Taylor DeBoer stands in the middle of Ghost Train Brewing Company’s brewing facility, sipping a beer. Or, rather, he’s standing in the space where the facility is going to be. The building is mostly empty at the moment; there’s some stacked patio furniture, a few large trash cans and a miniature refrigerator in the corner. If it wasn’t for the beer in the fridge — and the chalkboard signage left behind by the building’s previous tenants, Cahaba Brewing Company — it’d be hard to guess DeBoer’s plans for the building.
But DeBoer hopes to have Ghost Train’s brewery moved into the space and operational by the end of the summer.
“We’re fixing to start construction within the week,” he says. In addition to the brewery itself, which will consist of six large tanks in the center of the building’s main room, DeBoer is overhauling the surrounding taproom, which will feature a new, larger bar and more restrooms to accommodate a larger crowd than the building could previously handle. It’s clear that he’s anticipating success.
“I think we’re going to have a good crowd of customers that really like this place,” he says.
Allowed to Flourish
DeBoer has good reason to think so. Craft beer is in the midst of a meteoric rise nationwide. In 2015, the number of craft breweries in America reached an all-time high with a reported 4,269, according to the Brewers Association, topping 1873’s previous record of 4,131 active breweries. And last year, while overall beer sales dipped slightly, craft beer’s portion of the market grew by 12.8 percent.
Locally, craft beer’s impact may just be beginning to be felt, but most agree that its growth, both in Birmingham and the state, is astounding. Since 2011, the Brewers Association reports, the number of craft breweries in Alabama has quadrupled from six to 24. Birmingham, naturally, has been a nexus for that growth. A July 2015 Nielsen survey that declared Birmingham the most rapidly growing craft beer market in the nation; in the previous year, it stated, craft beer’s share of the city’s total beer market volume had grown by 63.1 percent. For comparison, Cincinnati, which experienced the second-highest growth, charted at just 27.5 percent.
To put that in brick-and-mortar numbers: since 2008, Birmingham has spawned six craft breweries: Good People, Avondale, Cahaba, Beer Engineers, Trim Tab and Ghost Train. Of those, five are still currently active (Beer Engineers folded in 2014).
“It certainly is growing,” says Dan Roberts, executive director of the Alabama Brewers Guild. “I think the demand is there. It probably has been.
“I think probably the biggest thing that’s changed is the law, which has allowed it to flourish,” Roberts adds. “We had a very restrictive regulatory and legal environment that breweries operated in. And then over the last six or eight years, that’s really started to loosen up.” The Alabama Brewers Guild, along with organizations such as Free the Hops, has frequently advocated for loosening of those laws and regulations. Significant victories have included 2009’s Gourmet Beer Bill, which raised the possible alcohol-by-volume of beer sold in the state from 6 percent to 13.9 percent (allowing for typically higher-gravity craft brewers to enter the state); 2011’s Brewery Modernization Act, which allowed breweries to serve to customers via on-site taprooms; 2012’s Gourmet Bottle Bill, which raised the maximum size of beer bottles to 25.4 ounces; a 2013 bill legalizing home brewing; and a recent beer-to-go bill, signed into law late last month, which allows breweries to directly sell their products for off-site consumption (that law goes into effect in June).
“If you opened a brewery in Alabama before 2009, you were really restricted on what kind of beer you could make and sell in the state,” says Roberts. “So changing the law really opened the doors.”
“I used to say that Alabama had the worst beer laws, but I wouldn’t say that anymore,” he adds. “I’d say we’re pretty competitive, once this growler law goes into effect. Certainly not the best, but far from the worst.”
“Growing Like a Weed”
When the Gourmet Beer Bill passed in 2009, one Birmingham brewery already had its foot in the door. Good People Brewing Company, which had first opened its doors in 2008, had previously met restrictions with low-gravity offerings such as its Good People Pale Ale. The passage of the law allowed the brewery to add stronger offerings to its menu, including now-staples such as its IPA and Snake Handler Double IPA. It also allowed Good People to establish a strong grasp on the city’s craft beer scene.
“It wasn’t like there were already 40 craft brands to get peoples’ attention before 2009, like there might have been in Georgia or other places nearby,” says Ben Lewellyn, Good People’s sales director. “We could make an IPA even before we saw a lot of other big players in that space come to the state. It took years after the 2009 law passed before we saw Lagunitas, before we saw New Belgium, before we saw a lot of the breweries who are in the top 10 producers in craft [nationwide]. And that gave us a chance to show what we could do and people got into that.”
That early advantage, Lewellyn says, imbued customers with the brand loyalty necessary for Good People to be competitive against those nationwide breweries for years to come. In January, Good People accounted for 17 percent of Alabama’s craft beer sales and 3.8 percent of all beer sales, which Lewellyn characterizes as a “rarity.”
“Generally speaking, you wouldn’t see a local brand outperform the big national guys,” he says. “We’re really proud of the beer, and that’s a big part of it, but at the same time, the market conditions were also really favorable to us and to all the local breweries.”
With five beers canned year-round (Pale Ale, IPA, Brown Ale, Bearded Lady and Coffee Oatmeal Stout) and one beer canned at irregular intervals (Snake Handler), Good People remains the Birmingham brewery with the largest output; in 2015, the company made 12,000 31-gallon barrels of beer. This year, they plan to increase that number to “between 15,000 and 17,000 barrels,” Lewellyn says. “Good People is growing like a weed.”
For the first time, that growth is extending over state lines. Good People’s footprint has long included most major Alabama cities, but in March, the company expanded into markets in Chattanooga and the Florida panhandle. Knoxville will follow at the end of April, Lewellyn says.
“That’s been a long time coming,” Lewellyn says. “The guys have been able to really ramp up production. We’ve added more brewers and we’re finally at a place where we can push out that kind of volume.”
There are limits, Lewellyn says, to the company’s expansion. “We’re not going to be a nationwide brewery,” he says. “That’s not really what goes on in our planning meetings or anything like that. We have a very Alabama-first, Southern-centric kind of strategy. We’re really proud of the fact that people here like us.”
“Ahead of the Curve”
Avondale Brewing Company is still growing. The brewery, which was founded in 2010 by Coby Lake, Hunter Lake, Chris Donaldson and Craig Shaw, has been steadily expanding since its inception.
“We launched in the Birmingham market with 12 different accounts to start off with,” says Taylor Lander, the brewery’s director of marketing and events. “We’ve gone from a business that small to producing 6,000 barrels a year. Our campus has expanded, and we now cover the entire footprint of the state of Alabama, minus one little sliver down in the Dothan area.”
Now, she says, demand for their beer is forcing the brewery to grow. “What we’ve run into now is that we’ve got to expand our production,” she says. “We make just enough beer right now to support where we are in the state and what we do here on site.”
While Good People has begun to expand outside of Alabama, Avondale’s focus is primarily on growing within the state. “Even though we do cover the footprint of Alabama, we’re still missing stuff like Publix grocery stores, stuff like that,” says brewer Nate Darnell. “Even if we do expand production next year, hopefully, we’re going to try and stay as deep in Alabama as we possibly can before we start seeing the outline of our footbrint going outside of the state.
“If you can’t support your hometown, there’s no reason to be in Tennessee,” he adds, noting that Avondale will likely have to expand the size of its facility to meet the demand for growth.
The brewery is also focusing on diversifying its brand in small but meaningful ways. Mill City White, a Belgian-style wheat ale, will be the third canned beer released by the brewery, joining Battlefield IPA and Vanillaphant Porter. (Pachyderm Pale Wheat, previously canned by the brewery, is on hiatus due to a shortage of necessary hops.)
There are also plans for the brewery to expand into sours, which have a taste that’s distinctly more tart than other beers. “That’ll give us some funky, really small, one-off beers,” Lander says, adding that a sours tasting room will also be added to the brewery’s facility.
Darnell, who is heading up the brewery’s sours program, also launched Avondale Spirits last year, a small craft distillery located in the back of neighboring restaurant Wooden Goat. Darnell suggests that the distillery — which sometimes incorporates beer-making ingredients in its production of gin and whiskey — will soon be replicated by others.
“I think you’re going to see a good chunk of craft breweries start doing what we’re doing, [distilling] on a small scale,” he says.
“We’re ahead of the curve,” Lander adds.
“The Coolest Thing a Home Brewer Could Dream Of”
Eight and a half years ago — coinciding with the birth of his son — Eric Meyer took up home brewing as a hobby. He found inspiration in Birmingham’s then-nascent craft beer community and began to envision himself as part of it. “As a home brewer, I saw what Good People was doing,” he says. “I really enjoyed what was going on and just wanted to see what I could do in the market.
“The idea was to get a beer on tap at J. Clyde,” he adds, referring to the nine-year-old bar in Five Points South known for its wide selection of craft beer. “That’s just the coolest thing that a home brewer could ever dream of, having your beer being sold up there next to Good People, next to Avery, next to those guys.”
After being encouraged by a friend to make his home brew beer commercially, Meyer founded Cahaba Brewing Company in 2011. Initially, Cahaba contract brewed its American Blonde Ale — currently its only canned offering — through the Beltway Brewing Company in Virginia. (The practice of contract brewing — in which a larger company charges a fee to brew and package a smaller company’s recipe — is fairly common for upstart breweries.) Meyer eventually purchased a small, two-vessel system from Huntsville-based craft brewers Straight to Ale, but the company quickly outgrew it.
“The distributor was calling me and saying, ‘I need more beer,’” Meyer says. “And we were making it as fast as we could on this little system. So that’s when we had to take the next step.”
Earlier this year, Cahaba moved from its original location on Third Avenue South — the space into which Ghost Train is planning to move — to a larger space in Avondale’s Continental Gin factory. The new location not only provides a larger area for the brewing facilities — with plenty of room to expand — but for an expansive tasting room and patio area that Meyer says has quickly attracted a wide variety of guests across all ages. “You can come down here and bring your kids and relax and it’s okay,” he says. “It’s just being in the community. The beer’s good. The place is relaxing, whatever. It’s like being in my garage. Come hang out in my garage!”
That laid-back approach extends to the creation of the brewery’s beer, which Meyer says is based on experimentation. “A lot of people say brewing is not like cooking, but to me its just like cooking,” he says. “You just take some ingredients together and try it. If it works, great. If it doesn’t work, it’s still good, because you learn from it. You change it next time.”
Though Cahaba has announced plans to greatly expand its selection of canned offerings, Meyer says that the nationwide growth of craft beer has ironically slowed that plan. “Because of how fast craft beer has exploded, all entities that are involved in craft beer are being caught by that,” he says. “People that make aluminum cans are now being hit and craft beer’s growing so fast, we need more aluminum cans than are printed. Now their minimums are going up, because they only have a certain amount of supply and capacity themselves. We’re seeing that across hops, malts, cans, everything.”
Even then, that growth represents a realization of Cahaba Brewing beyond what Meyer had even imagined when he set out to commercialize his home brew beer. “We sat down five years ago with a pen and paper, just thinking about what we were going to do to start a brewery, and now we’ve just grown,” Meyer says. “The fact that all these people are out here is just really humbling to me.”
Trim Tab’s Southern Expansion
On Friday, April 8, Trim Tab Brewing Company kicked off a two-day celebration of its second anniversary. The event, which featured performances by local acts such as the Bohannons and the Burning Peppermints, drew hundreds of people for both nights and highlighted just how rapidly the brewery has grown since it was launched by Harris Stewart in 2014.
While the brewery has largely been known for its on-tap offerings and the wide variety of events held at its taproom — such as the monthly, carnivalesque “Happenings” and concerts by local acts such as Wray and Plains’ Travis Swinford — it also launched its first canned beer, an IPA, in October. Since then, the brewery has begun producing two more canned offerings — Pillar to Post Rye Brown (which debuted in February) and the Paradise Now Raspberry Berliner Weisse (which launched earlier this month).
Trim Tab’s owners and managers were not available for an interview as of press time; the Monday following the brewery’s second anniversary, its owners embarked on a weeklong rollout tour that would bring the beer to markets in Montgomery, Mobile, Panama City, Destin, Pensacola and Orange Beach.
“Almost Like a Fixture in the Town”
“I started brewing in college, actually,” says Taylor DeBoer as he walks into a side room at Ghost Train’s future location that will be used to host private events. “My then-girlfriend — now my wife — got me a homebrew kit, and I got hooked instantly. I loved it. I didn’t even know it was illegal back then. I brewed like crazy.”
Decades later, DeBoer would partner with Eric Meyer, a fellow home brewer, to launch Cahaba Brewing Company. “I actually built a lot of this brewery while we were here,” he says. He eventually left the company three years ago with the intention of moving away from commercial brewing, but then found himself drawn back. “I just had the itch for it,” he laughs. “I couldn’t stay out of it.”
Ghost Train is the newest of Birmingham’s five currently active breweries, and it’s also the smallest. It currently contracts the brewing and packaging of its two core beers, Go-Devil Golden Ale and Terminal Station Brown Ale, through Crooked Letter Brewing in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, though DeBoer plans to brew both beers — as well as several others — on site at the brewery’s new location.
Finding the right location for Ghost Train proved a challenge, though. “Real estate is so tough in Birmingham right now,” DeBoer says. “We had a half-dozen deals — what I thought were solid deals — fall through at the last minute. It was just hard to get space.”
When Cahaba announced that it was moving to its new location at the Continental Gin, DeBoer says he realized that that brewery’s old location was his “dream.”
“We wanted to be in the city’s center, near intersecting rail lines,” he says, attributing the growth of the area surrounding the new space to Trim Tab and Pepper Place. “The thing we noticed about this location over the years is that there never used to be anybody biking or walking by, and now we have people going up and down the street. That’s what we want to be, people’s biking, walking, neighborhood small brewery.”
The location near the intersecting rail lines plays into the brewery’s overall theme, DeBoer says. “Our beer is about Birmingham. Most cities were built on rivers, but this one was built on the rail lines’ intersection. That’s what built the city. We kept seeing images of the terminal station. You see it everywhere all the time. It’s almost like a fixture in the town, but it’s gone. And that’s where the idea for Ghost Train got started.
“We’ve always been super intrigued by the history of Birmingham, the cool buildings here, things like that,” he says. “This place is going to reflect that.”
“Some Very Valuable Real Estate”
The swift growth of craft beer both in Birmingham and nationwide has led to widespread questions of sustainability. Is there a limit to how many craft breweries that can comfortably exist in Birmingham? And what happens when that limit is reached?
DeBoer says that the increased number of breweries has led to a greater sense of competition for local resources such as being included on draught at bars. “It’s been tough,” he says. “There are really good breweries in Birmingham, and just because you have a beer doesn’t mean they’re going to put it on tap. It has to be good. It helps to be new, I guess, so we are gaining some taps, but you’ve got to get out there and work for it. Probably back years and years ago, it was a lot easier than it is now. It’s very competitive.”
“I like that, because it demands an excellent product,” he adds. “If you’re an inferior product, you’re going to get bumped off by all the good stuff that is around here.”
Building brand familiarity is also a difficulty in an increasingly saturated market, says Roberts. “It used to be that you would have a local bump, but now you’re going to be the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth Birmingham brewery,” he says. “The biggest challenge is standing out in the crowd… whereas before it was relatively easy to do that. You don’t really have that anymore. Especially for a distributing brewery, you’ve got to get some bar manager to put you on a tap wall.
“We all love places like the J. Clyde and Hop City, that have 100 taps or whatever, but most places have like six or five. And at this point, they can have all the Birmingham breweries on tap, and they’re full. They don’t even have them all on. So how are you supposed to get on there if you’re the new guy?”
Even at the J. Clyde, the ability to accommodate all local beers is limited. “As more and more breweries are coming onboard, we have less and less space,” says owner Jerry Hartley. “We always want to give attention as much as we can to local guys… but [we’re] focusing on the best thing out there, the best available beers. That’s the kind of place we try to be.”
Sometimes that means making hard choices, Hartley says, between similar local beers. Customer demand, for instance, determines whether the bar carries Good People’s Snake Handler Double IPA or Cahaba’s Frax Max Double IPA.
“That’s some very valuable real estate,” Roberts adds.
With more craft breweries appearing in the city, Hartley says, it’s difficult to generate enthusiasm for new beer options, even using once-successful tactics like “tap takeovers,” in which all the draught beer in a bar comes from a single brewer.
“In my opinion, there’s not as much excitement about those tap takeovers are there used to be, especially for new breweries,” he says. “There have been so many new things coming in that, as the new ones come onboard, it’s difficult to get that excited. It’s not like the old days. People are getting used to craft beer. It’s becoming expected.”
One solution Roberts proposes is that more craft brewers start opening brewpubs — restaurants that brew their own beer on-site — as opposed to opening breweries focused purely on distribution. There’s a “big difference” between the two, Roberts says, largely because brewpubs require a lesser volume of beer to be profitable.
“Birmingham has zero brewpubs,” he says. “I’m a little curious as to why no one is opening a brewpub up. It seems like that’s what a lot of customers want.”
The city’s lack of brewpubs is “shocking,” Hartley agrees — so he’s doing something about it. By April of next year, he plans to have built his own brewpub, 5 Pts. Brewing, in a historical house adjacent to the J. Clyde (which will also be undergoing renovations ahead of its 10th anniversary next year).
The brewpub will specialize in five beers, Hartley says, which will also be distributed on tap to several nearby bars. (Alabama law prohibits brewpubs from canning or bottling their product for retail — one of a “number of arbitrary and unnecessary restrictions” that Free the Hops’ website says the organization hopes to combat in the future.)
The brewpub environment, Hartley suggests, might also provide for greater interaction between the brewer and the consumer: “I might even do some neat contests, showing people four different IPAs and asking, ‘Which one do you like best? What does our consumer want?’”
“At This Point, I Just Want to Open”
Before Hartley launches 5 Pts. Brewing, though, one more craft brewery is slated to open in the Birmingham area. Joe Pilleteri hopes to launch Red Hills Brewing Company, a new brewery and taproom in Homewood, before this June’s Magic City Brewfest.
Pilleteri hopes Red Hills will fill a niche that other Birmingham craft breweries do not. “It’s the first over-the mountain brewery,” he says. “I was just trying to look at an area where we were kind of underserved for breweries. Homewood was a perfect example, because the people who live there tend to stay there.” The brewery’s proximity to downtown Birmingham — it will be located adjacent to the Homewood locations of Little Donkey, Octane and Steel City Pops — will make it a welcoming destination for beer aficionados from throughout the Birmingham area, Pilleteri hopes, without detracting from the city’s already extant breweries.
Though Red Hills might expand into a brewpub — Pilleteri speculates he might eventually incorporate a deli — his focus is on cultivating a selection of mostly low-gravity beers, which will be available in the taproom and through distribution on tap to other bars.
However, he maintains that any growth the brewery undergoes will be deliberate. “What I want to do when we open up is see what we sell out of in the taproom before we plan on the distributor,” he says. “A lot of the problems that breweries have had in the past is that they spread themselves way too thin way too quickly. We’re just going to take it slow to begin with. Once everything gets nailed down and we’ve got our brew house moving along, we’ll start the next challenge, which will probably be canning.
“At this point, I just want to open,” he laughs.
A Shifting Paradigm
In the face of craft brewing’s dramatic expansion in Birmingham, many brewers are remaining cautiously optimistic about the future of the market.
To Lewellyn, the speed of the industry’s evolution means that it’s difficult to predict its future. “What does consumer interest look like if craft beer keeps expanding its share of the beer business in general? I think there’s going to be more and more room where the paradigm that we understand might not be true in five years, for better or for worse,” he says. “We hope for better, obviously. If you had asked somebody in 1994 if you could have five craft beers in a can and own a 4 percent share in Alabama, they would have said, ‘No, you cannot do that.’ And so I think we’re loathe to try to extrapolate from today and even say, ‘This is what it will look like in six months.’ It’s changed so rapidly.”
DeBoer is more enthusiastic about the expanding market. “I think Birmingham has space for Ghost Train, and maybe for more than us,” he says. “I think it’d be cool if there were enough breweries in Birmingham that people would travel here for a beer vacation. That’s always been my philosophy. We have the people here, but we just don’t have as many breweries as a lot of towns.”
“I think that if you got in your car and drove to all the breweries in town, you’d have a totally different experience at each one, which I think is cool,” Lander says. “The rising tide raises all boats.”
Hartley echoes that belief in a sense of community and mutual benefit. “Supporting your neighbor, the guy down the street — there’s something about that,” he says. “I know that I’m being part of a community. Some of these beers that these guys are producing locally are just as good as the beers they’re producing out in California and Boston. They’re doing great, world-class stuff right here in town. These local guys, they’ve got it going on. And we hope to, too.”