Renaissance Men: Tuscaloosa's brewers are inspiring a citywide revivalBy Laura Testino | 09/03/2015 1:29am
Five hundred and sixty-three years ago, forty years before Europeans discovered America, an Italian notary and peasant woman gave birth to a son in Vinci, Italy. Despite the boy’s broad interests in both science and the arts, Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci did not live unaware of their connections.
“Study the science of art,” he said. “Study the art of science. Develop your senses — especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”
That philosophy informed da Vinci’s practice of engineering, astronomy, painting, sculpting, botany, geology and a dozen other professions. Five hundred years later, across the Atlantic Ocean, that same collision of art and science is inspiring another craft, itself inspiring a downtown renaissance thousands of miles from da Vinci’s home:
“Imagine it’s like a coloring book,” said Jeremiah Donald, the master brewer at Band of Brothers Brewing Company. “So each brewery gets a coloring book, but you get to choose the different crayons, and ways you want to color the pictures. And no one’s going to color it the same way.”
Although Jeremiah Donald is part of the newest brewery in Tuscaloosa — Band of Brothers is scheduled for an opening date coinciding with the start of football season in early September — he is no rookie to the machinery and recipe creation of craft beer. He and brother Jeremy Donald were exposed to craft beer by their grandfather, who grew up in a dry county in southern Alabama. Driving two hours to get beer didn’t make sense, so he made his own, they said. Third business partner and friend Quintin Brown recently discovered that his grandfather was also into home brewing. Now, Band of Brothers has decided to advance the home brew process to a business, adding its own twists.
“The new material isn’t a thing that’s frightening,” Jeremy Donald said of the brewery’s equipment, which patrons will be able to view from their seats. “You get so familiar with the process, you know what you’re doing. If you’re brewing on a five-gallon batch or a 15-gallon batch or 300 gallons, the steps are the same. You kind of just scale up. It’s like riding a miniature bike or riding a mountain bike. The concepts are the same.”
All three collaborate and build the recipes for the beer together. As the master brewer, Jeremiah Donald fine-tunes these recipes. Band of Brothers will add a few more beers after opening, but will feature four mainstays: a saison, brown ale, sessions ale, and —
“You gonna have an IPA?”
asked Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox at the 6 p.m. City Council meeting on May 5, 2015, when Jeremy Donald stood before the council. He attended to have the Band of Brothers manufacturing license approved for their location at 1605 23rd Ave.
After Jeremy Donald replied with “Yes we will, definitely,” Maddox had another question:
“You have any with you?”
Maddox’s support of the craft beer scene in Tuscaloosa is no secret kept within the walls of the City Council meetings, either.
“Small businesses like our breweries add many benefits to our great city,” Maddox said in an emailed statement to Bama Life. “Along with their economic impact, they add to the overall culture of the City. I hope every business in Tuscaloosa, big or small, thrives in our community.”
Since assuming office in 2005, Maddox has witnessed several changes to Alabama’s legislation regarding alcohol and, more specifically, craft beer, which have in turn sparked the changing scene in Tuscaloosa.
In 2009, then-Alabama Governor Bob Riley signed the Gourmet Beer Bill, which raised the limit on alcohol by volume from 6 to 13.9 percent. This bill was supported by Free the Hops, a non-profit organization and advocacy group in Alabama that promotes bringing “the highest quality beers to Alabama,” according to their website. They work with Alabama Brewers Guild to continue passing brewer-friendly legislation. The guild also promotes a favorable market for brewers, and Band of Brothers Brewing Company, Druid City Brewing Company and Black Warrior Brewing Company — the three craft breweries in Tuscaloosa — are all members.
In 2011, current Governor Robert Bentley signed the Brewery Modernization Act, allowing tap rooms and on-site tastings in breweries, as well as the opportunity to have a brewpub on the premises; followed in 2012 by the Gourmet Bottle Bill, allowing the sale of bottled beers to increase in size from 16 ounces to 25.4 ounces (750 mL); and in 2013, Alabama became the 49th state to legalize home brewing.
Tuscaloosa has also become one of 13 other cities to allow city-wide Sunday sales. Twelve other Alabama counties allow county-wide Sunday sales.
“The decision by our voters to have Sunday sales has provided opportunities to attract more conferences and events, which makes a strong impact on our hospitality industry,” Maddox said.
Legislation in Alabama also delineates a three-tier system, in which business owners can obtain a manufacturer, distributor or retail license. While one person may hold multiple licenses, he or she can only hold one type of license. This three-tier system deterred Chad Smith, owner of the Alcove International Tavern — one retail license — from opening his own brewery — one manufacturer license — and leading him instead to become a co-owner of Loosa Brews — a second retail license.
“This coming September will be the sixth anniversary of Alcove,” Smith said. “And when I started that, it was the first really craft-beer-focused bar, or we call it tavern, in town. So over the last five years, the craft beer scene has just exploded, and Alcove has been at the forefront of that.”
The Alcove has won several “bests,” including one of America’s Best College Beer Bars by Men’s Health Magazine, as well as Best Beer Selection and Best Bar for Adults by Tuscaloosa Magazine. Transitioning from a bar setting to opening Loosa with co-owner Brad Lee was a natural transition that the two often discussed while at the Alcove, Smith said.
The retail location just off of University Boulevard at 412 20th Ave. opened in December of 2014, and boasts a selection of 63 beers on tap at their growler bar, 30 of which are from Alabama, including brews by Druid City and Black Warrior. Loosa has plans to add Band of Brothers to the selection. The growler bar (a growler is a 64-ounce container for beer) is distinct to retail locations, such as Loosa Brews. Currently, the sale of growlers by a brewery with a manufacturer license is prohibited in Alabama.
Loosa Brews resembles a coffee shop much more than a typical alcohol convenience store, a look inspired by locations in the Midwest, Carolinas and overseas, in countries like Belgium: Repurposed wood and other antiquities compose the shelving for the shop, which has seating at the front; a pipe organ and piano, both from the 19th century, sit on either ends of the bar, and can be reached after meandering through the shelves of beer from both the United States and beyond. Selections also include wine and home brews.
Smith, who attended the University and obtained both an undergraduate degree in international management and a graduate degree in international marketing, has always had an interest in craft beers. He has been impressed with the number of 21-year-old students who come into Loosa knowing their craft beers, he said.
“To me, that was impressive that the palate of the students is changing. When I was 21, I was always with some of the few that were drinking craftier beers that weren’t just your regular domestic lights, I guess you’d call them imports,” Smith said. “We were drinking Sammy Smiths [sic] and Newcastle and Guinness, and back then, those were the exotic beers, and now, those are all— I won’t even drink those anymore. There’s so much more flavor in these other craft beers.”
To obtain craft beer in Alabama’s three-tier system, retailers use distributors, who obtain the beer from manufacturers. Smith said he pressured the suppliers for the beers for Alcove, and has been able to use those already established connections at Loosa Brews. Greene Beverage Company is a Tuscaloosa-based distributor, and is one of seven distributors that Loosa uses.
“Both of the existing brewers that have beer out right now, Druid City and Black Warrior, have done exceptionally well, and we’re very pleased with the reception they’ve gotten in Tuscaloosa and some surrounding areas, too,” said Mike McWhirter, the craft beer manager at Greene Beverage for the past two years. “So, likely, all of the other tremendous growth of the craft beer markets, those guys have kind of ridden the wave as well. And we feel confident that the guys at Band of Brothers will have a similar path.”
In addition to distributing beer from the three Tuscaloosa breweries, Greene Beverage manages 20 to 25 other breweries, who at any given time have between two and a dozen different beers. These include breweries in Alabama, as well breweries from places such as North Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana. The company delivers to about 10 counties in west-central Alabama, McWhirter said.
According to a report published in July by Nielsen, using data collected from June 2014 to June 2015, 45 percent of beer drinkers prefer local beer, and 52 percent of craft beer drinkers share that preference. Compare the numbers to the 21-34 age demographic: that’s 53 percent of beer drinkers, and 55 percent of craft beer drinkers. The report also stated that the craft beer sales as a percentage of total beer volume grew in Birmingham by 63.1 percent, the most of any city in the nation.
McWhirter said that while this phenomenon may not be possible in the nearby college town of Tuscaloosa — the Tuscaloosa market is entirely different from Birmingham, which has more disposable income, for example — the city is making strides in its craft beer market. Places like Loosa allow customers to try beers they’re unfamiliar with without having to buy an entire six pack, he said.
“Everything here is so University-of-Alabama-driven with the student population, and our business goes up pretty well during football season when we’ve got a lot of people in town,” McWhirter said. “Tuscaloosa is maybe a little behind overall as far as their appreciation for craft beer, but breweries like Black Warrior and Druid City and soon-to-be Band of Brothers are introducing the craft beer options to a lot more people, and as a result, we are seeing craft beer sales increase here.”
Although all three breweries are working to sell to the same craft beer market, they collaborate and support one another, as evidenced from statements in interviews from each brewery.
“There’s a saying that a rising tide floats all boats. And I believe that it’s true,” said Bo Hicks, a co-owner of Druid City Brewing Company with Elliott Roberts. Hicks said he met the guys at Band of Brothers at a concert, and developed a good relationship. The founders of Druid City and Black Warrior were in a home brew club together before starting their separate breweries, Hicks said.
“There is a lot of camaraderie. It’s great to have somebody here to help,” Hicks said. “At some point, the field might get too crowded, but I think we’re a little bit before it becomes really dog-eat-dog. I think there’s room for definitely the three of us in town.”
Druid City opened in November 2012, the year after the law was passed allowing tap rooms in breweries and the same year that bottling beers in 25.4 ounce bottles was legalized. As the legislation become available to categorize a craft brewery, Druid City became the first to open its doors in Tuscaloosa, at 607 14th St., with the help of Maddox.
“So luckily, through the help of the mayor, Mayor Maddox, he really worked hand-in-hand with us, had a couple of meetings, helping us. We are really big fans of Mayor Maddox, and I think that he’s trying to improve Tuscaloosa and make it better,” Hicks said. “Something like the Sunday sales law, what that does, is it allows the City to make so much more revenue, not just on the fact that people can sell alcohol, but people can stay in town for a brunch, or we can attract some convention business that we might not otherwise, and that goes for us too.”
Black Warrior Brewing Company followed, becoming the second craft brewery in town in November 2013, located at 2216 University Blvd., which used to be the home of Oak City Barbershop. Co-owners Joe Fuller, Jason Spikes and Eric Hull renovated the store, but left some of the brick exposed. They used wood reclaimed from a 1903 farmhouse in Alabama, and the front doors were used from a house that was destroyed in the 2011 tornado, Hull said.
During the school year, about 30 to 40 percent of the people walking through the brewery’s front door are students, Hull said. The other percentages can be attributed to businesspeople, families and travelers.
“That’s one of the neat things about breweries — it’s a neat tourist destination,” Hull said. “So we meet people in here every weekend from all over the United States.”
The reasons for visiting are varied.
“We’ve had [visitors] that have been doing cross-country tours, they’re trying to hit breweries at every stop. We’ve got people coming here just for the University, for their kids playing soccer or something,” Hull said.
While the breweries inspire visiting customers to the City, beer festivals in Tuscaloosa have brought representatives of breweries from out of town, as well as some new faces. Festival-goers don’t buy beer from the brewers themselves, but the owners often take the time to catch up with friends in the field.
Hicks, of Druid City Brewing, hosted Suds of the South in Tuscaloosa for five years. The festival focused on Southeastern breweries and had one from somewhere else in the nation, referred to as “the sympathizer.” America on Tap was in Tuscaloosa last May, and on August 29, all three Tuscaloosa breweries, as well as Loosa Brews, will be involved with the second annual Bacon & Brewfest. The festival includes around 20 brewers from Greene Beverage and will take place at the Tuscaloosa Regional Airport.
“The recent festivals we’ve had in Tuscaloosa have increased exposure and attention to the City of Tuscaloosa. Visitors to these festivals get to experience Tuscaloosa and learn about some of the great resources we offer, which I hope leads them to come back for another visit,” Maddox said. “We want to continue to encourage our residents and visitors to experience all Tuscaloosa has to offer, and we hope that attracting new businesses and events like these encourages them to do so.”
Jeremy Donald of Band of Brothers, the third brewery coming to Tuscaloosa this year, said that talking with the other breweries has helped their own business get going. The brewery hopes to eventually collaborate with other businesses in the area for dinners, where a craft beer will be paired with the meal, rather than the traditional wine pairing.
“The great thing about beer is that people are a little bit relaxed about it,” Donald said of his experience with obtaining his license from the City Council. “And I think that everybody knows — I think that they’ve seen it with Druid City and with Black Warrior — that to bring this type of business to Tuscaloosa and to be able to make a good product takes a lot of hard work.”
Like Druid City and Black Warrior, Band of Brothers has put in more than a year of planning and labor into their brand and location.
“It takes a lot to go out there that far and to believe in what you do,” Donald said. “And I think that’s one thing that’s consistent with all the breweries. No matter what, they believe in what they do; they believe in the product they produce. And that’s what you have to do.”