Alabama,  craft beer

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.

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.

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.

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.)

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.

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.

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