Brew Biz: Werts and All

…and a “Where Are They Now” Brewer Profile: Todd Hicks

By Ken Carman

Perdido Vineyards
22100 County Road 47
Perdido, Alabama 36562
(251) 937-9463
http://www.perdidovineyards.com
Owner: Jim Eddins

I’ve known Todd Hicks for many years and through quite a few phoenix like rebirths. The first time I met Todd he was brewing at McGuires in Pensacola with Steve Fried. Since then he has brewed at the various rebirths of a brewpub in downtown Mobile, Alabama. It’s been Cannon, Hurricane; amongst other incarnations.

Can a brewpub be Buddhist in nature? If they used milk in a Milk Stout would the brewer wind up being reincarnated as a cockroach under foot for punishment?

Todd has been involved in almost every attempt to start a brewpub west of Tallahassee, east of Mississippi. Todd took Santa Rosa in Fort Walton from a brewpub that sometimes hooked up a Bud or Miller keg; claiming it as their own, to a brewpub that had one of the finest red ales I’ve ever had, and one of the strangest owners. Marketing “Death Cigarettes?” Luckily that brand name went about as far as where it was first placed: in the movie “Waterworld;” a multi-million dollar, four time nominated for a “Razzie” award including worst picture, worst actor, worst director and worst supporting actor, fiasco.

Santa Rosa may have gone the way of Death Cigarettes, but Todd “the immortal” lives on. You have to admire his stick-to-it-tive-ness and his ability to find ways to continue to perfect his craft. His last brewmaster job was at the now folded Hurricane in Mobile. I had a feeling it wouldn’t last. The menu alone was so sparse and unimaginative I could tell the owner didn’t seem all that serious. The brew business: and more specifically the brewpub business, in this area has always been a bit rocky, with McGuires being pretty much the sole survivor for many, many miles in any direction.

I could go on and provide a long list of achievements and where he has been, but this isn’t just about what Todd was, but where he is now and what his plans are.

So while Todd looks for investors to, yet again, reopen the old downtown Mobile location, he has also been providing his talents to a winery in Perdido, Alabama: about 50 miles north of Mobile, just off of I-65, on the east side of the interstate. Hard to miss. About the only thing at the exit.

Todd met Jim Eddins when he was a brewer for McGuires. Jim grew grapes for Bartels: a now defunct winery in Pensacola. Sad story: it was Jim who found Mr. Bartel dead in one of his wine tanks and Bartels closed because it was a sole proprietorship. Jim not only grew grapes for wines at the time but bottled liquor for Alabama “ABC.” They had no labels on them except what kind of beverage they were. Then they went to bottling whiskey, for example, for big name distillers. Back then Gallo pretty much ruled the wine-world in Alabama and many other places; nationwide.

Jim is short, stocky, glasses and a permanent smile. Hard to believe he’s 76.

Todd is average height. Ugly. Big nose. Vampire eyes that drill into you like a huge, human size, hairy, mosquito. Both legs shorter than each other… no, sorry, that’s me; except for the height and eyes. The eyes? Well, that might be Todd, though I’ve haven’t seen any fangs… yet.

Ahem! Start again…

Todd is thin. Jet black hair. Strong features, including the eyes and a noble nose. An odd combination of crew cut and long pony tail that has gone from just long hair and pony tail to crew cut and pony tail over the years. He has been at so many start up brew businesses over the years one might claim he was cursed but; when just considering his Alabama experience alone, I think the best quote to use from my interview would be one Jim Eddins provided the day I visited; and it equally applies to both of them…

“Survival in the alcohol business in Alabama is a heroic act.”

I already told the story of Todd’s adventure, and misadventures. Well, less story, more the cliff notes version. Jim’s adventures are also interesting. I commented that I’m amazed anyone even knows the winery is in Perdido: just briefly off an exit about 45 miles north of Mobile: I-65. There’s really nothing indicating it’s there, not that Jim hasn’t tried. He’s put up a few signs but the sheriff just bulldozed them back down. You see it’s illegal to advertise a winery. This year they’re supposed to get a historic marker.

One hopes: at least that much.

None of this has anything to do with the influence of large; big name, liquor distributors and big wineries, could it? Nah, never that!

This bottling line is over 60 years old. Unlike beer bottling lines, which work off of pressure, this works off of vacuum. Rated to do 75 cases an hour, but Todd told me they can get it to do 100. My apologies: some of the pictures are just a little blurry. Probably drooling for some of the warm, smooth, tasty Sangria I sampled… then dreamed about as the bottle I bought sat in the cab of my truck all the way back to Nashville. So far Millie, my wino wife, hasn’t found it yet. Shhh! No one tell her.

Damn. She proof reads these articles. Now I’m in trouble. Now where was that bottle? Millie!!!

Perdido is Alabama’s first farm winery: a distinction made when Alabama finally relented and the legislature passed a farm winery provision; June 1979. Perdido was also the first winery to produce a wine that doesn’t have a traditional wine name since Prohibition: Rose’ Cou Rouge. Translates into “Redneck Rose,” name and translation provided by a teacher who was visiting the winery. The winery you see pictured at the top of the page was built in 1979: in three weeks.

Alabama’s had a long history with wine making and grape growing. Vines from Bordeaux were planted here by remnants of Napolean’s army after his defeat at Waterloo. There was a town called Fruithurst; a wine making and fruit growing colony essentially in northern Alabama. All this dried up by Prohibition.

Right now they bring in a lot of grapes because their vineyards are still healing from Katrina. Ironically some of the grapes come from a vineyard/winery in Arkansas that Jim used to grow grapes for. The vineyards include 50 acres of healing muscadine vines… and I believe Todd told me 12 acres of “pick your own” grapes.

Katrina was devastating to the winery: especially the roofs.

Here’s one of their fine wines, held up by Todd…

Todd took on a tour through the winery that is, oh, so much more than just a “winery.”

What you see below is a 3000 gallon wine storage tank in the bottling room. A 2000 gallon tank is nearby: used for blending and staging of ready. Not too long ago it held 10,000 blueberries: it is used as a fermenter. Typical batch for wine at Perdido is 1,000 to 3,000 gallons. The day I visited they had at least 22,000 gallons of wine on hand: in tanks, bottles… etc. They use a lot of the wine in the tanks for blending, a process homebrewers who make geuze in the traditional manner should be familiar with.

Brewers may also be familiar with the next item. What do you think this do hickey is? Give up? It’s a diatomaceous earth filter, and much like beer it is used to coarse filter …prior to fine bottling filtration. Todd E-mailed me that it uses perlite as a filter medium.

This state of the art vinegar making machine, or “acetator #1,” makes alcoholic products into acetic acid: vinegar. Designed by a German engineer. They make vinegar using a process developed in Austria to make sure the vinegar remains true to the fruit or vegetable. It turns alcohol into acetic acid. Hence: vinegar. Currently processing Satsuma vinegar. I was absolutely amazed at all the different kinds of vinegar. You have to understand, straight vinegar usually has rather nasty results with me; kind of like that moment when your stomach decides you’ve had way too much to drink?

So vinegar straight usually is something I avoid like herpes, H1N1, AIDS and Richard Simmons on steroids. I tried just a drip of the malt vinegar. Wow! Tasty. Maybe someday I’ll risk it again. But, please, for your own safety stand back!

Here are just a few of the vinegars made at Perdido…

Malt vinegar
White muscadine
Cucumber
Sugar cane
Honey mead
Apple wine
Blueberry wine
Fig Balsamic ???
Bieressig (That’s Deutsch for “beer” vinegar, fellow brewers. (Usually pilsner yeast)
Tomato (Starting this year.)

Whew! I’m sure I missed some.

Jim’s vinegars have won may awards: bronze in Austria; also another bronze and gold… to mention a few. Rumors have it that local hunters jerk out a bottle of it and sprinkle it on their kill in preparation for deer… jerky. Seriously, now… deer hunters have told Jim it makes the tastiest deer jerky ever.

Jim is quite proud of the antioxidant benefits of his vinegar, and he should be. One wag tested 400 for cholesterol and three weeks after starting to use Jim’s vinegar his count went way down: perfectly normal. Of course they make the vinegar with the most antioxidant benefits: muscadine vinegar, as well as many others. And an added benefit is that those opposed to alcohol can use plenty of vinegar because the alcohol turns into acetic acid. The vinegar making operation runs 24/7.

Here is what they use to make apple cider. Did I mention they make apple cider? I didn’t did I? Stop to slap myself. Ouch. Yes, they do make apple cider. It’s a cider mill: uses a hydraulic press that juices apples, pears, oranges, etc. for cider production. And it’s also used to juice cucumbers and tomatoes for specialty vinegars. No word yet as to whether it can juice the funny things the cats keep bringing in at night and play with. Mole or mouse cider, anyone? Rabbit? Bird?

They do store and ship wine. Above is one of the containers. You see, other than in their gift shop… (Hi, Kathy!!!) … alcohol laws being what they are, they have to sell out of state. Remember what Jim said about a “heroic act?”

These blueberries were being made into wine: very dark and hard to see. My new camera I’m still familiar with. Sorry.

Todd tells me they have some ready now. Think I’ll order two. They use frozen blueberries because the freezing process helps to break them down. The boxes were all over the place near this area when I visited.

I met most of the staff: Kathy who does the gift shop where they sell jellies and preserves made according to recipes created by Jim’s mother… Mark: sales, Cheryl: Kathy’s assistant and they have lots of volunteers, or as Todd and I agreed what’s known in the brew biz as “brew slaves,” or “brew bitches.”

I swear they see me coming. Do I have a sign on me that says “will work for beer?” Come to think of it, I probably have a shirt somewhere that says just that.

They also have what one might call an “outreach program.” They’ve helped famous chefs and innovators, then hawk their items for them, like a neat, small, garlic press created by Chef Peter Raymond Cortez. Another innovative item they help sell was invented by J.E. Corker: a top for wine bottles that keeps you from having to recork bottles; avoiding pieces of cork floating in your bottle. Each and every one of these items have been the product of Jim working hand in hand with others; sharing creative ideas. Just like Todd has helped, trained and worked with some of the best brewers in the Emerald Coast.

As a man who makes his living off his own crazy creativeness, I have a deep respect for that kind of dedication to the arts. A “deep respect” whether it be the art of performing as an entertainer, the art of wine, cider and vinegar making, or the art of brewing.

There are a lot of plans for the future. Fortified wines: 16% are their “new experiment,” since laws have been changed so they can do that. In Alabama it was limited to 14%. Liqueurs. Later this year they will be distilling brandy: especially muscadine brandy. They just bought a Charles 802 Reflux Distillery: high output; high proof.

The visit was long, the conversation enlightening, but I had stopped on my way home from my Southern tour through the Emerald Coast. I still had many miles to back to Nashville. So I bought my bottle and fired up the Nissan and rode dat der doggie out on to I-65.

Hmmm… think I’ll stop again.

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Brew Biz: Werts and All, is a column dedicated to review, discuss and comment 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.