Over the past few years, Mobile has become a very good beer town, with a number of bars with dozens of craft beers available, and not just the usual suspects, but wide varieties from across the region and around the nation. We also now have a number of excellent places for off-site sales of craft beer, including some grocery stores that even offer beer on tap for growlers.
However, Mobile still lacks what any good beer town needs — its own craft brewery. How can the city born to celebrate — the home of Mardi Gras, for goodness’ sake — not have its own craft brew? Well, luckily that is about to change.
Of course, our area is not totally without a craft brewing movement. Many people remember when LoDa housed a brewpub, Hurricane Brewing Co., but it shuttered its doors at the end of 2009 (Montego’s Cafe & Bar now occupies its old location). The first true craft brewery in Lower Alabama, Fairhope Brewing Co., opened four years ago on Nichols Avenue. Its beers have become staples in our area, and are now found not only at the brewery itself, but on tap at bars throughout Alabama as well as parts of coastal Mississippi and the Florida Panhandle.
Fairhope turns out five of its beers year-round, including its (Take the) Causeway IPA and Judge Roy Bean coffee stout, which are also available in bottles at stores throughout the area.
“When we opened in 2013, we produced less than 500 barrels of beer and were distributed solely in Mobile and Baldwin counties,” said Jim Foley, one of the brewery’s managing partners. “In 2017, we are on pace to brew about 4,500 barrels.”
You therefore can enjoy a variety of Fairhope Brewing’s beers without ever visiting its taproom on the Eastern Shore, but you’d be missing out on a lot it has to offer. Along with its staples, the brewery always has a number of small-batch brews available, usually with as many as a dozen beers on tap, most of which you can only get there.
In addition to being a great place to meet friends, the taproom also hosts regular events, such as trivia and live local music. Since its inception, Fairhope Brewing Co. has also been involved in hosting a number of charity events.
“In 2016, we helped to raise over $10,000 in our taproom for various charities through promotions like our Rescue Dog Red donation to the Baldwin County Humane Society, [and] our annual ‘Suck It, Cancer’ crawfish boil for the American Cancer Society,” Foley said. “We have made it our mission to have all Lower Alabamians consider us their hometown brewery, and we view our charitable efforts as a way to make that a goal a reality.”
Last year, Baldwin County got its second craft brewery when Big Beach Brewing Co. opened its doors in Gulf Shores in October. Like Fairhope Brewing, its taproom on the corner of 2nd Street and 24th Avenue (across the street from Tacky Jack’s) is a great place to meet people and enjoy a fresh beer. It has an outdoor green space, and large, garage-style doors that create an indoor-outdoor atmosphere perfect for the beach. Big Beach hosts a number of events, including regular live music and monthly movies, yoga and sushi classes. There is also a special firkin tapping the first Thursday of every month.
Owners Jim and Julie Shamburger moved to Gulf Shores in 1996 and were surprised there was no craft brewery in the area.
“We couldn’t understand why smaller communities had one or two breweries and Gulf Shores didn’t have one,” remarked Julie. Finally, they decided to make a go of it themselves. Eight months in, they have been happy with the support they’ve received from the local community.
“We opened in a slow period,” Jim said, but have developed “a great following from a local clientele” throughout Lower Alabama and as far east as Pensacola. Now they are ready for their first summer season.
Aided by brewmaster Rod Murray, who had more than 20 years’ brewing experience before moving to the coast, they offer four regular beers — including their flagship Rod’s Reel Cream Ale — and numerous seasonal brews. They are presently focusing on some lighter beers for the summer, including the Beach Express Blonde, which comes in a 12-ounce pour for $3.50, just like the toll bridge.
Across the bay in Mobile, last year Keith Sherrill leased the former Crystal Ice House just off Canal Street to convert into the Haint Blue Brewing Co.
“We are planning more of a restoration of the Ice House … than a renovation,” Sherrill said. “We want you to know that you’re sitting in an iconic Southern building when you visit us for a pint of beer.”
There is currently a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for the restoration; information on how to get involved can be found at wefunder.com/haintbluebrew.
However, after being granted permission from the city to move ahead with the renovations, the city’s variance was challenged by a Mobile resident and the development of a brewery is on hold for the moment. Sherrill said the case will go before a judge soon, and if all goes well he hopes to open by the end of the year.
But wait — haven’t we seen Haint Blue beers on tap around town already? Yes; despite his difficulties in getting the brewery up and running, Sherrill entered into an agreement with Mississippi’s Lazy Magnolia Brewery in Kiln to produce its beers for distribution until the legal issues in Mobile are cleared up.
Haint Blue — the name comes from the color found on the porch ceilings of many historic Mobile homes, which is supposed to keep away evil spirits — currently produces three beers: an IPA, a porter and a saffron Saison. The IPA is now available in bottles, so look for it in local stores.
While the development of the taphouse for Haint Blue remains on hold for the moment, Serda’s Brewing Co. is planning on an August opening of its brewery and taproom in the old Goodyear tire garage on Government Street, near the Ben May Library. The owner, John Serda (pictured on the cover), is known for his Serda’s Coffee Shops in Mobile and Daphne. Serda has wanted to get involved in the beer business for a while, and expects to distribute his new craft brews not just in the Mobile area, but throughout the Gulf Coast region.
“We plan on being the Corona of craft beers,” he said, with a market area from the Florida Keys to the Texas coast. He is building a 30-barrel brewhouse and soon will begin producing four styles — a lager, a porter, an IPA and a Viennese ale — for distribution. Serda believes his lager will help his brand stand out, as fewer craft breweries produce them.
Serda said his initial plans were mainly for off-site distribution with just a small taproom, but the demand in Mobile for a place to enjoy local craft beer convinced him to develop a larger, more elaborate space. His taproom will house a pilot brewery for producing up to 15 small-batch brews that will only be available on-site, in a modern space with all types of amenities.
There will be high-speed internet access available, along with numerous big-screen TVs. The garage doors from the old repair shop will remain to open the taproom to an outdoor seating area, right on Government Street, and there will also be space for food trucks to hook up next to the brewery.
The taproom will also be available for private parties. Serda said he already has five events booked, even before the facility has been completed. To help fund the renovation of the old Goodyear building, Serda has also launched a crowdfunding campaign. Those who help fund the campaign will receive different rewards — from stickers to glassware to apparel — depending on the amount of their pledge (information can be found at serdabrewing.com).
Married couple Ben Ross and Rebecca Williams hope to open a very different type of local brewery by the end of the year in DeTonti Square, just north of downtown Mobile — a neighborhood brewpub. Brewpubs can serve food (unlike the breweries in Alabama) along with their beers, as long as they have seating for at least 80 patrons.
Unlike Serda’s or Haint Blue, Iron Hand Brewing will only be selling its beer on-site, as the city of Mobile prohibits brewpubs from any off-premise sales, even growlers. The state of Alabama does allow brewpubs to sell up to 5,000 barrels a year off-site, and while Ross said he hopes that eventually Mobile will change its regulations, for now they are just focused on getting developing some good beers and building a clientele.
The brewpub is named for Henri DeTonti, an Italian soldier and explorer who came to North America in the 17th century with the famed French explorer Robert de LaSalle. As an agent of the French government, he established numerous trading posts throughout the lower Mississippi Valley, and was known as the “Father of Arkansas” for his founding of the Arkansas Post along the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers in 1686.
Also known for his distinctive iron hook, the result of losing his right hand in battle, DeTonti died in Old Mobile (north of the present-day city) in 1704. Mobile’s DeTonti Square neighborhood is named in his honor, and the brewpub will be located on the ground floor of the old Waterfront Rescue Mission, built as a church in 1927.
“We hope to take a building that was an important part of the community and allow it to remain an important part of the community,” Williams said, adding the pub also hoped to host charity events for causes the couple cares about, such as their building’s former tenant, the Waterfront Rescue Mission, and Wounded Warriors, in honor of the pub’s namesake.
Iron Hand Brewery plans to feature four or five staple brews, including Ross’ signature pumpkin ale — made with pumpkin pie — which won the gold medal at a homebrewing competition in Navarre, Florida. He will initially serve as both brewmaster and head of the kitchen, which will feature traditional British and American pub fare, such as bangers and mash, and burgers and fries.
He plans to develop a number of seasonal brews to pair with food items, and also hopes to get input from patrons on ideas for beer styles. As the pub will have a full liquor license, he said they are thinking about offering selections from craft distilleries at the bar as well, further distinguishing Iron Hand from the other local breweries.
As the number of breweries in the area promises to expand dramatically in the coming months, some have raised the question of whether the craft brew market in Lower Alabama will become saturated. Those in the business certainly did not think so, at least not with the number of breweries currently open or planning to open.
“For almost four years, we were the only Alabama brewery within 150 miles, and that is obviously not the best way to create a craft beer culture,” Fairhope Brewing Co.’s Foley said. “The more breweries we have in the area, the more people will be exposed to craft beer, and craft beer’s popularity will continue to grow in our area. So we are very excited to get some friends nearby.”
“Look at Portland, other areas of the Northwest,” said Iron Hand’s Ross. “Every corner has a craft brewery.”
Closer to home, Pensacola, at about a quarter the size of Mobile, has three breweries and a number of brewpubs; the Mississippi Gulf Coast has three breweries. Huntsville has seven breweries, and Birmingham five.
According to the Alabama Brewer’s Guild, the production of Alabama-brewed beer grew by about 34 percent in 2016, providing an environment to embrace the growth of craft brewing. Beer tourism is a real phenomenon, with an estimated 10 million Americans visiting the more than 5,000 craft breweries in the U.S. every year.
Both Birmingham and North Alabama have capitalized on beer tourism, promoting “beer trails” for hops pilgrims to follow. Perhaps one day soon we will see a Gulf Coast Beer Trail that stretches from Baton Rouge to Panama City, with Mobile Bay as its hub.