Birmingham’s burgeoning craft beer culture will soon be getting its latest infusion in the form of Ghost Train Brewing Company, a husband-and-wife venture headed by Taylor and Paige DeBoer, both natives. The début of their line of beers, currently comprised of four varieties, will take place June 5 and 6 at the Magic City Brewfest.
As of now, Ghost Train is a disembodied entity as far as Birmingham goes; their brewing will be contracted out to Crooked Letter Brewing Company in Ocean Springs, Miss., while the DeBoers search for suitable real estate here in the city.
The hunt is “really in preliminary stages right now,” according to Mr. DeBoer, who said that they are currently speaking with developers to try and find the right location. He stressed that they intend to hold out for a good piece of property, since the taproom and its accompanying atmosphere are central to their vision of what the brewery should be.
DeBoer has had experience in the brewing industry prior to this endeavor, and he said that with those ventures it was “more of a ‘get the equipment, find a place to put it at any cost and put it up and so on,’ and we’re being more strategic this time around. We’re contract brewing, and we’re going to make sure that our branding and our beers are good and are selling, and then we’re going to move into a location.”
Luckily for Ghost Train, contract brewing is a booming business at the moment, Mr. DeBoer said. “Contracts are really hard to get right now; there’s not much excess capacity…and everyone is just slammed,” he said. “No one in Alabama can contract for you, really.”
DeBoer spoke highly of Crooked Letter, the Mississippi company to whom the brewing will be contracted for the time being.
“[Gadsden-based brewery] Back Forty used to be the big one, and they would contract different people’s brands, but they’ve gotten so popular that they can’t keep up with their own operation. … They’re at maximum capacity with their own brands now, and they’re just kind of saying, ‘Ok guys, that was fun, but get out of our brewery,’” he said.
It may be easy to see why, in this environment, having a contract with Crooked Letter would be reassuring. It also may be clear, however, how important it is to land that crucial piece of turf in Birmingham, so that the DeBoers can do a little less driving and little more brewing. Mr. DeBoer said, laughing, that he is like a “gypsy brewer.” As if to clarify, Mrs. DeBoer adds — also with a laugh, but not entirely joking — that they are on the road “pretty much all of the time.”
With so much effort going into the project, the DeBoers have a vision of what they want to do. One of the first things Mr. DeBoer mentioned is that they intend to bottle their beer in Birmingham, something that none of the local breweries currently do, though Good People Brewing Company does can their beers locally.
“Our plan right now is to bottle, and that is kind of a niche right now,” he said. “Everyone is moving to cans, and I like that. But our plan right now is to bottle here in Birmingham.”
As it happens, contract partner Crooked Letter already does bottling itself, so Ghost Train will have the benefit of that experience as well. In fact, Mr. DeBoer says that six-packs of their product will be available starting this summer.
As for the beer itself, Mr. DeBoer, who is the chief brewer in the operation, has been at it for a long time.
“I know how to brew; I’ve been doing it a long time,” he said. “These are some of my best home-brew recipes, and we’ve taken these recipes around. I brew what I like to drink, and it’s a blend of classic styles and new styles, but I don’t think we’re going to be pinned into a niche of sour beers or super-hoppy beers.”
“We’ve got a northern English nut brown ale that’s kind of Newcastle-ish. It’s awesome. We’ve got a Belgian strong ale that’s brewed with wildflower honey. We’ve got an India pale lager — we’re actually lagering this beer — and it is so good. And then we’ve got just a crowd-pleaser golden ale, but with a craft twist: we brew it with Citra hops, which a lot of people can’t even get their hands on. It’s a hop that’s in high demand and low supply.”
As for the name, the DeBoers said that it came late in the process and that they struggled over it somewhat. They describe it in various ways, but, there is something behind the spectrally suggestive name. Mrs. DeBoer said that rather than having “any particular story to tie it into…it’s really more of a feeling.”
She also said that the name’s evocative nature has positive associations for many people, such as, in her own case, going to visit her grandparents’ house growing up.
As an aside, Mr. DeBoer said, “One of our beers is called Dark Ride, and ‘dark rides’ are a name for old carnival rides, and we found a picture of an old ride that was called Ghost Train.”
Indeed, Internet searches for these keywords turn up photos of various carnival rides and haunted house attractions from many decades past. The DeBoers only learned about this after deciding on the name, but they say it added to their positive feelings about it.
Longer-term, Mr. DeBoer says, “I don’t want that massive brewery with tanks to the sky. I want that place that’s just a 50-50 mix of taproom and place that when people come to Birmingham, people say, ‘Yeah, that’s the one you’ve got to check out.’ Location is a big part of that; we’re working with some people right now on a really kickin’ location. It’s not going to be outside of Birmingham. We love Birmingham, and that’s where we want to be.”