Written by Ken Carman
Straight to Ale, 3200 Leeman Ferry Road, Huntsville, AL 35801
(Behind the Matrix gym) straighttoale.com
(Hence, at his house, being “taken to the woodshed” in those days was a good thing!)
In the 80s, between the record industry, and various radio stations, I transferred expensive cars, occasionally taking one to Huntsville, Alabama. One gig I had was driving a street sweeper there then waiting for the engine to be serviced. I’m fond of saying I spent a century: one week, in Huntsville. At the time it was far more sleepy and had poor public transportation. From outside my motel room I would occasionally gaze to the east at the hills and wonder if the villagers were also getting angry at the company for taking so long fixing their street sweepers. Mad locals would break in and find them working on a monster instead…
Sometimes I imagine the best small craft breweries are being run by mad scientists brewing Frankenstein beers that the townsfolk, visitors and many others love. Years ago when Miller and Bud pretty much ruled America those beers may have been treated like the misunderstood monster in Shelley’s Frankenstein, but I think folks are more understanding these days. Well, some. The dedicated Miller Lite drinker? Maybe not so much.
But craft brewers and home brewers are doing an incredible job educating all palates.
While some ferment incredible, to style, brews that go beyond those days, there are two breweries on the east coast side of America: of all my favorites, that make the best monsters in my opinion: Hoppin Frog: a brewery I’ve written about several times, and, of course, Straight to Ale.
This was our third trip to Straight to Ale, but the other times we were merely passing by, coming back from our annual trips to the Emerald Coast area. This time I called to make sure brewers and such would be in on Martin Luther King Day.
If you’re ever going to go, pay attention to the “behind the Matrix Gym” comment at the top of the article. Even though this is the third time we’ve been, we had to carefully look as we passed by on Leeman Ferry for the brewery; hidden at least a few 100 feet down a small dead end road. Very easy to miss. The first time I think we drove back and forth 5 times, as a very angry Ms. GPS acted as if she had PMS: demanding we stop and break into the closed business she kept insisting was a brewery.
Is the brewing-based version of “PMS” DMS, or is that just a corny joke?
Anywhosie… you may ask why anyone would make so many special trips to a hard to find brewery, often after having driven hundreds of miles and still having more than a 100 to go. Well, as some readers may remember, I also have an occasional column called From the Bottle Collection that features some of more than a thousand odd bottles I’ve collected over the years that cover the walls of my aging modular house, west of Nashville. In that collection there’s a small case in the middle of one wall featuring “best of the best,” and most of those brews are from two breweries: one being Straight to Ale.
We got there early: appointment at 2. That gave Millie the opportunity to walk Batmutt the dog, while I took a chance and peeked in the side door. I was immediately greeted by the brewers: Drew, Bob and Steve. (I did get to interview Bob Giles latter.) I snapped a few pictures of the brewery and then followed Dan Perry to the tap room for a plank filled with small glasses topped off with hellacious-ly delicious Straight to Ale brews.
The samples sat there for a while, looking at me: lonely, seeming to cry out. “Don’t you want us?” “Of course I do,” I said silently, “but Millie is still walking the cheesehound, and I want to talk to Dan Perry.”
“This started in a woodshed in my backyard. (15.5 gallons) We’ve gone from a 3 barrel system, in an old run down mill with only 500 square feet, to 20,000 square feet and a 20 barrel system, a 1,000 maximum a month.
Currently they are building a new brewery in an old school: Stone Middle School, taking 33,000 square feet out of it and putting in a 30 barrel brewhouse. The plan, for now, is to keep the Leeman Ferry location too.
The tap room is obviously a hub of community activity with our server: Nick Webb, the Cellarman, saying “Hi” to many regulars. I got to talk to Nick for quite a while too. As Straight to Ale’s Cellarman he is part packaging technician. Nick is from upper Michigan originally.
”A skid of cans is 7,780 cans… (after sanitizing) we load them then the machine does all the work. But, before we can, every morning we check to make sure all the seams are inspected so the cans seal correctly. It’s all automated. Our fill manifold will do 30 cans a minute, then it goes on to the seamer and seals a can lid onto the can, rinses and six packs them.”
I know in Nashville there’s a mobile canning operation that cans for breweries like Jackalope. But Dan told me they were typical homebrewers who want to do everything themselves, so they have their own canning equipment. When I mentioned to Nick that this was certainly pricy he said, “Yes, tens of thousands of dollars.”
This reminds me of my interview with Dan when he said it was hard to make money in the business. I had asked Dan if he had any advice for homebrewers who were thinking of starting a brewery themselves. He laughed: a gentle sound that added a slight, soft echo to the ambiance of the tap room…
“Don’t do it. If you love brewing, home brewing, and have a great set up… don’t do it because it can become tedious and ‘a job.’ You run the risk of turning your passion into your nightmare. And at times this place has been a nightmare. Now I’m very proud of what we do, but it is all encompassing, it’s 80 hours a week, I gave up my good salary to build this from scratch. Now I’m still glad I did it, but it’s harder every day cause there’s new competition. When we started there was an existing brewery: actually this was THE existing brewery. It was called Olde Towne Brewing. It was struggling. But they had a different vision for what craft beer in Huntsville should be. So we started with our idea of aggressive, full flavored, beers and sales went through the roof. It’s hard to make money, because every time you have a little money in the bank something’s going to break, you have to buy more stainless and you’re always growing. We’ve been here for almost 5 years and we went from 3 barrels (15.5 gallons when they were at the woodshed) with maybe 21 barrels a month capacity, now to a thousand barrels a month capacity. When we get the new place open it will be three times that and we’ll be moving out farther and selling more.
We’ll get back to Dan, Bob and Nick in a moment, but let’s go to the brews. Since we’re both homebrewers and BJCP judges, but we had a full agenda at STA, we simply did a few, quick, incomplete observations regarding some of the brews on our sample board. Our intent here was not to be at some judging table, or distract from giving readers a wider sense of what a visit to STA might be like. And this will only be part of what we sampled. For the rest you’ll have to wait for part two.
Their Saison du Roquette was yeast dominant with a White Labs Abbey-ish sense, which always has a slight phenolic/aluminum taste to me… though metallic doesn’t quite fit: richer, less “tinny.” But this was far less dominant than Abbey can be. And this yeast gave off faint cherry notes in both aroma and taste. Hops so faint they might as well not be there. A beautiful beer.
We mentioned the cherry sense to Nick…
”We did a Saison that was a bourbon cherry. That was phenomenal. That’s when we did our twelve beers of Christmas.”
The hops are cascade/centennial-ish. Nice firm mouthfeel, but not a ton of caramel malt. Just right. Imperial double IPA. It’s almost a barleywine in the sense there’s that typical barleywine residual sweetness, but that’s behind the hops. Nice tiny bubble head and cream: snow white.
Brother Joseph’s Dubbel. A bit lager-ish with that sulfur-ish sense I get from some yeasts, obviously malt focused with Munich-like notes. Hops in background traditional and German-like. Some caramel malt, perhaps, but a bit more Munich -like. At first I wondered if in the background there was a hint of Maris Otter, but later assessed as more Munich-like.
“We actually have a Brother Joseph that’s aging now with cherries.”
This is probably my fav of their quaffs I’ve had, but Laika may beat it out occasionally, depending on my mood. On a personal note: I tend to find Old Ale a great base on which to build barreled beers, but prefer Russian Imp as is. There’s just great glory in bathing my palate in a Russian’s deep, roasty, grainy goodness. I have had at least one barreled version of Laika and it was outstanding, it was beyond incredible, but I still stand on my preference.
Illudium starts with the obvious sweet cognac barrel-sense, but the great, full, body of an Old Ale follows with that aged sense one often gets: kind of a cross between slightly musty, as if aged in a slightly dusty cellar. And, of course caramelized malt that makes it a tad chewy. Perfect. Delightful. Heavenly.
Dan and I talked about the barrel aging done to one of my favs: Illudium…
That’s a cognac (barrel). We get them through a broker: pricy. They’re big too. We age in everything from rum, to chardonnay, to tequila, Bordeaux, bourbon, cabernet. Illudium is pretty much the same beer as our Unobtanium but it’s cognac v. bourbon barrels. We like to play with it all, see what the difference might be.
We talked a lot about Dan’s affinity for homebrewers. He used to be a member of the club before Rocket City Brewers, when it was known as Madison Sobriety Society. (Great name!) Dan was in the army, and started brewing when he lived near Savannah, Georgia. His father got him into it.
Talking about the two clubs…
“They were really great at not only telling you what was wrong, but showing you how to fix it. It evolved into Rocket City Brewers and those guys, 100%, they turned me from a mediocre’ homebrewer into to a good homebrewer, taught me all the stuff I needed to know, took me to the next level. “
Dan is an incredible supporter of homebrewing and homebrewers.
“We worked with the homebrewers to get homebrewing legalized (in Alabama). One of the things was exposure because it was illegal, but a lot of folks didn’t know. So we started the Right to Brew series, we brought in local homebrewers: Rocket City, to brew their recipes on a big scale, put it out there and bring it around to different establishments to get people talking. The winners? We gave them the possibility of brewing a larger batch.
Laika (See our brief notes in part two) was the second to third one in that series. Brewed by John Tipton, who is a local homebrewer. We brewed it (at first) on our three barrel system. (What they had at the time.) But it was all just a way to spread the word about the legalization of homebrewing. (In Alabama) Some of the existing recipes we have now are from years ago, Laika is one of them. Now it’s been voted #1 beer in Alabama. We age it in barrels: bourbon barrels, cabernet barrels. Our bourbon barrel (version of Laika) just won a platinum award at the World Beer Festival.”
I love the tangents these conversations take us on: perhaps because they can magnify how beer, and other topics, can be connected philosophically. I was talking to one of the brewers who had a degree in graphic design and I mentioned my battles in college with certain unnamed graphic designers. The arguments usually were “you can’t mix different styles of type!” or how “you can’t do this due to rules about ‘negative space/positive space.'” I would ask, “Does it look good?” or “Do you understand what it says?” trying to make the obvious point that these are the kind of things that really matter.
How does that relate to beer?
Well, I still talk with brewers who would consider letting lacto or brett into their brewery like a comedy club would consider booking a humorless mortician as their top act. In other words: “No way in hell!”
(Though one might imagine a comedian attempting a hilarious spoof, eh? Robin Williams might have done a good job, and if he was still with us I could imagine Andy Kaufman making some folks angry playing the part.)
I think that’s why I love breweries like Straight to Ale. There was a time when going so far off the brew reservation of American Lager, then after that classic styles like Pale Ale, was frowned upon.
Hop bombs, extreme barrel aging, cucumber in beer, fermenting pre-chewed corn: can you imagine the reaction in the 60s and 50s trying to pitch any of that to Miller, AB or even the slightly off the brew ranch (for the times) Ballantine, with their IPA, or Rheingold and their Extra Dry?
Back to brett, sours, lacto… I asked Dan, via E-mail, about the possibility of bringing them into the Straight to Ale family…
We have BIG plans for sours once we get our new facility up and running (3rd quarter 2015). We donâ€™t currently have the capacity to add our sour program, but that will be resolved then.
Part II will include more possible changes coming to Straight to Ale, successful legislation efforts in the past that made STA possible, and future legislation will make Alabama beer even better. Oh, and Dan will talk about STA hops and yeast.
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.”