Craft Beer Tour of Huntsville, Alabama

When I did my first internship in Huntsville, Alabama in the summer of 2007, there was only a single brewery. When I did my last internship four years later in 2011, there were two. Fast forward five years later – to an era where I now call Huntsville home – and there are 9 craft breweries.   The explosion of Huntsville’s craft beer scene in recent years is in large part thanks to the Free the Hops organization, which has worked in partnership with legislators to change Alabama’s liquor laws and create an environment where the craft beer industry can thrive.

Since moving to Huntsville full time in fall 2013, I’ve done my fair share of craft beer sampling. Consider this your guide to Huntsville’s beer scene (caveat that I’m not a beer expert, but I’ve done some field research).

Breweries

  1. Straight to Ale (STA)

Arguably Huntsville’s first true craft brewery, Straight to Ale opened its doors in 2011. Founded by NASA engineers, Straight to Ale began brewing their special brand of space themed beers at a location on Leeman Ferry Road. Five years on, they’ve opened a second facility at the former Stone Middle School on Governor’s Drive. Flights are served in (what else?) a rocket shaped wood plank. Straight to Ale’s signature beers include the Werner von Braun Ale, named after NASA Marshall Space Flight Center’s first director and America’s most famous German rocket scientist; the bourbon barrel aged Laika, honoring the dog the USSR sent to space in the early 1960s; Unobtanium, a high alcohol beer whose name references the material selection challenges of the SR-71 Blackbird program; and Monkeynaut, an homage to America’s first spacefarers.

The opening of their second location has taken STA’s operations to the next level with a Prohibtion-themed speakeasy room for parties, a larger pinball area, a restaurant (Ale’s Kitchen) serving everything from onion rings battered in STA’s Brother Joseph to poutine fries and jerk chicken tacos, and two outdoor patio areas. The middle school gym, now home to an array of large fermenters, serves as an additional multipurpose venue for events.   Straight to Ale offers free tours (with generous samples included) at its Stone Middle School/campus 805 location on Saturdays.

sta

Straight to Ale’s Campus 805 location

2. Yellowhammer Brewing

Located across a long expanse of manicured lawn from Straight to Ale, Yellowhammer Brewing has been serving up Alabama inspired beers for a few years now. If you happen to be in north Alabama during the swimming humidity of July and August, their wit and Belgian white are the beers that will hit the spot.

Together with several other vendors, Yellowhammer and Straight to Ale comprise an entertainment complex known as Campus 805. Other occupants of Campus 805 include Lone Goose Saloon and the soon to open Huntsville location of the cleverly named homebrew store/beer shop Wish You Were Beer.  Campus 805 is also home to Earth and Stone, a fantastic wood-fired pizza restaurant, located adjacent to the Yellowhammer Brewery. Earth and Stone started a few years ago as a food truck making the rounds at local breweries. In the wake of ever lengthening lines at breweries, festivals, and food truck roundups, Earth and Stone chose Campus 805 for its brick and mortar location. You can’t go wrong with a pizza choice here, but my favorite is The Green Street. When they’re on the menu, the garlic knots also make a delicious appetizer.

yellowhammer

The sun sets on Yellowhammer.

earthandstone

Earth and Stone wood-fired pizza.

3. Salty Nut Brewery

Just down the street from Campus 805 is Salty Nut Brewery, currently residing in the building originally occupied by Yellowhammer. With Yellowhammer’s move to Campus 805, Salty Nut inherited a warehouse-like brewing space/tap room as well as the best biergarten in Huntsville. The location is a vast improvement over Salty Nut’s previous location, which felt more like your college friend’s living room than a taproom. Whatever you drink, be sure to enjoy it under a tree or by the fire pit in the brewery’s beautiful backyard.

Salty Nut serves mostly IPAs, but has a few barrel aged beers that are worth your time and taste buds. The ciders here are also a good choice.

Salty Nut also has a broad array of programming and events. They’ve previously hosted adult coloring night, dog obedience classes, a Rocky Horror picture show screening, and a seasonal viewing of the much-maligned Star Wars Holiday special.

biergarten

Salty Nut’s biergarten

4. Mad Malts

Formerly known as Brew Stooges (ah, the tyranny of copyright laws!), Mad Malts is located in a two-story garage space. Their vanilla porter is the best choice – you can enjoy it on delightfully tacky ‘70s-era furniture that looks like something your mom found at Cheryl Tieggs’s estate sale.

5. Green Bus Brewing

Huntsville’s most recent addition to the brewing scene is Green Bus Brewing, which opened in downtown Huntsville in fall 2016. Green Bus was started by a homebrewer and made several well-received appearances at Huntsville’s premier beer festival Rocket City Brewfest (serving out of its iconic green VW bus) prior to moving out of the garage and into a former law office at the city center.   The gose is a standout.

green-bus-brewing

Green Bus’s downtown location

green-bus

The famous Green Bus.

6. Blue Pants Brewery

Moving across town into the neighboring suburb of Madison, you’ll find Blue Pants Brewery. Blue Pants is one of the larger breweries in the area, with two warehouses, a taproom, and a patio area. Blue Pants keeps the home fires burning with their stellar Wheat with Peach (a seasonal offering), Pinstripe Stout, and Oktoberfest. Blue Pants offers free trivia on Monday nights. Other regular events include live music on the patio, We Care Wednesday (where $1 of every pint sold benefits a local nonprofit), and outdoor movies during the summer. Blue Pant’s noteworthy annual events are the community sausage cook-off Sausage Fest (August) and Pinstripe Fest (November). The brewery also plays daily host to a rotation of Huntsville’s food trucks.

blue-pants

The Blue Pants Brewery patio.

7. Rocket Republic

Huntsville’s second space themed brewery opened in a warehouse in the industrial park near the Huntsville airport over two years ago. With its jetplex proximity, it ranks as the best place to have a beer before your departing flight.   Rocket Republic has a large space with unique steampunk décor.   Standout space-age inspired beers include the Mach 1 IPA, the vapor trail cream ale, and the Astronut peanut butter porter.  Beer pours out of iconic Saturn V tap handles (which you can also purchase for your at home beer fridge). Rocket Republic regularly plays host to trivia, yoga, and board game nights.

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Rocket Republic’s Saturn V tap handles.

sunday-yoga

Sunday yoga at Rocket Republic.

8. Old Black Bear (OBB)

Old Black Bear opened in downtown Madison in the old Bandito Burrito location in early 2016. Their taproom includes a coffee shop as well as a farm to table restaurant.   The food offerings are quite good – for foundational drinking food, try the chicken and waffles, the burger, or the beer infused mac and cheese. Old Black Bear’s beers have a heavy German influence and the Cave City Lager is their flagship. OBB frequently brews with a purpose — many beers celebrate local wildlife and nature (and proceeds from sales go to local organizations that work in conservation). Nature inspired beers include the Whooping crane red ale (a reference to the birds that frequent the nearby Wheeler Wildlife Refuge in Decatur) and the Land Trust Ale (Land Trust is an organization that maintains trails and greenspaces in the Huntsville area).

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Foundational drinking food at Old Black Bear.

old-black-bear-taproom

Old Black Bear taproom.

9. Below the Radar (BTR)

A standout for both beer and food, Below the Radar has been a presence in downtown Huntsville for a few years now. BTR brews their own beer (there’s usually 2-3 house offerings on tap), but also has an extensive tap menu with a wide selection of beers from other craft breweries. In addition to the main dining space, there’s a small outdoor patio and a back room that’s perfect for parties and meetings. My menu favorites are the Cobb salad and the fish and chips.

below-the-radar

Below the Radar in downtown Huntsville.

Other beer destinations

  1. Liquor Express

When I was an intern, Liquor Express was little more than a convenience store near the University of Alabama Huntsville Campus.   A no frills sort of place, Liquor Express’s most notable feature was the “growler jug” (yes, that’s a milk jug filled with beer). Last year, Liquor Express transformed when they moved into a swanky new venue on University Drive. Gone are the milk jug growlers, replaced with artisan jugs from Southern Growler (Liquor Express also regularly hosts “paint your own growler” classes). With over 100 beers on tap (the beer menu is really more of a tome at this point), a large back room with a giant screen tv and leather sofas, and shiny wood floors, fans of the old location wouldn’t recognize Liquor Express in its classy new incarnation. “Good people drink good beer” the chalkboard display above the overwhelming array of tap handles advises. At least some things never change.

liquor-express

Liquor Express’s fancy new digs.

2. Old Town Beer Exchange (OTBX)

Old Town Beer Exchange is a beer nerd’s dream. With tens of beers on tap and a digital display giving a real time reading of keg levels (which also can be accessed through an app on your phone), Old Town is another location (like Liquor Express and Wish You Were Beer) where you can drink a beer while you shop for beer (and wine). It’s a great hangout spot and on any given weekday after 5 PM you’re likely to find professionals who work downtown grabbing an after work drink. Old Town is also the starting point for the monthly Bikes and Brews event. Taking place the first Friday of every month, Bikes and Brews is a slow group bike ride to multiple breweries and bottle shops in the downtown area. It’s lots of fun and a great way to meet new people.

old-town

Old Town Beer Exchange

3. Wish You Were Beer

Wish You Were Beer is currently located in a shopping center in the deep heart of the Madison, AL suburbs. That’s great for those living in said suburbs of Madison, but it’s a bit of a trek for those residing in other sections of Huntsville.  In response to demands for a more central location, Wish You Were Beer is opening a new store at Campus 805 this month. Wish You Were Beer is the one stop shop for everything craft beer, serving as a taproom, bottle shop, and a homebrew store. The staff are very knowledgeable and every Wednesday there are specialty (sometimes rare) beers available on draft. Wish You Were Beer also organizes its selections by state and country, which makes selecting British beers for your Sherlock party easy. If you’re in the area (Sprouts is also close by), it’s worth a stop.

wish-you-were-beer

Wish You Were Beer at its Madison, AL location.

4. Stein and Dine at the US Space and Rocket Center

Honoring Huntsville’s German heritage (by virtue of those 100 rocket scientists who relocated here after WWII), the US Space and Rocket Center (USSRC) plays host to Stein and Dine, a weekly evening celebration of German beer and food held on Thursdays from April through October. Stein and Dine features live German music, German beer on draft, and German food. The event has become incredibly popular and crowds pack the Saturn V hall (USSRC has one of three existing Saturn V rockets on display) to eat and drink surrounded by an array of impressive space artifacts. Stein and Dine is also one of the most dog friendly events in Huntsville, so don’t be surprised if you see pooches relaxing next to a lunar lander mockup or ogling the Apollo 16 capsule.

stein-and-dine

Stein and Dine at the US Space and Rocket Center.

5. The Nook

A staple of southeast Huntsville, The Nook is keeps hundreds of beers on tap.  You can’t top the diversity of selections available here.  The bar was recognized in 2014 by Draft magazine as one of the 100 best beer bars in America.  The Nook also boasts an outstanding biergarten and maintains a commitment to serving beer in the appropriate glassware (so your IPA will come in an actual IPA glass!)

the-nook

The Nook’s biergarten

This is by no means a comprehensive list (and feel free to chime in with your own favorite beer spots in the comments). Other potential beer destinations not discussed here include B.J.’s Brewhouse (at Bridge Street Town Center), Church Street Wine Shoppe (downtown), and Stem and Stein (Madison).  There are also number of local restaurants that keep craft beer on tap, including 1892 East, Commerce Kitchen, Cotton Row, Big Ed’s Pizza, The Boot (pizza), Pints and Pixels, and Spazio (inside Whole Foods).

At any rate, the Huntsville beer scene looks poised for continued growth.  Recently plans for a new brewery were announced in nearby Decatur.  Given the thriving homebrew scene in Huntsville, we can likely expect more brewing ventures to emerge in the coming years.  Happy craft beer-ing!

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