By Dale Liesch and Jason Johnson
For Mobile residents eager to raise a pint of locally made brew, the wait is almost over.
Through a long legal battle based on zoning issues to roadblocks with the Alabama Beverage Control Board, the Port City’s craft beer connoisseurs have had to wait on its burgeoning microbrew industry.
With three local breweries closer than ever to opening their doors, Mobile is primed to take advantage of a market that’s seen substantial statewide growth in recent years as the craft beer craze has made its way southward, closely followed by a culture of beer lovers.
It appears Haint Blue Brewing owner Keith Sherrill will likely surrender on a nine-month legal battle to place his brewery in the former Crystal Ice House facility at 806 Monroe St. Despite a favorable ruling in September by Mobile County Circuit Court Judge Ben Brooks for a zoning variance, Sherrill recently signed a letter of intent on another property.
“It doesn’t feel good,” he said in a phone interview. “In one regard, I’ve been ready to wash my hand of the legal battle … I wanted to open a beer company and make everyone happy.”
He did not specify where the new location was, but confirmed it was not in Baldwin County, although he had looked for locations there.
“I looked at other options all over town,” Sherrill said. “Downtown, Midtown, I looked across the bay.”
Brooks’ ruling came with a number of conditions, which might have played a role in Sherrill’s decision. For one, Sherrill would have to insulate an interior wall of the building to “reasonably minimize the impact” of live music on nearby residents. The order also limited live music at the brewery to only two nights per week. Brooks also capped the building’s occupancy at 100, including any outdoor seating.
In order to construct the brewery at the site, Brooks ordered Sherrill to build an 8-foot privacy fence on the western property line, as well as plant four to six buffer trees. Closing time for the facility was to be set at 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
The order also set forth restrictions on parking and trash cans.
There is no current city zoning for a microbrewery, which is why a variance would be needed. Sherrill’s attorney, John Bender, said he believes Sherrill prevailed because there are other possible uses for the former ice house, such as a café or funeral home, that could prove even more burdensome to residents than a microbrewery.
Without a variance, food and beverage processing, which is how the brewery was categorized by the city, is only allowed along St. Louis Street and in areas near Brookley Field, Bender said.
Sherrill owns the former ice house property and doesn’t know what the future holds for it. He also doesn’t have a timeline for when Haint Blue’s microbrewery and taproom will be open for business.
Sherrill is currently brewing and bottling his beer at Lazy Magnolia’s brewery in Kiln, Mississippi, which helped Haint Blue have its product on the market before last year’s Mardi Gras.
“It was not part of the plan,” he said of the partnership. “It’s part of the narrative of never giving up.”
Haint Blue is currently available at 130 locations, including several local bars, restaurants and grocery stores.
The brewery founded by local coffee baron John Serda faced its own set of challenges prior to opening next month, but nonetheless the Serda Brewing Co. began brewing beer last week.
State law allowed Serda to open a microbrewery and taproom on Government Street downtown, but because of Alabama’s three-tiered liquor license system, he was required to surrender his license to serve alcohol at his popular coffee shops on Royal Street and in Daphne.
Surrendering his alcohol license there will cut into about 6 percent of his sales, he said.
State law prohibits a beer manufacturer from also holding a retail license, Serda said. The move would have an impact on the coffee shop’s evening sales and could result in a change of operating hours. Yet Serda said he’s still trying to find a way to keep both licenses.
Even without the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board’s red tape, Serda’s has had delays opening to the public. For example, Serda said the building had to possess a certificate of occupancy before the brewing process could begin.
“One of the biggest setbacks is we had to finish everything before brewing,” he said. “Everything had to be done. That was kind of a huge process.”
Because Serda’s, like Haint Blue, will sell beer off-site, the microbrewery cannot serve food. Instead, the taproom will have a food truck court to cater to patrons, Serda said.
Serda’s will begin by producing four beers: a pilsner named Hook, Line and Lager; an IPA called Mobile Bay IPA; a porter called Clear Prop and a Vienna amber called Tidewater Amber.
While the brewery will mass produce only a small handful of beers, Serda’s will be able to produce small batches of other beer to be sampled at the taproom. Popular brews, Serda said, could then be produced on a larger scale.
Meanwhile, Iron Hand is set to open as a brewpub in the DeTonti Square area of downtown.
Bob Isakson, who owns the building Iron Hand will be leasing, said they converted a 1927 church building into the brewpub space.
“We’re putting everything back the way it was,” he said. “It’s going to be beautiful, just beautiful.”
Isakson said another brewpub, The Old Majestic, is set to open on St. Louis Street, in an old warehouse that will be moved from Greenville, Mississippi.
“The warehouse is being dismantled, restored and historically reassembled in the St. Louis Street Automobile Alley Historic District,” Isakson wrote in an email. “The Old Majestic Brewpub will have a large beer garden in front with an outside activity area including such planned events as human-sized chess and bocce ball courts.”
By law, something categorized as a brewpub can serve food, but can only make beer to serve for on-premise consumption. Mobile was previously home to Hurricane Brewing, a brewpub that operated on Dauphin Street for a short time.
Developing a craft beer culture locally requires one thing above all else: a lot of people who like to drink beer, try new flavors and discover new brands.
Fortunately for those wading into brewing for the first time, retailers think Mobile’s already got one thanks, in part, to the restaurants and watering holes that have prioritized having a healthy selection and a changing rotation of beers.
When it comes to selection and rotation, the most notable spot for the past few years has arguably been LoDa Bier Garten. Positioned at the corner of Dauphin and Joachim streets, the downtown eatery boasts more than 100 beers on tap on any given day.
Since then, owner Matt Golden opened Old Shell Growlers for the midtown beer connoisseur and recently revealed plans to launch a second Bier Garten location in West Mobile. When all three are up and running, Golden said, his businesses alone would be managing and rotating more than 250 taps — something hard to imagine less than 10 years ago, when state law prohibited beers containing higher than 6 percent alcohol by volume.
After the laws were relaxed, as a wave of new craft breweries were established throughout the Southeast, that beer culture followed, and Golden said Bier Garten opened up in a “sweet spot” just as the interest was taking hold in the Port City.
“The craft craze hit the West Coast two decades ago, but just like everything else, it takes time to make it all the way down here to the South. Now, the demand is totally here,” Golden said. “Mobile is a big IPA town, but it’s also been fun seeing the different trends over the past few years and watching meads and sours come into play. Now everyone is going crazy about sours. Three years ago pumpkin beers were the thing; now everybody’s got one.”
While a healthy variety of craft beers is obviously good for consumers, it could also be good for the breweries launching in Mobile. In general, craft beer drinkers — those who reach for more than the marquee, domestic pilsner — like new things and, in general, like to support local breweries, which is something retailers focus on regularly when marketing craft beer.
It’s no coincidence that some of the most readily available beers made at true microbreweries are produced elsewhere in Alabama (Good People) or in neighboring states such as Florida (Grayton Beer Co.) and Mississippi (Southern Prohibition Brewing).
However, Golden said the same drive some craft beer drinkers have to try something new can be a bit tricky for breweries just getting their brands out there.
“Craft beer connoisseurs are incredible people. I kind of compare them to artists, in that they never quit evolving … but that also makes them one of the most unloyal demographics in that they have no loyalty to a particular brand,” Golden said.
“Variety is great for the consumer, but not so much for the breweries when they’re trying to establish a flagship beer. Those are the ones you see sold in grocery stories and places like that, but inside the bars, or at a place like Mellow Mushroom or Bier Garten, people are really coming for something different, something they haven’t tried before,” Golden added.
One thing Golden has also focused on recently, specifically at Old Shell Growlers, is featuring newer, younger breweries. Last week, Crazy Mountain Brewing Co., of Colorado, had representatives there passing out samples and talking up their products.
While the new breweries might technically be competition for someone who owns three places to sit and drink beer, Golden said he doesn’t view it that way. On the contrary, he told Lagniappe he can’t wait for the local guys to get up and brewing so he can feature their products as well.
He said that’s partly about supporting local efforts, but also good business. With three restaurants that focus on having a variety of craft beers, Golden said his endgame is to get every single person in Mobile to try at least one. An influx of local craft breweries doesn’t seem like it could hinder that too much.
“I’ve had people ask me, ‘Aren’t you worried? They’re opening up a brewery right down the street,’ or say ‘the boys from Haint Blue are doing this?’ The answer is absolutely not, we’re nothing but excited,” Golden said. “All that does is get people excited about craft beer, and I’m where you get it.”
“Haint Blue, Fairhope — they’ve always have coverage on our tap walls, and John Serda’s beer, when it finally gets out of that building, it will be front and center on our taps and it always will always be at our locations.”
Better late than never
After fairly recent changes to state law made microbreweries more viable in the state, a number of the facilities have opened statewide. Mobile might be a little late to the game, but Alabama is still seeing a growth in the microbrewing industry that is outpacing the national average, meaning it’s as good a time as any to get started.
Dan Roberts, executive director of the Alabama Brewers Guild, said the state saw a 34 percent growth in the industry from 2015 to 2016. The national average is just 6 percent, he said.
“It was slow to catch on,” Roberts said of the microbrew industry. “Cultural but also legal changes made the business model more viable.”
The biggest change came when the state allowed breweries to include taprooms, Roberts said. Taprooms allow a smaller producer to make a name for itself by letting customers sample the various beers. A taproom can help a brewer go from producing zero to producing 500 barrels, which is the hardest jump to make. Five hundred barrel production means 1,000 kegs a year.
“It means you’re not big, but someone’s heard of you,” Roberts said. “A taproom helps grow the market.”
There is room for growth in the state and in Mobile, Roberts said, as microbrews only make up about 1.5 percent of the total market. Local brewers, such as Serda and Sherrill, understand there’s currently room for competition and both are embracing it.
Sherrill said each of the three facilities will serve their own purposes, as Serda’s is a larger brewery, Haint Blue is sort of medium-sized and Iron Hand is a smaller brewpub operation.
“We’re all lucky because we’re all very different,” Sherrill said. “We each have our own vibe.”
Serda said he empathizes with the legal battle Sherrill has had, but is excited to see all three breweries open and operating before too long. Serda says he’d like to see Mobile benefit from brewing the way Asheville, North Carolina, has. With dozens of breweries, Asheville is known by tourists as a first-class beer city, Serda said.