It hit us all hard last week: Olde Towne Brewing is shutting down. Psychologically, this was a big blow for me. Sadly, it doesn’t have much practical effect on me.
2004 was the first full year of my life in which I focused my beverage consumption on craft beer, it was the year I started Free The Hops, and it was the year Olde Towne started brewing. Olde Towne’s debut was a big deal. There was no other distributing brewery in Alabama back then, and there hadn’t been since “before my time.” There were a few in Birmingham in the 90s (before I turned 21), but they didn’t last very long. There hadn’t been one in Huntsville since before Prohibition.
Olde Towne’s arrival literally marked the dawn of a new age in Alabama beer culture. Before the advent of local beer, the prospects for changing antiquated laws in the state were laughable. Any notion that Alabama could join the craft beer revolution without a distributing brewery blazing the trail was unthinkable. Olde Towne was the spark. We all owe Don Alan Hankins and Milton Lamb a debt of gratitude for doing something many naysayers had good cause to think wouldn’t last even a year in Alabama. They lasted more than six.
But I mentioned above that Olde Towne’s closing will have no “practical” effect on me. I rarely drink Olde Towne beer anymore, for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, they never did anything to excite beer geeks like me. When they opened, one of the beers they bottled was an “Extra Pale Ale.” Read that as “extra pale” ale, not “extra” pale ale. It was a pale ale attempting to be as close as possible to a domestic lager, not a pale ale attempting to offer Alabamians something extra.
They eventually realized the futility of that path, but in their prime they never bottled anything other than a Pale Ale, a Hefeweizen and an Amber. All decent, but uninspired. Nothing that excited me or any of my friends. Their seasonals, like their Porter and Pumpkin, enjoyed the best reputation in serious beer drinker circles, but those were produced in very small quantities and never bottled. They never sold an imperial stout, or any Belgian style beer, or any barrel-aged beer. They never brewed even one batch of the fastest-growing style in American craft brewing, the IPA.
To top it all off, they had quality control problems that resulted in some infected batches, and their bottling line broke down late last year. In an increasingly-competitive market for draft local beer, it seems they couldn’t keep going. And now the pioneer is closing its doors, while many who follow in its footsteps are growing and thriving. I mourn the loss of Alabama’s first craft brewery of my era, but I hope others will learn from their mistakes.
The best news this week involves what is now the biggest brewery in our state, Good People. After many months of growing expectations tempered by delays, cans of Good People beer are appearing on shelves for the first time this week. They are the first Southeastern brewery to can beer, and in their excitement they even posted video on Facebook of the first cans coming off the line. It will just be the Brown and the IPA for a while, but there are plans to add more.
In other good news, the youngest breweries in the state continue to be creative and release new beers—a very good sign. Yellowhammer just released an imperial amber ale they call Tobacco Road and Blue Pants will release Corduroy Rye IPA next month. Both of those breweries are very small and have little to no product to send to Birmingham, but I’m confident we’ll see these beers in due time.
Here in the ‘Ham, I know Avondale brewery continues to progress and may be selling beer in a couple months, and I hear talk of more start-ups on the way. Huntsville is trying to lay claim to being the brewing capital of Alabama, but I think we’re going to give them a good fight on that front. That’s an exciting battle to have in Alabama!
“Hopped Up” is a weekly brew review by Danner Kline, founder of Free the Hops and co-organizer of the annual Magic City Brewfest. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org