Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Today's column

Pitcher This: Birmingham's beer bonanza


With apologies to the Iron Bowl and Talladega Superspeedway's twice-a-year festivities, there's no better time to enjoy beer in Alabama than this weekend.

Saturday and Sunday will see the return of the Magic City Brewfest, which debuted in 2007 to rave reviews despite a few first-year glitches.

The two-day festival will again take place at Birmingham's Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark and will feature beers from dozens of the nation's best brewers and a slew of quality imports. It's organized by Free the Hops, a group pushing for reform of laws restricting beer in Alabama.

Free the Hops' president, Stuart Carter, says there will be as many as 250 different brews on offer, up from around 180 last year.

"That represents the majority of beers available in the state," Carter says.

Though that may sound impressive, Carter says it's actually kind of disappointing. Alabama law limits the alcohol content of beer to 6 percent by volume. That leaves out many of the marquee offerings from brewers who will be at the festival, and keeps whole ranges of beer styles from being sold here. A Free the Hops-sponsored bill to raise the limit to 13.9 percent passed the Alabama House this year, and cleared a Senate committee before it died earlier this month along with tons of other legislation in the upper chamber's end-of-session gridlock. Carter says they'll try again next year.

Other beer that won't be available at the festival: Alabama's only bottling brewery, Huntsville's Olde Towne Brewing Co. won't have its new facility running in time. A fire destroyed the old brewery last July. Founder Don Alan Hankins says if everything goes well, the new place could be bottling by the first half of July, perhaps within a year of the blaze.

One silver lining from Olde Towne's misfortune: Hankins says a new bottling line capable of filling 120 bottles per minute will replace the old 20-bottle-per-minute line that gave the company headaches over quality.

The company will ensure distribution to its Madison County customers first, followed by Jefferson County, according to Hankins. Look for Olde Towne's amber ale, hefeweizen, pale ale and pilsner on shelves and on tap elsewhere after that.

Carter calls the lack of Alabama-brewed beer at the state's only festival "a crying shame." But his group is planning for thousands of attendees anyway, along with live music and the chance to earn converts to its political cause. And of course, there will be plenty of great beer available, along with food from Birmingham-area restaurants. A few tips gleaned from last year's festival:

• Take a designated driver (or two). Even with 2-4 oz. samples, you'll need help getting home safely. The good news: DDs get free admission, plus unlimited non-alcoholic drinks.

• Go with a group. Beer is best enjoyed with friends, and this much beer calls for a lot of company.

• Dress lightly. The festival's all outdoors, much of it while the sun's shining. Shorts, sunblock and shades are all good ideas, especially on Sunday.

• Get outside your comfort zone. There's so much exotic beer on hand, you won't want to waste your time with anything you drink regularly. You'll get a list at the gate of what's available. Mark off everything you've already tried, then circle anything new to you that sounds intriguing.

The festival runs in two sessions, each ticketed separately. Saturday is 7-11 p.m., Sunday is 3-7 p.m. Discounted tickets are available in advance online. They'll be $30 for beer only at the gate, $40 for beer and unlimited food. More info is available at