Alabama,  craft beer

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.

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.

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.

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.)

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.

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.


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