Written by Ken Carman
Ken Carman is a BJCP judge; homebrewer since 1979, club member at Escambia Bay, Clarksville Carboys and Music City Homebrewers, who has been interviewing professional brewers all over the east coast for close to 20 years.
Straight to Ale, 3200 Leeman Ferry Road, Huntsville, AL 35801
(Behind the Matrix gym) straighttoale.com
You may remember last episode of Brew Biz the monster brews of Straight to Ale had successfully endeared themselves to the villagers in Huntsville. So “successful” STA has gone from the woodshed in Dan Perry’s backyard to building an even bigger brewery. Including the current, grand, Leeman Ferry location, that’s an explosive amount of growth. Straight to Ale seems to be Huntsville’s WLP99. That’s a super yeast, in case you don’t know.
In part one I mentioned a conversation I had with one of the Straight to Ale brewers. His name is Bob Giles. I asked Bob how he got into brewing, about any training he might have, and what advice he might have for homebrewers…
I was a homebrewer and working part time at something else when I applied to work here. I’ve been here three years. My advice: have fun when you’re homebrewing, do what you want to do. Don’t just try to do other people’s recipes. Be patient when brewing and always be sterile. We use boiling hot water to sterilize and a PAA. That’s what we do. We use 212 degree water for about 2 hours for our heat exchanger, and for everything: anything, the beer is going to pass through.”
I asked, other than homebrewing, what else attracted him to brewing…
The mix of science: a lot of science, and cooking. I had a girlfriend who would do it for me, but I figured this had better benefits: I could have better beer, impress family. And the biggest thing: I told my brother I was doing it and he found a deal on a Mr. Beer Kit. Now he always says he got me into it, that his $20 investment (is what) really put me on my career path.”
Straight to Ale has come a long way from their woodshed days. They’ve come a long way from their location after the woodshed according to one 2010 article. The second location was described as…
…looks like a bomb exploded. Windows missing.”
While finding their current location may be tough for some “newbies,” it’s a great building and if they keep it, as Dan suggests they probably will, well, it will add so much more zest to all that’s fermenting in Huntsville. Notice the date of that article was “2010?” Such a short time for so much to happen.
I first became familiar with Straight to Ale because I was a supplier for Big Bob’s Barley Wine Bash: a 10% and over affair in Pensacola Beach, Florida, held every September. Also because I do a beer tasting in Beaver River, NY, every Labor Day weekend. More recently I started, and now help run, a high gravity and weird beer homebrew competition in Old Forge, NY every year.
All explaining why I was so determined to do a Brew Biz column on STA. Breweries like this mean a lot to me, and apparently also to many folks if you look at the growth, or see the happy faces that walked in every time we’ve visited Straight to Ale.
I have learned to love those who brew big, and also experiment. People who brew this way have an “out there” perspective that reminds me of Edison or Tesla, or Fritz Maytag and Anchor back when almost all of America was 99.999% swimming in the Bud and Miller shallow end of the pool. To quote Dan from that same article…
Some people like beer with no flavor. We can’t brew that. It doesn’t have any character.”
If you’re looking for character the tap room, in contrast to the brewery, has lower ceilings, is far less industrial and features a great, warm, home-like sense. Walk in and you’ll be greeted like you’ve come home. Not that there isn’t a lot to do: there’s a small room with old video games down a hall, plenty to sample from the taps, great conversation and bottles they can only open in the tap room for you to taste.
”This is your place too,” I suppose, might be a good motto for the tap room.
”Bottles to open?” “…only in the tap room?” Yes, they can’t sell out of the brewery according to Alabama laws, which is why Dan is has been so heavily involved in trying to change laws for so many years…
We have legislation introduced this year. We’re trying to get on premises sales from breweries this year, (part of a) craft brewer’s license: if you’re under so many barrels a year it will allow you to do a certain amount of on premises sales. I would like to see some 6 packs, bombers or growlers. The problem is distributors would not get a cut, they want their mark up on sales. They serve a purpose, I understand they’re there for a reason but they have so much law on their side it makes it hard to make a living sometimes.”
My readers may recognize this complaint. I have had my battles with them too.
It’s been a long fight from Fritz Maytag in the 60s starting the craft beer revolution and homebrewing being made legal in the 70s.
Flash forward to more recent times… Alabama was the next to last state to make homebrewing legal: May 9th, 2013 (Mississippi: July 1st, 2013.) Jimmy Carter made it legal in 1979. I started homebrewing in Tennessee right after that. One wonders: what possesses any state to wait almost 36 years to make something as American as homebrewing legal?
I promised in part one I would get back to our brief assessments of what we sampled MLK Day…
If Illudium is heavenly, as I mentioned last time, then Laika is like having your palate invited to sit on the throne. Since the name “Straight to Ale” is a devil-ish pun the sacrilege-like reference is quite appropriate. There’s so much malt goodness to this one might expect a somewhat extract sense, but to their credit: none at all. I could spend hours wandering among the malt complexity here. Obsidian. Moody. Brooding. My search showed a barreled Cabernet and a barreled bourbon version. If I remember right I loved both, but preferred the Cabernet.
We also had their Velvet Evil, their incredible 13% Old Ale, and Lily Flagg: their Milk Stout.
Velvet doth describe, but I didn’t take notes.
Lily, on the other hand, was a perfect Milk Stout with a sweet lactose sense up front but not so much as to hide the roasted barley-sense and pale malt. This pretty much defines the style and I told Dan this would be great with just a hint of wood aging. He wrote back that they reserve such for their high gravs, but who knows what might happen. Named after the area’s most famous cow who was honored as one of the world’s best butterfat producers in 1892 at an exposition in Chicago.
Straight to Ale gets most of their hops from Hop Union, 47 Hops, and Hopsteiner. Do I foresee hop vines growing outside their homes, the new brewery or Leeman Ferry? One hopes, though a brewery uses so many hops the dent made would probably by minimal. Or a search for wild hops? In the south a bit tough. Yes, there are hop farmers, but the climate is not as conducive as, say, the upstate NY was in the 1800s.
Their yeast comes from White Labs, almost exclusively, but they use a few generations. There’s a neat: smaller, conical fermenter in the brewery where they keep yeast. They also have a small lab on site.
We talked about the hop crisis: he said it didn’t affect them much, except the prices keep going up. Then Dan discussed some of the brews and plans for future brews. But since we touched upon the topic of the hop crisis, I mentioned Yazoo’s (Nashville) Hop Project that was, at first, brewed as a way to get around the hop crisis: creating a different IPA every time. That way they could use what they had access to, whatever they currently had in stock…
We started to do that with Monkey’s Uncle: the idea of a different hop every time, but then we found what we really liked. Another 3 months we’ll have a seasonal can, so every 3 months we’ll put out some lower gravity seasonal stuff: a hefeweizen (SP), a red, a rye pale. We’re trying to settle on the recipe for the 4th one… may be a porter, but I don’t know for sure. “
STA distributes to Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida. They are expanding but their goal is to be a southeastern brewery.
In a Huntsville Times article, written by Jon Busdeker, Dan explains that the name is not satanic, it came from a song and they just altered the last word and it kind of stuck. As a children’s entertainer who has specialized in writing, and editing, his own Rocky and Bullwinkle-like shows, I would add: “Hey folks, it’s a PUN!”
They have so many brews, as one can see from my somewhat blurry picture, and that’s just what was available that day in the tap room. They keep “mixing it up,” as Dan explained, and want to do all styles and just, basically, do a lot of one offs, “Specialty,” as they call it in the BJCP guidelines. But there’s more. I asked Dan if they had thought of distilling…
Is this coming out soon? Oh, what the hell: we’ve applied for our distiller license, and we’re going to get our winery license…”
With so much room, and so many products, while Dan mused about renting out for special events like weddings and such, where they could offer beer, wine, spirits, he also gave more advice about going pro and starting your own brewery…
My main advice is really look into it and make sure you know what you’re getting into because I had no idea. We thought, ‘Hey three friends, we’re going to be great, we’re going to hang out, have a great place for our friends to come down and drink with us.'”
I understand. I have had my own business since 84, traveling the east coast as a children’s entertainer and educational service provider. People who once were friends can go by the wayside. The demands of any business take up so much time and then there are those who simply don’t understand what you’re doing, or insist you should just get “a ‘REAL’ job.”
To say “it’s all encompassing,” doesn’t even come close to the intensity, the focus. So I asked how he felt about having built all that surrounds his very beer focused life now. He laughed and said…
You know, I’m happy I did it. You’re hitting me at a weird point because there’s so much going on. I love the fact we built a brewery out of nothing. I love the fact we make great beer. Ask me after I open the new place (and he’s be even more positive).. Now I have contractors to deal with, six months of legal headaches, running over budget to look forward to.”
Despite all that I think not just Dan but everyone would say “Yes,” when asked, “Was it worth it?”
Do you want to know what also made me feel at home? Having interviewed brewers, owners and visited breweries all over the east coast, as I mentioned to Dan in the beginning: his brewery and Fred Karm’s: Hoppin Frog, were my two favorite breweries of all the great ones I’ve visited on the east coast.
I didn’t realize until that moment that Dan knows Fred.
No matter what we do in life, like training to be a brewer, or coming to brewing from some odd right angle, it’s all connected. And we use those connections to create what’s uniquely ours. We grow, then the learning, and the creating, starts again. In an ever expanding universe of knowledge, when it comes to brewing, I am so glad I got to meet Dan, Bob, Nick and, years ago, Fred.
We’re planning on returning to Straight to Ale, despite living about 100 miles away in Nashville. “Return,” especially, to savor all the employees brew in their upcoming in-house competition.
Straight to Ale: fermenting up fun… a tasty part of any great brewery.
Brew Biz: Werts and All, is a column dedicated to reviewing, discussing and commenting on all things beer including, but not limited to: marketing, homebrewing and homebrew/beer related events, how society perceives all things beer. Also: reviews of beer related businesses, opinions about trends in the beer business, and all the various homebrew, judging and organizations related to beer. Essentially, all things “beer.”