It doesn’t have dozens of breweries or some beer heritage story, but North Alabama does have one thing going for it that’s unique: rocket scientists.
Huntsville, Alabama is one of the smartest places in the country, one of those cities where a master’s degree makes you average and a doctorate degree might get you a job interview. That’s because it’s “Rocket City,” whether that means the place where the Space Shuttle and other rockets were designed or where the secret weapons that can blow up a Taliban target from 200 miles away are formulated. (Let’s leave aside the politics of that and just watch Team America, World Police for a laugh.)
Making craft beer may not require rocket scientists, but there is a lot of chemistry and experimentation going on in the brewing process. Plus if you mess things up, you could have an explosion. A very messy one.
The North Alabama Craft Beer Trail is the main guide to get you started in the area. Check out their official website for maps, summaries, and links to breweries in the area. The trail is kind of a lopsided diamond, with Back 40 Beer Company in Gadsden being the southeastern point, Singin’ River Brewing Company in Muscle Shoals being the northwestern tip. In between you’ve got nine more in the group, with the largest concentration around Huntsville.
I found a lot of good craft beer to love in Huntsville and didn’t venture beyond the city last time I was there, but I did try an AstroNut Brown Ale from Rocket Republic Brewing Company in Madison, AL. I was trying to check out a variety of rocket-themed beers and they have plenty in this area: Apollo Amber Ale, Mach 1 IPA, Scotch Rocket, Vapor Trail Cream Ale… you get the idea.
Decatur, Alabama didn’t have a brewery when I visited the area last year, but now they’re set. Cross-Eyed Owl Brewing Company opened up earlier this year. I’m sure others will follow to add to the trail.
Rocket City Breweries
Even if, like me, you don’t make it out of Huntsville, you’ve still got plenty of really good craft breweries to choose from. Two of them are in the same place even, close enough to downtown that you could walk if you’re staying there, or a short cab/Uber ride if not. They’re in a cool multi-function space that used to be a middle school: Campus 805.
Straight to Ale is one of the state’s largest breweries and they win the prize for the best artwork. Every beer has its own special design, usually playing off the local rocket theme or their devilish attitude. Their IPA is called Monkeynaut, honoring the first of our kind to head into space.
You can buy their most popular regular offerings in cans if you can’t make it to the brewery, where they have 10 beers on tap and food to order. On Saturdays you can tour their brewery, which is located in the school gymnasium like you see in that top photo. They kept the scoreboard.
Yellowhammer Brewing also makes great beer at Campus 805 but they’re going beyond IPAs and stouts. They specialize in Belgian-style and German brews like White beer and Schwarzbier. When Huntsville hosted a travel bloggers conference, we had a party in the space and rocket center and fittingly drank the Yellowhammer beer T-Minus. One of the strangest brews I’ve had more than one of, I’ll let them describe it:
T-Minus is inspired by the famous powdered orange drink sent to space with America’s first astronauts. Notes of tangerine brighten the palate & pair wonderfully with the clean finish of the German-Style Kölsch
You can try theirs with a good brick oven pizza on site or pick them up in cans in stores.
Salty Nut Brewery in Huntsville is a comfortable place to kick back and drink whatever you like. They have an outdoor area with a fire pit when it gets cool and inside the walls have reclaimed wood from an old barn. The choices are wide and good, from blonde to red to stout, with a few side trips like a peach ale and a nut brown ale. Good stuff!
Mad Malts Brewing seems like a hobbyists kind of place with its cheesy logo and day drinker hours at the tap room, but the quality beers they have produced are available all over town in bars and restaurants. At any given time they’ll have 12-20 beers available or brewing and they’re not afraid to experiment. If you’re looking for something different, try the vanilla porter, the oked double rye, or the seasonal specials based on what’s growing at nearby farms.
Madison, Alabama sounds like a different city, but it’s really just a newer suburb of Huntsville, for those who have traded a downtown mansion for a custom home on a cul-de-sac. Old Black Bear Brewing takes an outdoors and conservation approach to its naming, giving us Las Trust Trail Ale, Cave City Lager, and Speckled Trout American Wheat. Available at local bars and supermarkets, or you can get a full meal at their taproom.
Outside of Rocket City
A few notable breweries are close by on the North Alabama beer trail if you want to go on an exploration trip. Goat Island Brewing is in the small town of Cullman, which doesn’t exactly have a robust history of producing beer. It’s “the first brewery in Cullen since the 80s — that’s the umm 1880s.” They gravitate toward German-style beers and seem to be doing it right: their Colonel’s Fest Bier won a bronze in an Alabama brewing awards contest.
Main Channel Brewery is the first one ever in Guntersville, so go support them so the town can step up from what you normally see at an Auburn-Alabama tailgating party. They’re not trying to reinvent the wheel or serve up beers that look like dessert items on a menu. Just five well-made standards worth drinking.
There were 11 breweries listed when this post went up, but there may be more when you plan your trip to North Alabama. Check the site here for a full rundown.
Article by editor Tim Leffel, who served as Conference Director for TBEX North America in Huntsville. To the best of his recollection, he paid for some of these beers and was offered some for free by local tourism authorities and breweries.