Isn’t it odd that an area the size of greater Mobile – generally including Daphne, Fairhope, Foley, Spanish Fort, Bayou la Batre, Grand Bay, Dauphin Island and the other localities within Mobile and Baldwin Counties – has only one good microbrewery? And it’s not as though we’ve got a bunch of mediocre microbreweries to go with it. We’ve got one microbrewery, period.
As much as I love the Fairhope Brewing Company, which makes great beer and was the subject of my very first Lagniappe column, I think it’s time it had some siblings. People in the bay area do drink beer; I’ve seen them. So why does Fairhope Brewing still stand alone?
I don’t mean to be controversial (yeah, right) and I suppose someone could ask why Mobile needs any breweries at all, but I believe more breweries would make for a more vibrant, destination-oriented area. Sure, Mobile needs other things – like improved infrastructure, lower sales tax and mandatory recycling (now there’s controversy!) – but a rising tide lifts all boats and I’d like a rising tide of craft beer.
The catalyst for this little rant was my most recent trip to Huntsville, where I tried beers from three local microbreweries – and I could’ve tried more. Why do Huntsville and Madison County have at least half a dozen while we have only one? A map of Alabama’s microbreweries looks like a paint splatter: lots in the north, with some drips running southbound and one last drop in Fairhope.
I wrote in this paper last year that the Port City Brewery name had been robbed out from under us by a brewery in Alexandria, Va., but I saw a fine example in Huntsville of exactly what Mobile could create.
Below the Radar Brewhouse sits at the northern edge of Huntsville’s amazingly revitalized-looking downtown, at 220 Holmes Avenue. I recommend you visit if you’re ever in Huntsville, I recommend Below the Radar’s beers and I strongly recommend we create a venue like it. But I think you’ve got the point, so let’s talk beer.
The Brewhouse serves a range of Below the Radar (BTR) beers as well as beers from other breweries in Huntsville and around the world. BTR’s brewery isn’t on-site at the Brewhouse, but according to General Manager Jason Allison, expansion is underway and the brewery will be relocated – visible from the bar – by the end of July. Jason and his staff believe beer and whiskey go together, so the Brewhouse drinks menu also features roughly 30 bourbons and American whiskies, and they plan to add more.
I started out with BTR’s Bee-yatch Blonde Ale (there’s a joke in the name but you have to say it aloud, and with just the right inflection), a medium-gold brew with faint honey aromas.
Chase Shelton, the bar manager, called it BTR’s lightest and most accessible craft beer, designed “for the older crowd.” (I tend to resent that remark, but he was a lot bigger than me so I didn’t punch him.) He also said the brewers chose the name for no particular reason, but because they tend to “act their shoe size, not their age,” or words to that effect. I wouldn’t want to get him into trouble, even after his “older crowd” gibe. I guess he can call me on my Jitterbug to complain.
Bee-yatch Blonde tasted slightly smoky (possibly nutty) and dry but not bitter. There’s a good balance of malt and hop flavors with nothing overwhelming, not even the alcohol content at 5.5 percent ABV. It’s a food-friendly beer, pairing well with the Brewhouse’s fish and chips, and especially with their beer battered onion rings (some of the best onion rings I’ve ever eaten, clearly house-made with light, tempura-style batter, but I don’t write about food…)
One of my taster-helpers tried BTR’s Shadow Ops Black IPA (7.5 percent ABV), which had a nearly opaque black color and mostly hop aromas. He said it started with slightly sweet notes, followed by a bone-dry bitter hop finish. Shadow Ops was his first black IPA and he was startled by its lack of caramel or chocolate flavors — like I was with my first black IPA. They look like Porters, but taste much different.
Next up for me was BTR Cryptic Double IPA, served in a 10-ounce glass, not a pint – probably a good idea given its 9 percent ABV. Cryptic has huge citrus-pine aromas followed by a humongous citrus-pine palate (there’s nothing cryptic about there being hops in this beer). The deep-amber colored brew has a tannic mouthfeel, but finishes with a pleasant smack of molasses. Cryptic is heavy-duty, but its unexpected sweet finish creates a really well-rounded beer.
Finally, I wanted to taste a guest beer (BTR has them on tap, as well as bottled brews beyond counting), so I tried Cave City Lager from the Old Black Bear Brewing Company – a Huntsville brewery currently brewing on contract at Gadsden’s Back Forty Brewing Company. Cave City is a black lager with a gorgeous red color. Flavors include toffee (or maybe light-blend coffee) and very little bitterness, although there’s a distinct hop note on the finish. It feels dry around the edges of your tongue but sweet in the middle; you’ll have to try it to see. Bar staff called it “an amber ale on steroids.” I called it delicious, particularly with the aforementioned fish and chips.
Don’t visit Below the Radar Brewhouse expecting to find all the beers I’ve mentioned, though, because the lineup can change daily. General Manager Jason told me BTR had “the most dynamic beer list” he’d seen in his 26 years’ experience. When one keg runs dry, they hook up something new. Brilliant!
So when will Mobile seem more local microbreweries? Can we replace “Port City” with a new microbrew pub? We need one, we want one and I think we could make a go of one. Those rocket scientists up north shouldn’t have all the fun.
BTR’s beers are trickling south, by the way, and will hopefully be on tap in Mobile soon.