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Why do I drink craft beer?

This is a comment that happens way too often. “Why do you drink that frou-frou stuff? Why can’t you drink normal beer?”  Well, because I don’t like the taste of corn in my beer for a start.

Historically beer contained 3 ingredients: water, malt, hops. It was very simple, and naturally fermented. Now we add cultured strains of yeast for more consistency in flavor and brewing time, but that’s a minor issue. I’ll explain more about the history of brewing and why corn isn’t good in another post, but the real problem is that billions of dollars of advertising have persuaded people that “beer” is fizzy, yellow, interchangeable, and cheap. People asking why someone else drinks craft instead of industrial beer is like asking why they go to Hamburger Heaven or Five Guys instead of McDonalds Dollar Menu burgers. Technically they are the same… but they aren’t.

Another phrase used is “I want to drink American beer!”. Um… Anheuser-Busch is owned by a Brazilian-Belgian company. Miller is owned by South African Breweries. Coors is owned by Molson, who are Canadian. The beers I drink are brewed by my friends, my neighbors, by the guys who live down the street from me. If you want an American beer, buy local.


I will leave you with this very entertaining video from an Alaskan brewery.


Posted in educational

Brewery tour: Back40 in Gadsden

Where: Back Forty Beer C0, 200 North 6th Street, Gadsden, AL, (256) 467-4912.

How to find them: if your GPS gets confused like mine did, head to Blackstone Pub and Eatery on Broad Street, turn right onto 6th St and as you head towards the train tracks you will see Back Forty right in front of you.

Back40 Brewery premises

Back40, regenerating downtown Gadsden

Their history, while interesting and well worth a read, is not why I visited Back Forty. I came to Gadsden to catch up with the brewery staff on where they are now, and how they are impacting their home town. The answer is “quite considerably”: since Back Forty set up operations at these premises in 2010, Gadsden’s historic business district has seen a renaissance and is now at 93% business occupancy. For a former steel town in a very pretty part of rural Alabama, 93% business occupancy on their Main Street is an achievement worth crowing about.  I am not being subjective when I refer to this are as very pretty: the area is contains nationally recognised natural landscape areas including Little River Canyon, Noccalula Falls, and Lookout Mountain.

So, what is this small business that is having such a huge impact on the local economy? At the local level there is tremendous pride in Back40 – they have won the County Small Business of the Year award and helped regenerate the entire downtown area. Not content with this achievement, Back40 was the first Alabama brewery to distribute out of state, sending tasty brews to Mississippi. Don’t worry, Alabama – 90% of their brews are sold in-state, with Birmingham and Mobile being the biggest markets.

The brewery fits the Brewers’ Association definition of a “regional” brewery – annual production between 15,000 and 6mn barrels. Alabama having one regional brewery is a startling achievement, the fact that we have two (Good People in Birmingham) is a tribute to the passion of the brewers, the quality of their product, and the explosive growth in the craft beer market since Free the Hops piloted the ABV change in 2009. The taproom, which no doubt hugely helps the local regeneration, is open 5pm to 7pm Monday to Friday, and 3pm to 8pm on Saturdays. Continuing their theme of local pride, photographs and art from local artists is on prominent display in the taproom. “Will paint for beer” should be on the walls!

There is one indicator in a food or beverage business that shows how they approach things – when you walk in the door of the restroom. The Back40 mens’ restroom is clean, well lit, appropriately decorated, and smells clean. This is a very good state of affairs, and pleased me immensely. Then again, knowing the Back40 folks like I do, this also came as no surprise – they are extremely passionate about what they do, so no detail goes overlooked. If you have the opportunity to speak with Jason Wilson, Trip Collins, Jamie Ray, or really anyone who works here, be prepared to have your ear talked off. The crew here are justifiably proud of what they have done, and you should give them a chance to brag about it 🙂

Now for the serious business: their beer. Back40 have a fantastic line-up of regular, easy drinking beers that lend themselves easily to food pairings. Feel free to ignore what I say here and experiment with your own pairings….



Appearance: a pleasing light golden brown.

Smell: the honey comes through very clearly due to its late addition at the end of the boil – all the honey aromatics are retained.

Taste: The honey sweetness presents on the middle of the tongue with the hop bite on the edge of the tongue.

Mouthfeel: creamy.

Food pairings: cookout. Whatever you put on the grill, Truck Stop will work with it.



Appearance: clear golden color.

Smell: bright, piney Cascade hops.

Taste: malt sweetness leads to a broad hop bite.

Aftertaste: clean, crisp bitterness.

Food pairings: barbecue, Mexican, mild curries, mild Cheddar.



Appearance: mahogany brown.

Smell: chocolate and coffee.

Taste: Chocolate, coffee, restrained bitterness.

Aftertaste: hop bitterness and chocolate.

Food pairings: dessert! Chocolate cake, cheesecake, whatever you would have coffee with.



Appearance: like pine wood – an appealing golden color.

Smell: Citrus and tropical fruits from the Cascade and Centennial hops.

Taste: sweet tropical fruit balanced by a broad bitterness.

Aftertaste: very clean, no lingering bitterness.

Food pairings: pull out the heat. Spicy chili, hot curries, Buffalo wings at “volcano” level – bring in the hurt, salve it with the IPA!

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Posted in educational, Gadsden-area brewery, place

Curry and beer

Although many people find it strange to pair anything other than a traditional lager/pilsner with a curry, there are many different options available to the more adventurous. Just remember: making the wrong choice won’t lead to disaster! (They lead to a subpar pairing, which is just as bad.) If you get the pairing wrong, just set the beer aside for later and try a different one. And make a note of it for next time!

Hot spicy curry (tomato base)

Examples: dopiaza, vindaloo, biryani, some Thai curries.
These types of curry have a lot of different and fiery flavours going on, usually featuring a lot of chili peppers. Chili means capsaicin, which is an oily molecule, so fairly much any beer will have the carbonation to scrub the capsaicin from your tongue, but with so much going on in here, you need an assertively muscular partner such as India Pale Ales (IPA) and regular Pale Ales.

These beers have bright, crackly hop bitterness, carbonation, and sweet malt going for them allowing them to complement the spices (hops) and provide a pleasing sweet after-taste to contrast the rest of the dish. The other curry ingredients can add bright acidity (tomatoes, vinegar) or earthiness (lentils, mushrooms) or richness (red meat), so experiment with the different beers to see which combinations you like most. Try pairing these curries with Good People IPA or Snake Handler double IPA, Back40 Freckle Belly IPA, Straight to Ale Monkeynaut, or Beer Engineers’ muscular Velocity Imperial Ale.

You can also consider the more distinctive American Wild Ales such as Jolly Pumpkin which provide a sour or tart component to offset the richness. If you go for a Belgian Lambic or Geuze, please let me know how it works out for you 🙂

Rich creamy curry

Examples: Thai curry with coconut milk, korma, tikka masala, pasanda.
These curries are highly fragrant, and rich with cream or coconut milk. A more delicate touch is required lest the beer turn harsh or completely overwhelm the more subtle flavours of the curry. For these, I’d suggest Belgian-style beers which provide a richness along with aggressive carbonation to clean those heavy flavours off your tongue.

Excellent local offerings right now include Avondale Miss Fancy’s Tripel, Straight To Ale Brother Joseph’s Double, or Blue Pants’ unusual Hoppy Tripel.


If you have no idea what to do, or are feeling overwhelmed with choices, go to a store that allows you to make mixed 6 packs and have an experimental curry/beer night. I will close with a word of warning, though: pairing good beer and curry will radically change your experience, and you won’t be able to go back to a blah, ho-hum mass lager. You’ve been warned 🙂

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Posted in Birmingham-area brewery, educational, Gadsden-area brewery, Huntsville-area brewery, pairings

Straight to Ale Intimidator Doppelbock

9% ABV

Poured from: bomber

Appearance: cloudy brown with deep ruby highlights, thin effervescent head. A very attractive pour.

Aroma: A light sweetness underlies a gentle hop aroma. It wouldn’t surprise me if STA used Noble Hops in their recipe, as it has some of the dark, almost earthy/grassy aromatics associated with Noble Hops like most Bohemian Pilsners. This smell could persuade lager drinkers to embrace a real beer!

Taste: Intimidator drops a rich, malty, almost caramel flavour followed by a hop funk. It is slightly boozy, but not a harsh presence. The back of your throat delivers subtle fruity notes, with a dark, almost savory, cherry presence.

Mouthfeel: Surprisingly light and effervescent. It seems almost over-carbonated for the style, but that helps it to dance on your tongue.

Aftertaste: As is typical for a good doppelbock, the aftertaste is very clean with just a subtle sweetness.

As it warms: the sweetness emerges more along with the dark fruity notes. The after-taste is still very clean making this a surprisingly quaffable beer.

Overall: this is an assertive, muscular beer that carries its weight with aplomb, a sure sign of a confident and experienced brewmaster. If STA continue in this way they will take a well-deserved place in the upper echelons of craft brewers.

Suggested food pairings

This beer will go well with venison, rabbit, and wild game generally. You could also try it out with earthy cheeses like Brie or Camembert.

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Posted in beer, Huntsville-area brewery

Video review: Beer Engineers Peanut Butter Porter

Video review of BE Peanut Butter Porter

Changing things up a bit by doing a thoroughly irreverent video review with my buddy Joseph Baker wherein we touch on a little of the BS that breweries go through to get their beer onto the shelves.

In post-review conversation we kicked around food pairings and decided that braised beef, pork stir-fried in peanut oil, or chili would be great accompaniments to this wonderfully oddball beer.


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Posted in beer, Birmingham-area brewery, educational, pairings, reviews

Pairing beer and cheese

I love being asked unexpected questions about pairing beer and food, so when I got a request from a distributor to put together some pairings for a segment on a local TV station (ABC 33/40) I jumped at the challenge:

The request
Cheese pairings for

  • Straight to Ale Lily Flagg (milk stout)
  • Straight to Ale Intimidator (doppelbock)
  • Straight to Ale Laika (Russian imperial stout)
  • Straight to Ale Vern’s Wheat Wine
  • Good People’s IPA
  • Good People Brown
  • Good People Snake Handler (double IPA)
  • Blue Pants Wee Heavy (Scotch Ale)
  • Blue Pants Black IPA
  • Yellowhammer Quadrupel (Belgian style)
  • Yellowhammer Chardonnay Aged Saison

My suggestions

  • IPAs pair well with Havarti, Gouda, or Brie without rind
  • Saisons are very flexible, but don’t go well with blue cheese
  • Doppelbocks pair nicely with smoked cheese
  • Belgian-style goes with anything

Then came a more challenging question:

What would you put with cream cheese and pepper jelly?

After some consideration of the various flavors and textures I suggested a stout, barleywine, or Vern (wheat wine).

I don’t know if they actually tried these combinations – the aired segment did not show anyone testing it, but I find it hard to believe all those tasty beers and cheeses would be set up and then just thrown away…

If you’d like to see the segment, it’s still online at

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Posted in Birmingham-area brewery, educational, Huntsville-area brewery, pairings

Straight To Ale Laika Imperial Stout

Straight To Ale Laika Imperial Stout
9.75% ABV
Poured from: bomber

Appearance: jet black. Motor oil and used molasses. Thin off-brown head. Occasional sound of photons dying in agony as they hit the surface of the beer.

Smell: very complex. Coffee, almonds?, caramel? savory nuts? It smells absolutely divine!

Taste: starts with almond/nut? Coffee, sweetness, broad-palate restrained bitterness, subtle hints of intensely dark chocolate. Good gravy, it’s complex. If you take your time allowing the nectar to slide slowly down your throat, a dark citrus hop snap expresses itself in the middle of your tongue. As each of these characteristics express themselves, this already complex beer just expresses more depth and complexity. It’s the gift that keeps giving.

Mouthfeel: this is a *thick* beer. It is dense and densely silky, with the carbonation struggling to enliven this beer and stop it from being a thick layer of dense deliciousness across your tongue. As it is,the carbonation allows a subversive hint of lightness to sneak in, allowing a darkest of dark chocolate taste to express itself at the very back of your throat.

Aftertaste: dark roast coffee, dark chocolate, subtle hints of evil? Occasional visits from hop bitterness. A zingy, almost citrussy tingle lies across the tongue.

As it warms: we served this beer at cool room temperature, so it was pretty much at the right temperature for such a dense beer. The silky richness keeps on slapping you in the mouth, powering through to a coffee/chocolate/hop flavor.

Overall: massive kudos to the guys at STA. They have produced my perfect RIS.

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Posted in beer, Huntsville-area brewery

Patriot Joe’s Ale

Currently Alabama has only one brewpub. This should change rapidly in coming years, but being the only one at present has put Patriot Joe’s into the spotlight.


Heroes Grill – the restaurant that houses PJ’s – is a rather normal looking roadhouse restaurant. Their menu is well thought-out to meet the needs of their clientele, but how do the beers stack up?


Patriot Joe’s Hefeweizen pours a slightly cloudy golden yellow. The smell is sweet and subtly spiced – I picked up notes of cloves and hints of bubblegum. The flavor follows through on the promise of the nose, being wheaty, sweet, subtly clove-spice. The aftertaste is a very gentle bitterness. An easy, approachable quaffer.


The American IPA category is hugely competitive, with world+dog producing ever more highly hopped, ever higher ABV examples. In this arms race something has been lost – that an IPA should be a sipping beer, not a “melt your fillings” beer. PJ’s have not lost sight of this with their take on the IPA style – it pours a clear, light golden brown and has a caramel, bready, slightly hop funk-y nose. The flavor comes through from the smell with a nice caramel sweetness followed by an assertive – but not aggressive – hop snap, and finishes with a lingering bitter after-taste. Unlike a lot of American IPAs, Joe’s eschews the grapefruity, citrussy hop attack and goes for a much more British style, broad palate-pleasing bitterness that makes this beer an easier companion to food.


A quick note on what I expect in a porter and what, for me, separates a porter from a stout. A porter should show ruby red highlights when held to a light source, the flavor and smell should be chocolate-forward, coffee should be a background note, and the hops should be restrained. A stout, to me, should be jet black, opaque, strongly coffee-forward, with background notes of chocolate. Hops can be a bit more pronounced, but should not be aggressive. (This entirely subjective note is to explain what preconceptions I have when I go into reviewing a porter or a stout.)

With the above caveat out of the way, how does PJ’s porter stack up to my expectations? The beer pours a very dark woody brown. When held to a light source, ruby highlights come through. The nose is sweet and chocolatey. The flavor follows through properly – a subtle smokiness (quite unexpected but delicious), chocolate, and with a gently evanescent bitterness, leaving a smoky chocolate after-taste. Wonderful.


Leaving aside my quibbles about the authenticity of the use of the word “Scotch” to describe an ale, let’s take a slurp at PJ’s “Scotch” ale.

Appearance – a pleasing mid-brown color. Smell – caramel malts. A very promising start, there is almost no hop presence here. Taste – oh, wow. Alcohol, pancake syrup, toffee, dark fruits, all powering through to a Christmas Cake after-taste. When I asked Joe what beer he modeled this after, he told me Traquair House Ale. Nicely done, and a wonderful beer that doesn’t hide its 12% ABV – not that it should. When sipping one of these you should know what you are letting yourself in for!


Pours a cloudy woody brown. The smell is brown sugar. The flavor reveals itself coyly – it starts with a brown sugar sweetness, then pops you across the palate with a broad gentle bitterness. (I wonder how it would pair with some authentic German pork sausage?) The after-taste is a clean, subtle hop funk.


Patriot Joe’s brewmaster, Joe Donahue, has obviously modeled his recipes after a more European style. This is a good approach as European brewers have centuries of tweaking recipes to match with their food and their culture – Patriot Joe’s is bringing that tradition of eating, drinking, and generally having a good time into his neighborhood. The other aspect to his choice reflects the whole ethos of “think drink local”: Joe knows his target demographic, because he lives there. He tunes his beers to appeal to the local palate and food culture, which is exactly what thinking local is all about.

Go see for yourself – not because Patriot Joe’s is the first brewpub in post-Brewery Modernization Act Alabama, but because Patriot Joe’s and Heroes Grille are part of what the future holds for Alabama.

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Posted in Anniston-area brewery, beer

Breweries making a difference

Avondale Brewing, in Birmingham, has already transformed its neighborhood. First they converted an old firehouse to become their brewery and taproom, and then they offered 6 months of free rent to a local business which would both complement and augment the local area, with the aim of recreating a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood. No longer an abandoned, unwanted neighborhood, Avondale Brewing is drawing in young professionals and bringing back the people who left.

But Good People, fewer than 3 miles away, started the process in 2010 when they moved to their new premises not long before Railroad Park opened, part of a symbiotic process that’s changing downtown Birmingham. Running groups traverse the area before ending up at Good People’s taproom, while other people do the reverse. Either way, the downtown area is becoming well-used, with people around at all different times of day and in all different seasons. And once the ballpark opens, you can expect to see the mix of people changing even more as a formerly dead area becomes alive once more.

Back Forty Beer Co is sited in the heart of the historic Gadsden business district. In the less than 2 years they have been there, occupancy of Broad Street has increased to 93%, a phenomenal rate of occupancy for this main street, and symptomatic of the kind of regeneration that craft breweries can produce.

And even better, as each local brewery opens (Cahaba Brewing being the newest, and located almost exactly halfway between Good People and Avondale), the friendly areas expand. People start walking more, which encourages them to visit local stores and other businesses, or just to enjoy the newly renovated areas like Railroad Park and Avondale Park.

Slowly but surely, we’re taking back our communities from business districts which are deserted at night and on weekends, and bringing back family-friendly areas, stores and a growing sense of community. And most of it is thanks to the breweries.

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Posted in Birmingham-area brewery, Gadsden-area brewery

Beer float

I thoroughly enjoy making people feel confused about beer.  There are so many preconceptions about beer caused by the advertising for mass brands that saying two words – “beer float?” – makes people come to a shuddering halt.

Their confusion comes from the concept of adding ice cream to a mass lager. That is, indeed, a confusing concept, and would probably be quite revolting. But taking a nice craft beer with “porter” or “stout” in its name and adding some vanilla bean ice cream to the glass? That’s the stuff that dreams are made of.

How to make a beer float

Take a nice vanilla bean ice cream, and scoop into the bottom of a large glass – iced tea glasses are normally the perfect size. Gently pour on top of the ice cream a small quantity of your chosen stout or porter, and be patient – the beer will foam up a lot, so if you are too enthusiastic about pouring beer onto the ice cream you may commit the terrible crime of wasting good stuff! Once the foam has died down you can add more beer until you get to the “right amount”.

What is the “right amount”? That’s up to you – adjust amount of ice cream and beer to suit your tastes. You can play around with exact ratios of ice cream to beer to suit your own palate, but be warned – the level of research required to sort out your perfect ratio of beer/ice cream can lead to some highly enjoyable evenings with friends!

Taking it further

Once you’ve perfected your beer float, you may wish to experiment with different flavors of ice cream. What about a chocolate or coffee flavor, to add richness to your stout or porter? Or you can try a strawberry icecream with a sweeter light beer, like a saison or a Belgian lambic. Or go the other way, with something like Blue Pants’ Strawberry Saison and vanilla.
This article contains even more suggestions. Have fun!

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Posted in cooking with beer, educational, Huntsville-area brewery, pairings