Over the past few years, I’ve become a huge fan of craft beers, especially those made and brewed in the South. At the recommendation of another Southern lifestyle writer, I spent an afternoon tasting several outstanding beers produced by a new breed of entrepreneurs in Huntsville, Alabama, also known as “Rocket City USA,” and none of them disappointed.
During my formative years in the 1970s and 80s, my family and I often visited family in nearby Decatur, Alabama. Although Huntsville was only a few miles east, we rarely if ever drove through or visited the sleepy town known for Redstone Arsenal, NASA research, and now their craft beer trail. Fast forward a few decades and Huntsville has become a thriving community that I predict will be the South’s next “hot city.”
Brandi, a relatively new Southern lifestyle blogger who writes at TheSouthernBelleBlog, was my tasting partner. Having once lived in Huntsville, Brandi not only brought her gracious Southern charm along but also her knowledge of the city’s restaurants and bars. I can’t tell you how much it helps to walk into a bar with someone who knows some of the bartenders and servers! You can check out her review here, and she does a superb job of explaining the details and tasting notes for each beer. When you turn a scientist loose on beer, then you’re certain to get a detailed breakdown of the molecules that tickle our taste buds.
Huntsville’s Craft Beer Trail
We met around noon at Below the Radar, a fitting name for this small, cozy brewery in the city’s downtown entertainment district where many locals were enjoying lunch. Mary Findlay is not only one of the bar’s manager, but she also gave us a tutorial on each of the four beers we tasted. Brandi’s favorite was a special edition Strawberry Basil-Saison, which was minty and light at 5.4 percent alcohol. I’m a fan of the hoppy taste of most IPA’s, so the Robo
Hoppened IPA topped my list. I not a fan of the grapefruit taste in this beer, something that other Huntsville brewers seem to favor, but hey, a good IPA is a good beer in my book.
Below the Radar has a Facebook page and is active on other social media platforms, but in my opinion, the lack of a full website showcasing their beers handicaps this brewery’s success.
Hardly any calories were burned when Brandi and I made a short 100-yard walk to the Old Time Beer Exchange (OTBX). I liked this bar from the moment I stepped through the door. A renovation increased the number of seats and thankfully there were plenty of places at the bar. Besides a beautiful wooden bar with high stools, no neighborhood watering hole is complete without a popular bartender, and Chase fit the bill to a tee. Heck, even my brother who I ran into later in the day knew of Chase and I get the impression Chase knows all the regulars too.
OTBX isn’t a brewery but offers an extensive lineup of regional craft beers. Not only does the bar have an updated website, but they also let you know which kegs have been recently tapped and the current level of each one. Hats off to this beautiful idea. Of the four beers we tasted, there wasn’t a single one I would push away. The first was a Pennsylvania mojito cider, Wyndridge Farm Hunt Series. Lined with hints of mint and oak chips, this cider is as close to a glass of champagne as any cider I’ve ever tasted. I would definitely recommend this drink as a refreshing, warm weather drink.
My taste for IPA’s hadn’t changed on the walk across the street so the Birmingham, AL-based brewery, Good People Snake Handler Double IPA, which happens to offer a nice kick at 10 percent alcohol, was absolutely superb. Brandi’s taste buds were drawn to the Westbrook Brewing Imperial Stout named Mexican Cake. As the name implies, it was thick and sweet.
A short ride away we found an area with a heavy concentration of local Huntsville breweries which led us to Yellowhammer Brewing. Our mid-afternoon visit found wasn’t an original idea because five or six groups were already occupying tables in the large tasting room.
At each stop we requested the bartender or manager select the beers we tasted, and it was at Yellowhammer than Ronnie brought out the brewery marketing director, Yoon, who suggested six of their best brews. The two that captured my attention was the Dark Hammer Belgian Quad, a seasonal offer, and to no one’s surprise, Groovy Don’s Groovy IPA which is available throughout the year.
By no means am I a food or beer critic, given I couldn’t find the tiniest flaws, because hey, it’s beer, so it’s good. Its obvious Yellowhammer is a progressive brewery and will set the standard for Huntsville area breweries. And don’t forget the pizza either. To soak up the nine percent beers, we ordered a white pizza that was delicious.
Brandi and I weren’t finished with our day; not by a long shot. True Southerners know how to pace themselves, and there was plenty of daylight left. Three other breweries were nearby, so we set off on foot for our next round. Neither InterSpace Brewing or the Salty Nut Brewery was open, and we didn’t want to waste the afternoon standing on the hot pavement when we could be drinking beer.
A hop and a skip away, you’ll find an old school that has been converted into the brewery known as Straight to Ale. “Southern Born. Southern Brewed,” is a large tasting bar in what once was either a school hallway or lobby dominated the entrance. Taking two seats in the middle, Brandi and I were greeted by our bartender, Roadkill. I wasn’t about to inquire about the origin of his nickname. I wanted Roadkill to remain in a jovial mood because I needed his best beer recommendations.
Summer isn’t complete without the savory, sweet taste of watermelons, and the first beer we sampled was a Watermelon Wheat Ale. It was delicious, and although I wish I had first thought of the phrase, Brandi described this beer as “summer in a can.” I couldn’t agree more. I’m not much on light ale’s but enjoying this beer on a hot and sultry summer evening is my idea of nightlife.
Can anyone guess my favorites? If you took a stab at IPA, you’re a winner. The Rojo Refresh, a red 7 percent IPA and the Monkey’s Uncle Double IPA; on yeah. Brandi’s other preference was the Big Beautiful Belgian Ale beer she described as tasting “like a plantain (banana).”
Roadkill didn’t disappoint on the food front either when he recommended the Big Bacon Sticks appetizer, consisting of thick slabs of smoked bacon on a stick and accompanied by pickled veggies.
Huntsville’s ‘Top Secret’ Room
A last-minute surprise began when Roadkill asked if we wanted to see a secret room. So, picture, this; it’s late in the afternoon, and I had stopped counting the number of beers we had tasted, but at this point, I was up for anything. A bartender named Roadkill leans in and peaks our curiosity by inviting us into a dark room in an old schoolhouse. My goal wasn’t to be listed as “victim one” in a Huntsville Police Department report or featured in a Cold Files storyline, yet I had to investigate and see what lay ahead. After all, I’m a former journalist, and I had a few afternoon beers. Why not, let’s see the secret room.
Roadkill walked us down a hallway where patrons sat drinking and talking. Moving through an entryway to a set of corner lockers, he looked about, making sure no one was looking and pushed the lockers open to reveal a tucked away Speakeasy bar.
The room was dark, yet well-appointed and a handful of people sat at tables and in booths. I turned and looked at Brandi and then at Roadkill. For the first time in several minutes, I relaxed when I saw a smile form on Roadkill’s face. “Pretty cool, isn’t it?” he asked. It was really cool.
Once more Brandi and I made our way to the bar as Roadkill excused himself. His job was complete as he had delivered us safely to his intended destination. It was the ideal place to switch gears. I opted for a bourbon neat while Brandi ordered a vodka martini. Straight to Ale has lots of places to sit and drink, including several outside seating areas where customers can enjoy their fantastic beer.
I know what you’re thinking; surely these two are done for the day. Well, not yet. We had one more stop to make where we arranged to meet my brother Drew and his wife, Leigh. The Nook is a comfortable restaurant and beer place and was recommended as a place to enjoy some German food, which was the evenings special. They have over 500 beers available with an incredible 80 on tap. Although we chose to sit inside, the outdoor patio looked inviting, and I’m planning another visit soon to sample some additional items on the menu.
All in all, our day was a huge success. I highly recommend you add Huntsville to your list of Southern “bucket cities,” whether visiting for a day or longer. I know I’ll be returning soon.