended to be a seasonal brew, but quickly became the most popular beer so it is now brewed year-round.

Like most breweries, Green Bus does not have a kitchen, but occasionally sells snack items like a build-your-own nacho bar or you can bring in food from any of the surrounding area’s great restaurants.  The taproom has a genuine neighborhood feel, as regulars were quickly recognized and the bartender greeted many customers by name.  So if you’re in Huntsville you should head downtown for a pint or taster of a beer you won’t find anywhere else in the city and visit Green Bus Brewing.

Previewing the 2018 Birmingham Winter Beer Fest

There are tons of beer festivals across the world and across the country virtually every weekend.  Many tend to be during the summer when outdoor spaces are available and people can easily stroll the local fairgrounds or public park.  During the winter very few people want to drink beers outdoors, so beer festivals have started to do the same.

As the craft beer industry continues to grow in Alabama more events are popping up on the calendar.  This coming weekend, Birmingham hosts the 2018 Birmingham Winter Beer Fest at the BJCC – East Exhibit Hall.  The venue is hosting the festival for the second time, as it also hosted the 2017 event.  Whether you’re traveling from the Birmingham area or elsewhere it is easy to access the BJCC from the interstates and there is plenty of parking available on surface lots or at the parking garage underneath the convention complex.

THE DETAILS
Who: You and your craft-beer loving friends
What: The Birmingham Winter Beer Fest
Where: Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex’s East Exhibit Hall (2100 Richard Arrington Jr. Blvd, Birmingham, AL 35203)
When: Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018; 3 to 7 p.m.
Why: To sample new beers and get some awesome swag from the breweries
How: General admission tickets are $45 in advance, and $50 at the door.  VIP tickets are $80 in advance, and $85 at the door.  General admission designated driver tickers are $15, and VIP designated driver tickets are $25.  Tickets can be purchased online from Ticketmaster or at the BJCC central ticket office.

There are a variety of perks associated with the VIP ticket.  Most notably, people with a VIP ticket get to enter the festival starting at 2 p.m.  Additionally, VIPs get access to the VIP area, complimentary food from Jack Brown’s Beer and Burger Joint, and exclusive beers not available to the public.  There will be food available for purchase for all attendees as well.

There are a lot of activities at the festival besides the beer sampling.  There is a cornhole tournament, a silent disco, Samuel Adams Brew University sessions where you can learn more about craft beer, the Royal Cup Coffee & Tea Collaboration Garden where you can sample beers brewed with Royal Cup coffee and tea, Guinness beer and cheese pairings courses, a photo booth, and live music from Livewire.

THE SETUP
I attended the 2017 Birmingham Winter Beer Fest, and expect that some things will be slightly different from last year.  However, I expect a similar setup with individual booths for most breweries and a few instances of a distributor having a booth with three or four beers from different breweries.

With four hours and over 80 breweries participating, it is difficult to maximize time.  My strategy for festivals is to start in one direction and keep moving.  The setup at last year had aisles with breweries on both sides, which made it tempting to jump back and forth across the aisle.  I found that was not an effective way to enjoy the festival, so I encourage you to walk one side of the aisle and then the other.  When I encountered long lines, I would skip to the brewery next door with a shorter line and finish my sample by the time the first brewery’s line thinned out.

I love beer festivals because they allow people to sample a variety of beers that may not be available at their craft beer store or craft beer bar, and to sample beers you may not otherwise drink.  I’m not a hop head, but usually test my taste buds at beer festivals and sample a few IPAs or double IPAs to see if I enjoy that particular beer.  I’ve seen people be skittish about sampling a particular beer because it’s not part of their usual beer palate, but this is the best time to try out new things.  If you don’t like it, pour it out, rinse out your sample mug, and try something else.

THE BREWERIES
Beer festivals can overwhelm you with so many breweries, which is really a blessing and a curse.  It’s always exciting seeing a lot of breweries and a lot of beers available at a festival because it means you have variety.  However, having too much variety means it is nearly impossible to sample all the beers or all the breweries.  So when I attend a beer festival, I try to focus on breweries whose products I do not see locally.  If it’s a local brewery, I focus on sampling beers I have not had from them before.

In an effort to help you decide what to sample, I broke the breweries list into five categories: Birmingham-area breweries, Alabama breweries, regional Southern breweries, national/international breweries, and cideries and meaderies (last updated on Feb. 2, 2018, at 8 a.m.)

Magic City Breweries
Avondale Brewing Co. (201 41st St. S, Birmingham 35222)
Cahaba Brewing Co. (4500 5th Ave. S, Birmingham 35222)
Ghost Train Brewing Co. (2616 3rd Ave. S, Birmingham 35233)
Good People Brewing Co. (114 14th St. S, Birmingham 35233)
Interstellar Ginger Beer & Exploration Co. (260A Regency Park Dr., Alabaster 35007)
Red Hills Brewing Co. (2823 Central Ave., Birmingham 35209)
Slag Heap Brewing Co. (227 Main St., Trussville 35173)
TrimTab Brewing Co. (2721 5th Ave. S, Birmingham 35233)

Alabama Breweries
Back Forty Beer Co. (Gadsden)
Black Warrior Brewing Co. (Tuscaloosa)
Blue Pants Brewery (Madison)
Fairhope Brewing Co. (Fairhope)
Goat Island Brewing (Cullman)
InnerSpace Brewing Co. (Huntsville)
Rocket Republic Co. (Madison)
Singin’ River Brewing Co. (Florence)
Straight to Ale Brewing (Huntsville)
Yellowhammer Brewing (Huntsville)

Southern Regional Breweries
Alltech Lexington Brewing & Distilling Co. (Lexington, Ky.)
Blackberry Farm Brewery (Walland, Tenn.)
Catawba Brewing Co. (Morganton, N.C.)
Diamond Bear Brewing Co. (North Little Rock, Ark.)
Chandeleur Island Brewing Co. (Gulfport, Miss.)
Cigar City Brewing Co. (Tampa, Fla.)
Fat Bottom Brewing Co. (Nashville, Tenn.)
Fullsteam Brewery (Durham, N.C.)
Garr’s Beer Co. (Gypsy brewery based in Franklin, Tenn.)
Goodwood Brewing Co. (Louisville, Ky.)
Grayton Beer Co. (Santa Rosa Beach, Fla.)
Lonerider Brewing Co. (Raleigh, N.C.)
Lucky Town Brewing Co. (Jackson, Miss.)
Mill Creek Brewing Co. (Nolensville, Tenn.)
Monday Night Brewing (Atlanta, Ga.)
Orange Blossom Brewing Co. (Orlando, Fla.)
Orpheus Brewing (Atlanta, Ga.)
Red Hare Brewing Co. (Marietta, Ga.)
Second Self Beer Co. (Atlanta, Ga.)
Southern Prohibition Brewing (Hattiesburg, Miss.)
SweetWater Brewing Co. (Atlanta, Ga.)
Tennessee Brew Works (Nashville, Tenn.)
Terrapin Beer Co. (Athens, Ga.)
Westbrook Brewing Co. (Mt. Pleasant, S.C.)

National/International Breweries
Anchor Brewing Co. (San Francisco, Calif.)
Anderson Valley Brewing Co. (Boonville, Calif.)
Argus Brewery (Chicago, Ill.)
Artisanal Imports (Austin, Texas)
Bell’s Brewery (Comstock, Mich.)
Boston Beer Co. (Boston, Mass.)
Boulevard Brewing Co. (Kansas City, Mo.)
Chilero Beer (Guatemala City, Guatemala)
Crazy Mountain Brewing Co. (Edwards, Colo.)
Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project (Denver, Colo.)
Dogfish Head Brewery (Milton, Del.)
Einstök Beer (Akureyri, Iceland)
Evil Twin Brewing (Brooklyn, N.Y.)
Guinness (Dublin, Ireland)
Harpoon Brewery (Boston, Mass.)
James Page Brewing Co. (Stevens Point, Wis.)
Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales (Dexter, Mich.)
Krebs Brewing Co. (Krebs, Okla.)
Lagunitas Brewing Co. (Petaluma, Calif.)
Left Hand Brewing Co. (Longmont, Colo.)
Mark Twain Brewing Co. (Hannibal, Mo.)
Moody Tongue Brewing Co. (Chicago, Ill.)
New Belgium Brewing Co. (Fort Collins, Colo.)
New Holland Brewing Co. (Holland, Mich.)
Oskar Blues Brewery (Longmont, Colo.)
Samuel Smith, The Old Brewery (Tadcaster, England)
Sixpoint Brewery (Brooklyn, N.Y.)
Smuttynose Brewing Co. (Hampton, N.H.)
Southern Tier Brewing Co. (Lakewood, N.Y.)
Stillwater Artisanal Ales (Baltimore, Md.)
Stone Brewing (Escondido, Calif.)
Traveler Beer Co. (Burlington, Vt.)
Uinta Brewing Co. (Salt Lake City, Utah)
Unibroue (Chambly, Quebec)
Victory Brewing Co. (Downington, Pa.)
Wyndride Farm (Dallastown, Pa.)

Cideries and Meaderies
Ace Premium Craft Cider (Sebastopol, Calif.)
Ciderboys Hard Cider (Stevens Point, Wis.)
Original Sin Cider (New York, N.Y.)
Woodchuck Hard Ciders (Middlebury, Vt.)
Wyndridge Farm (Dallastown, Pa.)

THE RECOMMENDATIONS
I have not seen a full beer list yet, so instead of recommending specific beers I’m going to focus on the breweries you should check out at the festival.  Here are the breweries I’m excited to see at the festival…

Magic City Recommendations
Some of the biggest producers in Alabama are in the Birmingham area, which means most people have tried their beers.  So instead of focusing on the big boys like Good People Brewing Co. or TrimTab Brewing Co., which both make beers I like, I want to suggest that you check out Interstellar Ginger Beer & Exploration Co., which is located in the suburb of Alabaster.  Interstellar brews alcoholic ginger beers, which most people only use to make a Moscow mule cocktail, but it is something unique and worth trying because it’s unlike almost every other beer at the festival.  The other brewery people should check out is Slag Heap Brewing Co., which is located in Trussville.  Slag Heap has not yet opened its taproom, and I have not seen their beer on draft around Birmingham yet.  So I’m looking forward to my first opportunity to taste their beer.

Alabama Recommendations
The list of breweries outside Birmingham participating in the festival is like a Who’s Who of Alabama breweries with statewide staples like Back Forty Beer Co., Straight to Ale Brewing, and Yellowhammer Brewing participating.  However, the brewery people should really check out is InnerSpace Brewing Co. from Huntsville.  The family-owned and operated brewery has not yet opened its taproom, but has been brewing limited batches since this summer.  Sampling their brews at the festival is a great way to decide whether to visit their taproom once it opens.

Southern Regional Recommendations
With over 20 breweries from throughout the South, it’s extremely difficult for me to narrow down the list and pick only two or three breweries.  My first step is to focus on breweries that I don’t see as much at my local stores and bars.  So I’m not going to suggest Terrapin Beer Co. or Cigar City Brewing Co., although there are beers that I really enjoy from both breweries.  Attending a beer festival should be about trying NEW beers, so you should check out Diamond Beer Brewing Co. from North Little Rock, Ark.  I have visited their taproom, but did not know until seeing the brewery list that they were distributing their beers in Alabama.  So I expect most festival goers have not tried their beer yet.  Another brewery that I have visited, but didn’t know was distributing beers in Alabama is Fat Bottom Brewing Co. from Nashville, Tenn.  I’ve been to the original and the current brewery taproom in Nashville, and have enjoyed their beers immensely.

National/International Recommendations
I expect most well-informed craft beer drinkers will recognize the big name breweries at the festival like Lagunitas Brewing Co. and Boston Beer Co., who brews the Samuel Adams line.  So instead of stating the obvious, I’m going to suggest you check out Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project from Denver, Colo., which brews some amazing sour beers.  If you are just starting to enjoy sour beers, then you definitely need to sample Crooked Stave and expand your horizons.  Another brewery with a great reputation for making sour ales is Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales from Dexter, Mich.  They recently started distributing in the state, and I don’t see their beers on too many shelves.  So it’s well worth sampling their wares at the festival, and asking your local store or bar to carry their products if you like what you drank.

There are five international breweries, and I am certain that everyone recognized the Guinness brand.  The brand you may not recognize is Unibroue, which is a Canadian brewery known for brewing delicious Belgian-style ales.  Although I do enjoy a delicious Guinness stout, if you only try beers from one international brewery at the festival it should be Unibroue.

Cideries and Meaderies
Like last year, the Birmingham Winter Beer Fest will have a dedicated “Cider Garden.”  I’m not a huge cider drinker, but have sampled a few over the years and notice their packaging when I’m at the store.  So I expect most people know about Woodchuck Hard Ciders, but you may not see as much from Wyndridge Farm, which is based in Dallastown, Pa.  I’ve had a few ciders from Wyndridge Farm, and they offer something for just about every palate.  The other cidery I’m excited to try is Original Sin Cider from New York City.  I have seen their posters, but not yet sampled their ciders.

CHEERS Y’ALL
Now all that is left is to arrive at the BJCC early enough not to get stuck outdoors for too long waiting to get inside and start sampling beers.  I try to arrive about 15 minutes before the doors open because I find that gets me in the door pretty quickly without standing around for too long.  Last year, workers checked IDs and handed out bracelets while people waited in line.  So it was a pretty smooth process to enter the BJCC East Exhibit Hall for the festival.  There should be plenty of beer available, so pace yourself and enjoy the beer you’re sampling.  It’s also important o wash out your sampling mug after each taste because you don’t want flavors mixing.

Last, but not least, record your favorite brews.  My preferred method is using Untappd, which is a free app for your phone.  It allows users to track the beers they have drank, rate them, earn badges, and most importantly interact with their friends and other craft beer drinkers.  If you’ve already downloaded it, you’re ahead of the game.  If you haven’t downloaded it yet, you should do that before going to the festival and feel free to send me a friend request because I’ll be recording and commenting on the beers I’m sampling at the 2018 Birmingham Winter Beer Festival.

A pint at Below the Radar Brewhouse in Huntsville, Ala.

There are a lot of great places to find craft beer in Downtown Huntsville, but one of the first places to open its door was Below the Radar Brewhouse.  Unlike many other breweries in town, Below the Radar (BTR) opened as a brewpub.  So the space is quite different from a standard brewery, and the view of BTR from the street is quite different.

The main entrance to the brewhouse.

When you walk in the door you are greeted at the hostess’s counter, but then immediately see the bar and a sizable seating area with high-top tables.

An overview of the bar.

Having been to Below the Radar a few times before, Katie and I usually sit at the bar.  However, on our most recent visit we met up with one of her graduate school classmates and were showing her around the craft beer scene in Huntsville.  So instead of immediately grabbing a pair of seats at the bar, we were escorted to a back room and sat at a table.  Whether you sit at the bar or in the front seating area or end up at a table farther back in the brewpub, you will see the brewing equipment through glass.

A view from the main dining room to the brewing area.

It was interesting being seated at a table for the first time because I hadn’t realized that BTR had such a large space.  Walking through to a dining room in the back also showed me just how many people were dining at the brewpub on an early Saturday afternoon.  As we took our seats and perused the beer menu, I took a moment to capture the scene of our dining room.

An overview of the back room at the brewhouse.

As the shadows clearly show there is a LOT of natural light in that back room, which was quite enjoyable for our visit.

As a brewpub, BTR brews and serves its own beer, but also serves beers from a variety of other breweries.  Some of the breweries are from Huntsville, but other breweries may be from Birmingham, elsewhere in the South, and sometimes just big national or international brands.  So regardless of your beer preferences, visitors should find something they enjoy.

Although I could have ordered any beer on the menu, I opted to stay local and order something from Below the Radar on this visit.  As it was early in the day, I opted for Heavy Lift, which is BTR’s hefeweizen.  It is served in a traditional wheat beer glass, and is brewed close to style with hints of bananas and cloves.  It is only 5.6% ABV, which makes it a great beer for all seasons.  Although I only had one beer on this day, I’ve visited BTR a handle of other times and have found that there is always a variety of their own beers on draft.  For example, I’ve previously drank the Oak-Aged Ares Amber (a barrel-aged amber), Edison Light (a pilsner), Gravel Road (a cream ale), and Firefox Pale Ale (a traditional American pale ale) on previous visits.

A big advantage of being a brewpub instead of a brewery is that Below the Radar also serves other alcoholic drinks, so visitors can order from a full bar and on the weekends take advantage of mimosas and bloody Mary specials.  Naturally, a brewpub also offers food.  I did not eat there on this visit, but have eaten there previously and enjoyed the very extensive and varied menu.

So whether you’re visiting from out of town or a local, Below the Radar offers a lot of options.  You have a wide variety of seating options whether you want to sit at the bar, a table, or a high-top.  There are alcoholic drinks for your friends who don’t drink craft beer.  There is food for everybody’s taste buds.  Perhaps most importantly there is on-site brewed beer for the craft beer lovers.

Recapping the 2018 Von Brewski Festival

Over the past two years I have been to Huntsville five times with my wife to enjoy the city’s craft beer scene.  During my trips to Huntsville, we’ve visited every brewery and a variety of craft beer stores and restaurants.  However, last weekend Katie and I visited the Rocket City to attend the Second Annual Von Brewski Beer Festival at the Von Braun Center, which is the first time we’ve attended this event.  In advance of my trip, I previewed the breweries on tap at the beer festival and the setup of the event (read it here).  So instead of rehashing the breweries at the event, I’m going to focus on my experience at the festival and will touch on some of the beers I sampled.

Katie and I arrived at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Huntsville Hotel & Spa, which in partnership with the Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Von Braun Center, hosted us for the weekend.  The room was the standard room you expect to find at an Embassy Suites by Hilton hotel with a bedroom and separate living space that has a pull-out sofa.  You can see some of the pictures of the room and awesome welcome package we received on my Twitter and Instagram accounts (and below).

Arriving on the night before the beer festival allowed us to visit some of our usual spots in town.  We had dinner at Straight to Ale Brewing at Campus 805, and stopped at Liquor Express and Craft Beer Store for the kickoff event to Huntsville Beer Week.  Fast forwarding to the next afternoon following a delicious lunch at Bandito Burrito, we walked across from the Embassy Suites to the Von Braun Center using the second-floor skywalk.

Von Brewski Beer Festival is a bit different from other beer festivals I have attended because the doors open thirty minutes before volunteers are allowed to start pouring beer.  In most cases the doors open at people are immediately allowed to start drinking beer.  It was really different experience for Katie and I, but one that we both enjoyed because we didn’t have to wait in a long line or lose time figuring out where each brewery was located.  Instead, we casually strolled into the South Hall of the Von Braun Center around 1:45 p.m. and got to survey where each brewery was setup and decide how we wanted to proceed.

Another difference was that instead of charging for pretzel necklaces like many festivals do, at Von Brewski you get to build your own to wear or you can scoop some into a bowl and take that with you.

The beer festival is inside the convention center, so there is a concession stand serving food at the event.  Additionally, there are vendors selling goods and a full bar for attendees who don’t drink craft beer.  Von Brewski also provides live music.  45 Surprise played at this year’s event with a mix of country music and a little bit of bluegrass.

One of the best parts about the setup at Von Brewski is that each brewery has a banner hanging above its location.  So if you’re searching for a specific brewer you can easily find it.  Additionally, the breweries are relatively organized by geography.  You know I loved that!  The Huntsville are breweries were along the back wall, so you visitors could easily sample every beer from the city’s nine breweries.  The Birmingham breweries were a farther down the back wall with a pair on the left side of the hall.  The two international breweries at the festival, Chilero and Einstök, were right next to each other.  There was also a dedicated and label area for ciders and meads.

The other beer festivals I have attended produce a beer list, but it’s usually a PDF you have to print out on your own or even worse is in HTML on a website.  Von Brewski does the nicest thing I’ve seen at a beer festival, which is to provide a printed pamphlet that allows attendees to rate the beers they drank at the event.

The beer guide allows festival goers to mark how much they loved each beer.

So speaking of beers, what did I think of the brews I sampled?  If you’re an Untappd user, you saw my timeline blow up last Saturday afternoon.  You may have also seen my Twitter timeline explode, too.  I won’t recap every beer I sampled because I use Untappd to do that, instead I’m going to highlight my five favorite beers from the festival.

  • Rocket Republic Cosmic Cookie Oatmeal Brown Ale
  • Straight to Ale Bourbon Barrel-Aged Double Oatmeal Stout
  • TrimTab Language of Thunder
  • TrimTab Cherry Apricot Berliner Weisse
  • Yellowhammer Los Robles Coffee Imperial Stout

I rated all five beers a 4.25 out of 5 on Untappd, so I can objectively say that they are all equally great beers.  However, they are also five very different beers.  Among the quintet there are three stouts, a Berliner Weisse, and a brown ale.

Rocket Republic Brewing Co.’s Cosmic Cookie is middle of the road on alcohol, checking in at 5.8% ABV.  It has an outstanding spice blend and tastes like a slightly alcoholic oatmeal cookie.  It’s a very non-traditional brown ale, but a great illustration that craft breweries can make beer that doesn’t have the typical bitter taste.  I wouldn’t start a non-craft beer drinker off with this brew, but for people who espouse that they don’t like beer it might be a great starter brew.

Straight to Ale’s Bourbon Barrel-Aged Double Oatmeal Stout is a boozier beer, as you’d imagine it would be from the barrel-aging process, and checks in at 10.0% ABV.  As Matt Cooper from STA explained to me, it is designed to be a beer that is in between their Velvet Evil and Stout at the Devil.  I enjoy both those beers, but the biggest difference is that this brew sneaks up on you with the booziness.  I didn’t at first notice the bourbon, but it hit my taste buds about middle of the way through my sample.

TrimTab Brewing Co.’s Language of Thunder and Cherry Apricot Berliner Weisse are two very different beers, which is a great illustration of the skills of the brewers.  Language of Thunder is a barrel-aged Russian Imperial Stout that checks in at 9.7% ABV.  It is a little boozy, but very smooth.  In contrast, Cherry Apricot Berliner Weisse checks in at 5.0% ABV.  It’s less sour than your typical Berliner Weisse that can be mouth-puckering for some people.  According to Luke, the head brewer at TrimTab, they worked to cut down on the acid levels to reduce the tartness of the beer.

Yellowhammer Brewing’s Los Robles Coffee Imperial Stout checks in at 10.0% ABV, and was one of the most unique beers at the festival.  It is an imperial stout steeped on coffee from Los Robles Coffee Project, which is a non-profit organization that partners with coffee growers in Los Robles, Nicaragua, to export coffee to the United States and use the profits to invest a community health program called Nicaragua Community Health Connection (NCHC).  It tasted like most coffee imperial stouts except that there was a little added heat and spice from some peppers.  I couldn’t find out what specific peppers were utilized in the brew, but the spiciness made it different enough from other coffee imperial stouts.

Besides my favorite beers, people attending the festival got to vote for their favorite brewery.  So with about fifteen minutes remaining in the festival, the four finalists were called to the stage.  The finalists were Alltech Lexington Brewing & Distilling Co., Blake’s Hard Cider Co., Green Bus Brewing, and Rocket Republic Brewing Co.  It was really cool seeing the variety of breweries people liked because the finalists included two from the Huntsville area, a cidery, and an out-of-state brewery known for bourbon-barrel-aged beers.  The winner of the People’s Choice Award was …

… Rocket Republic Brewing Company, which is located in the Huntsville suburb of Madison.

Following the announcement of the People’s Choice winner, I visited the Rocket Republic booth and ordered another beer from them because I felt like it was an appropriate way to cap my time at the festival.  To conclude the Von Brewski Beer Festival I ordered Dark Matter.

Reflecting on the festival it was a great time, but then again I find most beer festivals enjoyable.  There are a lot of things that made the 2018 Von Brewski Beer Festival particularly enjoyable.  Among the things that made the festival so enjoyable was staying at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Huntsville Hotel & Spa because Katie and I were able to walk to the Von Braun Center and not have to deal with parking or driving after the event or the weather.  I especially enjoyed being able to enter the VBC South Hall before the event started to get a feel for the setup.  The breweries at the event were great because all nine operating breweries in the Huntsville area participated along with some of the bigger brands in the state.  Additionally, a lot of regional and national breweries were pouring beers at the festival, too.

The beers were great, too.  Not just because I got to sample a lot of beers, but because it was a great blend of breweries pouring their year-round staples and some unique one-off beers.  Naturally there was an emphasis on darker, heavier beers that you tend to be more popular during winter, but there were also lighter brews to suit the tastes of just about everybody in attendance.

I haven’t really started planning my travels for 2019, but I expect to put the Third Annual Von Brewski Beer Festival on my schedule and make another visit to the Rocket City.  Prost y’all!

Disclosure: My admission to the 2018 Von Brewski Beer Festival and two-night hotel stay at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Huntsville Hotel & Spa were provided by the Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau.  Be assured that all words and opinions contained here, are 100% my own.

An ideal night out during Tuscaloosa’s D.A.T.E. Week

There are a lot of days associated with romance throughout the year.  In the Midwest, people celebrate Sweetest Day, which is a fall version of Valentine’s Day.  July 6 is International Kissing Day.  In fact, there are a number of news stories dedicated to lists of romantic days besides Valentine’s Day.

In honor of celebrating love throughout the year, Tuscaloosa is celebrating a week between the winter holidays and Valentine’s Day as D.A.T.E. Week (January 22-26).  The acronym stands for diamonds, arrangements, taste, and entertainment.  Local merchants are offering a variety of discounts on jewelry, flowers, dining, and entertainment.  See the full list of discounts and activities here.

For couples with kids, there are two options for babysitting if you don’t already have a reliable babysitter.  Wyndy is a mobile app that offers babysitting services by local college students.  You can get $10 off the night’s service by forwarding your receipt to support@wyndy.com.  If you prefer a more traditional option, the YMCA of Tuscaloosa is hosting Kid’s Night Out on Monday through Thursday from 5 to 8 p.m., and on Friday from 5 to 9 p.m.

Every couple has a different idea of an ideal date, but here is my ideal date that I’ll be treating my wife Katie to this week.

DIAMONDS AREN’T ALWAYS A GIRL’S BEST FRIEND
Many people appreciate and enjoy jewelry, especially diamonds.  Hudson-Poole Fine Jewelers is offering a 10 percent discount for purchases this week, but I will not be taking advantage of the discount because my wife is a minimalist when it comes to jewelry.  However, I always a supporter of expressing love to your partner with gifts at non-traditional times when she is not expecting a gift.  So if your wife enjoys jewelry this is a great time to surprise her with an unexpected gift just because you love her.

FRAGRANT FLOWERS
One of the gifts I enjoy giving my wife are flowers because they are simple and it’s always a gesture she appreciates.  Pat’s Florists & Gourmet Baskets is offering a 15 percent discount this week and Tuscaloosa Flower Shoppe has a 20 percent discount.  So I will be placing an order on a bouquet that I’ll pick up on the way home that evening.

HAPPY HOUR DRINKS
There are a LOT of great places in Tuscaloosa to get drinks before dinner, and I could probably write an entire post about all the amazing places in town.  However, one of our favorite places to enjoy drinks is Alcove International Tavern because they have a great craft beer selection, but also serve wine and have a full bar for some one-of-a-kind cocktails.  During D.A.T.E. Week, the Alcove will be offering a $6 Aperol Spritz in addition to its usual happy hour specials.

THE MAIN COURSE
With so many great restaurants participating in D.A.T.E. Week, people could go out each night and experience a different food style every night out.  For Katie and I, we’ll wait to decide in the moment, but I expect we will end up dining at either The Avenue Pub, which has some outstanding American fare, or Chuck’s Fish, which has some of my favorite sushi in town and some excellent fresh fish.  For this special event, The Avenue Pub is offering a special menu for the week that customers must ask about at the restaurant while Chuck’s Fish is giving customers 25 percent off an appetizer.

HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD
While many people rushed out on opening weekend to see “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” Katie and I have not yet seen the film.  So we’ll try to to see one of the later showings at the Cobb Theatres/Hollywood 16 Theatre & IMAX before wrapping up our evening with…

A NIGHTCAP
It may be easiest to have dessert immediately following dinner, but I plan to take Katie to O’Henry’s Coffee to enjoy their special $2 Mexican hot chocolate.  Mexican hot chocolate usually includes cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg, and a bit of cayenne pepper.  The cayenne may be too spicy for some people, but there are other coffee options available at Monarch Espresso Bar and UPerk.

THE RECAP
We’ll be starting the night out with happy hour drinks before getting dinner, watching a movie, and then concluding the date with a delectable nightcap.  Whether you follow my plan or make your own, I hope you get out and show your spouse a special night during D.A.T.E. Week in Tuscaloosa.  I’ll be sharing our evening out on Instagram later this week.

A pint at Yellowhammer Brewing in Huntsville, Ala.

When work on Campus 805 started, Yellowhammer Brewing was the first tenant to break ground and ultimately the first to open its doors.  The opening is notable for many reasons.

The opening meant that the redevelopment of the 13-acre Stone Middle School property into Campus 805 was becoming a reality.  It also meant that Yellowhammer, which was started by a quartet of guys in 2010, had become one of the premier breweries in Huntsville, and was part of a major attraction for craft beer lovers throughout the state of Alabama and even surrounding states.

Yellowhammer occupies a new building on the Campus 805 landscape with plenty of parking surrounding it.  So visitors may get slightly different views of the property when walking to the entrance.  However, it is impossible to miss the iconic imagery of Alabama’s state bird, the yellowhammer (actually called the northern flicker; here’s a more detailed explanation).

Main entrance to the brewery.

Walking down the hallway to the taproom is a piece of art that connects the past of Stone Middle School to the present of Yellowhammer Brewing.

Artwork dedicated to Campus 805 as you enter the taproom.

As to be expected, the taproom is quite expansive.  It’s so large that I struggled to capture it in one shot.  It was easier to capture a shot of the bar before turning my focus on the width of the space.

Behind the bar is a window into the brewing area.  So while the taproom separates the two areas of the brewery, visitors can at least see the fermentation tanks and other equipment.

A view of the taps and view into the brewery itself.

Yes, that is a a crowler machine on the counter behind the bar itself.  My wife Katie and I did not purchase any beer to take home with us, but I am always excited when i see a crowler machine at a brewery.  They are much more useful than using the traditional glass growler to take beer home.  I prefer crowlers because I don’t have to store anything after finishing the beer, I can recycle the aluminum can from the typical 32-oz. crowler and not worry about the growing collection of growlers cluttering the beer room.

We visited Yellowhammer in the early afternoon just after lunch, so we did not take advantage of the food available at Earth and Stone Wood Fired Pizza.  In addition to pizza they also serve calzones, salads, some small-plate items like meatballs, and “adult” ice cream like bourbon butter pecan.

An overview of Earth and Stone Fired Pizza, which is connected to the brewery.

So without the need to eat, although I’ve seen the lines for pizza so I know it’s good food, Katie and I ordered a flight of beers.

A flight of beers.

Yellowhammer Brewing is available throughout Alabama, so I’ve had many of the brewery’s beers on multiple occasions.  So choosing the flight was about sampling beers only available at the taproom, brews we had not seen in our hometown of Tuscaloosa, or just beers we hadn’t tried before.  Despite Yellowhammer’s extensive beer list, it was relatively easy for Katie and I to build a flight together.

We chose…
Tobacco Road, which is an imperial amber ale.
Imperial Rebellion, which is a variant of their year-round Rebellion.
Nussknacker, which is a holiday bock.
Berliner Weisse, which is a tart German-style ale.
7th Anniversary, which is a Belgian tripel.
Bride of Frankenhammer, which is a Belgian strong ale aged in red wine barrels on cherries.

We also had two additional tasters because there were more beers than we wanted to sample that didn’t fit onto the flight of six.  So we ordered Belgian Pear Pale Ale, which is a Belgian pale with pears, and New England, which is a New England-style India Pale Ale.

Out of the eight beers I sampled, the beers I rated the best on Untappd were Nussknacker and 7th Anniversary.  Nussknacker is a good malty winter beer with just the right amount of spices that allow it to pleasantly warm you and make you think about your favorite holiday memories.  7th Anniversary is a potent Belgian tripel that celebrates the brewery’s seven years of operation.  It is boozy, but not overpowering and very smooth for a beer checking in at 13.8% ABV.

After finishing our beers, I explored the taproom a bit more and found some maps that were very interesting.  I liked them partially because I’m a geographer, and I’ve always loved maps, but also because of what information the maps contained.

As visitors head toward the back door to leave the brewery, you will see two large wooden-mounted maps with stickers on them.  One shows Alabama and its 67 counties with stickers brought by visitors showing the approximate location of each brewery in the state, and in some cases the stickers are actually from craft beer bars.  Next to the Alabama map is a map of the United States with stickers from breweries throughout the country.  These maps are two of the cooler customer-interactive pieces I’ve ever seen at a brewery.

The third map is in the taproom mounted on a wall.  The map shows the 10th Prohibition District and varying levels of public sentiment for “illicit distilling and unlawful selling, transporting, and possession” or alcohol.  The map dates to 1930, which made it exciting to see it preserved in a brewery.

The weirdest feature is something not everybody gets to see unless you wander into the men’s bathroom…

A view of the keg urinals in the bathroom.

In typical craft brewery style, Yellowhammer utilized a pair of old kegs for urinals in the men’s restroom.

When I visited the brewery was undergoing major expansion in an effort to double its overall space, partially to brew more beer and partially to add more entertainment space.  I didn’t tour the brewing side, but did get to see some of the progress made with the outdoor space.

Overview of the patio.

The patio was empty when I visited because it was early on a Friday afternoon, but the stage in the back allows a variety of entertainers to pack in the crowds.

Although I had visited Yellowhammer Brewing, it was a great time and always enjoyable seeing the new small-batch beers on draft.  I can’t wait to see what the new entertainment space looks like, especially in the spring when I can sit on the patio sipping a Belgian White while listening to some live music.

Previewing the 2018 Von Brewski Festival

Photo courtesy of Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau. Graphic by Steven Ericson.

When people think of beer festivals, they often think of big events like Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany, or the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colo., or maybe even The Festival, which is hosted by Shelton Brothers, Inc.  However, everywhere across the globe there are smaller scale, much more affordable beer festivals happening nearly every month.

This coming weekend, Huntsville hosts the Second Annual Von Brewski Beer Festival at the Von Braun Center – South Hall.  Conveniently located in downtown Huntsville, the Von Braun Center is easily accessible to those living in and around Huntsville, but also great for visitors because there are a handful of great hotels (like my host hotel for the weekend, the fabulous Embassy Suites by Hilton Huntsville Hotel & Spa) within walking distance of the VBC.

The event helps kickoff Huntsville Beer Week that is organized by the Huntsville chapter of Free the Hops, which is a grassroots organization that advocates for the modernization of beer laws in Alabama.  The organization has been critical to a lot of Alabama beer law changes within the past five-plus years, most notably the law that now allows breweries to sell to-go beer to consumers.

For those unfamiliar with the craft beer scene in Alabama, the number one city to visit is Huntsville.  The Rocket City currently boasts nine operating breweries in the city and metropolitan area with a tenth on the verge of opening in the next few months.  By comparison, Birmingham has only seven breweries currently operating in its metro area.  Some beers from the Huntsville breweries do not get distributed south of Birmingham or even outside of North Alabama, so beer festivals are the best way to sample these brews.

THE DETAILS
Who: You and your craft beer-loving friends
What: The Von Brewski Beer Festival
Where: Von Braun Center’s South Hall (700 Monroe St., Huntsville, AL 35801)
When: Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018; 2 to 6 p.m.
Why: To sample new beers and help kick off Huntsville Beer Week
How: Tickets are $35 in advance, and $40 at the door.  Non-sampling tickets are $15.  Tickets can be bought in person at the VBC box office or online from Ticketmaster.

There is also food for purchase at the event, a fully stocked bar, and musical entertainment from 45 Surprise.  According to the folks at the VBC, there will be the standard food items available for purchase like soft pretzels (always good for absorbing the alcohol), hot dogs, cheeseburgers, chicken sandwiches, bratwursts, and more for you to purchase.

THE SETUP
If you’ve never attended a beer festival it may seem like a daunting task figuring out where to go, what to drink, and how to maximize your time.  Although I have yet to attend Von Brewski, most beer festivals have booths dedicated to specific breweries where you will only be able to sample beers from that company.  Sometimes, booths are dedicated to certain distributors, so you may find a three or four beers from different breweries at one spot.

With four hours and just over 50 breweries in attendance, it can be a difficult to figure out how to maximize your time.  My strategy with indoors festivals is to start in one direction and keep moving that way, so whether you start left or right just keep going in a circle visiting the different booths.  If there is a long line at one booth, then hit the next one and come immediately back to the first booth.  In many cases you’ll have the time to finish your sample and almost immediately get a pour at the first booth.

Beer festivals are THE best opportunity to sample beers you may not normally buy, so DO it!  If you’re not a typically a fan of IPAs or ambers or wits or whatever style, but hear about one and want to sample it go ahead and do it.  You may like it, so just do it.  If you don’t like it, don’t worry about finishing the sample.  Just politely dump it out, and if someone asks whether you like it politely inform them that it wasn’t for you.  I’ve seen it many times where people hesitate trying a certain style because they know they don’t like the flavors typically found in that style, but you’re not paying for each sample.  You paid one price for admission, so try as many beers as you want.

THE BREWERIES
With any beer festival, it is difficult to decide what beers to try.  It can be attractive to sample everything, but that’s problematic because of the time it takes to walk around, the time it takes waiting in line, and the time it takes to drink the samples.  I recommend looking through the list of participating breweries to see what you usually find in the stores or your local craft beer bar.  If you live in Huntsville, and can regularly get Straight to Ale you may want to skip them unless they have something that is a one-off that you don’t usually see.  However, if you’re visiting from out-of-state and do not get Straight to Ale in your hometown then you definitely want to stop at their booth.

In an effort to help you decide what breweries to sample, I’ve broken the list of participating breweries into four categories: Huntsville-area breweries, Alabama breweries, regional Southern breweries, and national/international breweries (last updated on Jan. 19, 2018 at 12 p.m. CT).  So far, 62 breweries have been announced.

Rocket City Breweries
Below the Radar Brewhouse (220 Holmes Ave. NE, Huntsville 35801)
Blue Pants Brewery (500 Lanier Rd., Madison 35758)
Green Bus Brewing (206 Eustis Ave. SE, Huntsville 35801)
Mad Malts Brewing Co. (109 Maple Ave. NW, Huntsville 35801)
Old Black Bear Brewing Co. (208 Main St., Madison 35758)
Rocket Republic Brewing (289 Production Ave., Madison 35758)
Salty Nut Brewery (2406 Clinton Ave. W, Huntsville 35801)
Straight to Ale Brewing (2610 Clinton Ave. W, Huntsville 35801)
Yellowhammer Brewing (2600 Clinton Ave. W, Huntsville 35801)

Alabama Breweries
Avondale Brewing Co. (Birmingham)
Back Forty Beer Co. (Gadsden)
Cahaba Brewing Co. (Birmingham)
Fairhope Brewing Co. (Fairhope)
Goat Island Brewing (Cullman)
Good People Brewing Co. (Birmingham)
Main Channel Brewing Co. (Guntersville)
Red Clay Brewing Co. (Opelika)
Singin’ River Brewing Co. (Florence)
TrimTab Brewing Co. (Birmingham)

Southern Regional Breweries
Catawba Brewing Co. (Asheville, N.C.)
Cigar City Brewing (Tampa, Fla.)
Garr’s Beer Co. (Gypsy brewery based in Franklin, Tenn.)
Goodwood Brewing (Louisville, Ky.)
Lexington Brewing Co. (Lexington, Ky.)
Lonerider Brewing Co. (Raleigh, N.C.)
Lucky Town Brewing Co. (Jackson, Miss.)
Mill Creek Brewing Co. (Nolensville, Tenn.)
Ole Shed Brewing Co. (Tullahoma, Tenn.)
Second Self Beer Co. (Atlanta, Ga.)
Starr Hill Brewery (Crozet, Va.)
SweetWater Brewing Co. (Atlanta, Ga.)
Tennessee Brew Works (Nashville, Tenn.)
Terrapin Beer Co. (Athens, Ga.)
Wiseacre Brewing Co. (Memphis, Tenn.)

National/International Breweries
10 Barrel Brewing Co. (Bend, Ore.)
Ace Premium Craft Cider (Sebastopol, Calif.)
Ballast Point Brewing Co. (San Diego, Calif.)
Bell’s Brewery (Comstock, Mich.)
Blake’s Hard Cider Co. (Armada, Mich.)
Blue Point Brewery (Patchogue, N.Y.)
Boulevard Brewing Co. (Kansas City, Mo.)
Boston Beer Co. (Boston, Mass.)
Cedar Creek Brewery (Seven Points, Texas)
Chilero Beer (Guatemala City, Guatemala)
Ciderboys Hard Ciders (Stevens Point, Wis.)
Crazy Mountain Brewing Co. (Avon, Colo.)
Crown Valley Brewing (Ste. Genevieve, Mo.)
Dogfish Head Brewery (Milton, Del.)
Einstök Beer (Akureyri, Iceland)
Elysian Brewing CO. (Seattle, Wash.)
Founders Brewing Co. (Grand Rapids, Mich.)
Golden Road Brewing (Los Angeles, Calif.)
Goose Island Beer Co. (Chicago, Ill.)
Knee Deep Brewing Co. (Auburn, Calif.)
Krebs Brewing Co. (Krebs, Okla.)
Moody Tongue Brewing Co. (Chicago, Ill.)
New Belgium Brewing Co. (Ft. Collins, Colo.)
New Holland Brewing Co. (Holland, Mich.)
Oskar Blues Brewery (Longmont, Colo.)
Redstone Meadery (Boulder, Colo.)
Sonoma Cider (Healdsburg, Calif).
Southern Tier Brewing Co. (Lakewood, N.Y.)
Wyndridge Farm (Dallastown, Pa.)

THE RECOMMENDATIONS
I don’t pretend to be an authority on what beers every person should drink because we all have different tastes.  The beers I drink also change through the seasons, as I shift to darker, heavier brews during the winter and lighter, fruitier options during the spring and summer.  However, I will always drink a beer that someone tells me is delicious regardless of the season.  The complete beer list is available, but because people have different tastes I’m not going to recommend specific beers and instead focus on the breweries.

Rocket City Recommendations
I really like, no love, the breweries in Huntsville.  So it’s difficult for me to pick one or two without feeling like I am slighting the others.  However, the one “must-try” brewery is Green Bus Brewing because it is a nanobrewery that does not distribute its beer.  So the only way to sample what they brew is to buy it at the brewery.  Unless you’re going to the brewery this weekend, you must try some of their beer at the festival.  My other pick is Blue Pants Brewery because they make some delicious variants based off their Pinstripe Stout.  I guess I am recommending a specific beer here, but it is really delicious and if you’re going to a winter beer festival it is only appropriate to sample a few stouts.

Alabama Recommendations
The list of Alabama breweries outside of Huntsville participating in this year’s Von Brewski Beer Festival makes it extremely difficult to recommend one over another because with one exception they are all statewide breweries.  Additionally, they all make some very solid beers.  So based on the list, if you live outside of North Alabama I would check out Singin’ River Brewing Co. because I do not often see them south of Tuscaloosa.  Additionally, I would check out Main Channel Brewing Co. because I have yet to find them anywhere except at beer festivals in the state, which have all been in northern Alabama.  Otherwise, I’d be discriminant and see what the breweries are carrying before committing to standing in line for a sample.  If you’ve had their beers before, then skip the line and try something different elsewhere.

Southern Regional Recommendations
Like the Alabama breweries, many of the larger regional breweries are widely available throughout the state and elsewhere.  That makes sense because otherwise they wouldn’t be at a beer festival in Huntsville.  That doesn’t mean you can’t discriminate and focus on sampling new beers.  I would check out Ole Shed Brewing Co. because I have not seen their beers in Birmingham or further south.  So if you haven’t seen their beers yet, you should check them out.  Wiseacre Brewing Co. is another Tennessee brewery that recently started distributing beer in Alabama, but it is generally not available outside of northern Alabama.  My last Southern brewery recommendation is Lucky Town Brewing Co. from Jackson, Miss.  The beers they are bringing aren’t on the list, but I visited their brewery last summer and really enjoy the variety they brew.  I am a big fan of Cigar City Brewing and Terrapin Beer Co., but feel that those breweries have a large distribution footprint in the state, so unless they are pouring a beer you’ve never drank before I’d keep moving past their booths.

National/International Recommendations
There are some big name nationwide craft breweries available at the festival, so instead of stating the obvious and recommending Boulevard Brewing Co., Dogfish Head BreweryNew Holland Brewing Co., or Southern Tier Brewing Co. because those are the names most craft beer drinkers will recognize.  All three breweries have well-earned reputations, so if you like their beers visit their booths for a sample.  However, I am more intrigued and suggest you check out Crazy Mountain Brewing Co. and Knee Deep Brewing Co. because both have a fairly limited distribution in Alabama.  Both brew beers that span the spectrum of tastes, and not knowing what beers specifically will be available, I hesitate to recommend anything specific.  However, if you’re interested in trying new beers, which should be why you’re going to a craft beer festival in the first place, then I’d focus on finding this pair of breweries before falling back on the trio of old-reliable breweries.

PROST Y’ALL!
Now all that is left is to arrive early enough to the VBC so that you’re not waiting in line for very long.  I typically try to arrive about 15 minutes before the doors open because I’m willing to wait in a line, but don’t want to be waiting outdoors for an extended period of time.  The doors open at 1:30 p.m., but beers don’t start pouring until two o’clock, so nobody should be stuck waiting outdoors for very long.  There will be plenty of beers available, so remember to pace yourself so that you can actually enjoy what you’re sampling.  Be sure to wash out your sampling glass before getting a new pour because you don’t want the super hoppy IPA you just quaffed down to taint the robust coffee stout you’re about to sample.

Last, but not least be sure to check in your beers using my favorite beer app, Untappd.  It’s a free app that allows you to track the beers you drink, give them ratings, earn badges, and interact with your friends and other craft beer drinkers.  If you’re new to the app, be sure to download it before going to the festival and feel free to send me a friend request as I’ll be tracking the beers I’m sampling at the Von Brewski Beer Festival.

Disclosure: My admission to the 2018 Von Brewski Beer Festival and two-night hotel stay at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Huntsville Hotel & Spa were provided by the Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau.  Be assured that all words and opinions contained here, are 100% my own.

A pint at Mad Malts Brewing in Huntsville, Ala.

A trio with a fondness for beer and an irreverent nature for naming traditions, led Chris Bramon, Jeff Peck, and Tracy Mullins to start The Brew Stooges in 2013.  The success the trio enjoyed was short-lived after receiving a cease-and-desist order from the C3 Entertainment, which owns the rights to the Three Stooges.  However, the group kept the wacky theme alive with the re-named company: Mad Malts Brewing.

The taproom is located in the building that used to house Mullins’s former business, Complete Plumbing.  Due to its former life the building is located in an industrial area near the intersection of Oakwood Avenue and Meridian Street.  There are some houses on surrounding streets, which can make parking difficult for visitors.  The issue is so important that the brewery posts a parking notice on its website reminding people not to park in front of houses or R&R Racing.  Once visitors park, they clearly see signage for the brewery.

Main entrance to the brewery.

The taproom is truly an all-in-one space with the equipment immediately to the right once people enter the facility.  On the Friday night that I visited the brewery with my wife Katie, a band was playing immediately in front of the fermentation tanks (more on the music later).  Just past the fermentation tanks is the cooler and draft wall.

We immediately ordered a flight of beers, which spanned the spectrum from standards like a Russian imperial stout to the experimental blood orange IPA.

A labeled flight of beers.

Splitting a flight with my wife allowed me the opportunity to sample a greater variety of beers, especially ones that I would not necessarily try on my own.  The flight included a yam beer, two different flavored porters, a flavored India pale ale, a dark sour, and a Russian imperial stout.  Katie and I split a pint of the Double Rye, too.  Out of the seven beers I sampled that night, my favorite was the Russian imperial stout.  It was malty with molasses and coffee flavors, and very smooth.  Yam I Am was also very good, and I especially enjoyed that Becky added a unique touch with the brown sugar rim.  The beer itself was very solid with a wonderful fall/Thanksgiving mix of spices, but the addition of the brown-sugar made the beer-drinking experience slightly more enjoyable.

The brewery has three areas for visitors: the downstairs immediately in front of the brewing equipment, an upstairs living room that is complete with couches, and an outdoor beer garden with picnic tables and a porch swing.

Sitting downstairs, I got a great view of the band playing in front of the brewing equipment.  The downstairs features about four six-foot-long tables designed to be used communally by visitors.

A view of a band performing in front of the fermentation tanks seen from the upstairs living room.

Upstairs has a different setup and vibe.  It is truly like a living room if your living room overlooked a working brewery.  It has couches, a few smaller tables for guests, and a collection of board games.  Overall it’s a much more intimate setting than the downstairs.

An overview of the upstairs living room.

The outdoor space was unoccupied when I visited partially because of the cool, fall temperatures, and assuredly in part because of the band playing that night.  The crowd gathered downstairs was intently listening and singing along to the songs as the band played a lot of songs from the late-1970s and 1980s.  Despite the lack of customer interest in being outdoors that night, it is a great setup.

The folks at Mad Malts may not call it a beer garden, but the outdoor space is reminiscent of one.  There is a trio of picnic tables, and a big, wooden porch swing.  There are also two grills that can be used during the summer and early fall.

Whether you sit downstairs, upstairs, or outdoors you are sure to enjoy the scene at the Mad Malts Brewing taproom.  The crowd is laid-back and fun.  The staff is friendly and helpful.  And the beers are unlike something you’ll mind most anywhere else.

Revealing my 2018 ballpark resolutions

Since 2014, I have posted travel resolutions for each new year.  They typically related to traveling to see new Minor League Baseball stadiums.  As I rung in the new year, I sat down and posted my resolutions.  So here are my resolutions for the upcoming year.

My first resolution for 2018…

Over the past six years, I have managed to see all of the MiLB teams in my current home state of Alabama.  However, I have not seen them all with my now wife Katie.  Since she moved to the Yellowhammer State just over a year ago, she has stated how much she wants to see all the teams in the state.  In fact, it was a resolution I made last year, hoping to see all three teams in 2017.  We’ve seen the Birmingham Barons on multiple occasions, as Regions Field is just about an hour away from our home.  However, she wants to attend the Barons’ annual game at Rickwood Field.

So our goal for this year is to visit all three teams over Memorial Day weekend. Tentatively we’ll start our trip with a game on the Gulf Coast in Mobile, and then work our way north through Montgomery, and conclude our trip with the Rickwood Classic in Birmingham.

My second resolution for 2018…

For the past few years, I’ve been made resolutions to see all three MiLB teams in Kentucky. Specifically, I made the resolution in 2016 and 2014, and resolved to see the Lexington Legends in 2015.  I’ve fallen short each time, and so far have only seen the Bowling Green Hot Rods.  I first saw them in 2014 by myself (read about it here) and next saw them in 2016 with Katie (read about it here), and enjoyed the game from the club level.

The plan this year is to see the Legends and Bats on the way back to Cincinnati, Ohio, after the A.P. Human Geography Reading, which is the first week of June.  The game schedules line up to allow us to visit both ballparks after spending a few days in Ohio, so I’m pretty optimistic that we will get to visit these two ballparks.

My third resolution for 2018…

Last year, I learned that there was a conference/convention for people who blog about beer. It was in the fall in 2017, so I was unable to attend because of my other commitments. However, I followed closely the announcement of the dates and venue for 2018, and decided that I would attend it this year.  So while I will be going to Loudoun County, Va., primarily to network and learn more about beer blogging, I’m going to arrive a few days in advance of the Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference to visit a few MiLB teams in the area.  There are a LOT of teams within a two-hour drive or so from the conference hotel.  So I am not 100% sure what teams I will see just yet, but I felt like I should visit the Potomac Nationals because of the continuous rumors about the team moving into a yet-to-be-built stadium or potentially relocating.

My fourth resolution for 2018…

Last summer, I started a new “collection” with my wife Katie.  In an effort to keep us traveling and visiting new cities, I purchased the MLB BallPark Pass-Port.  There are a variety of books you can purchase, but I opted for the “big book” that contains a set of pages for each of the 30 Major League Baseball stadiums.  A friend I met through participating in the A.P. Human Geography Reading has been using the passport for years to track his family’s quest to visit all 30 parks, and finally last summer I decided to join the craze.  It functions like a standard international passport that is stamped each time you enter a new country.  The idea is to “stamp in” at each stadium and journal about your visit as a way to preserve your memories of visiting a new place.  There is also a book that focuses on Minor League Baseball ballparks, which I purchased for Katie and I to chronicle our visits to MiLB stadiums since getting married.  So we now have something new to do when we visit stadiums together.

My resolution about visiting a new MLB park this year is that Katie and I have planned our summer around a variety of events, and have tried to find a time to visit a new ballpark.  Unfortunately, we have not been able to figure out a time to visit a new stadium.  So I am hoping that making this resolution will set us on a path of making the time to visit a new park together in 2018.  As much as I’d like to plan a long trip around visiting a new ballpark, I will be content to visit over a weekend for the sole purpose of getting another stamp in our “big book.”

RECAP
Do you make travel resolutions for the new year?  Are they about visiting countries, states, sports venues, or something else?  I’d love to hear what others resolve to do related to travel each year.  Share in the comments, and let’s keep each other on point to fulfill our travel resolutions for 2018.