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.
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.
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.
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!