Commenter Spencer noted an egregious omission in my post about the soon-to-open Avondale Brewing Company. I had listed the other ‘Bama-based breweries and he politely pointed out that I had neglected to mention Straight to Ale…a brand new outfit in Huntsville, AL.
In my defense, Straight to Ale JUST started production brewing. They’ve been on my radar for awhile, but they really didn’t open until a few months ago and, as Spencer pointed out, their beers weren’t officially served in Birmingham until their debut at J. Clyde last night. Still, I was writing a post about a brewery that hasn’t even opened yet and I didn’t bother mentioning one that has already been cranking out their product for a few months. What can I say? I dropped the ball. I promise you’ll all get your money back for yesterday’s post.
Anyway, the gents from Straight to Ale were at the J. Clyde last night with three of their brews: the Monkeynaut IPA (on cask), Wernher von Brown Ale, and the Lily Flagg Milk Stout. I sampled the first two…
First, the good news. Straight to Ale is a new brewery in Alabama! Hooray! That in itself is GREAT news. The more competition here, the better the local products will become. Second, Straight to Ale isn’t just spitting out another insipid Pale Ale or Amber. They decided to push the envelope a little bit and challenge the palates of the locals. Their first three offerings are an IPA with the hop profile of an Imperial, a Brown Ale with a distinct espresso aroma, and a milk stout. None of those are standard fare and I absolutely applaud the fine folks at StA for coming up with something “different”.
Now for the bad news…the beer really wasn’t very good. I hate to say that and I hate to write it. I know I’m just some schmuck with a blog and that there’s nothing easier in the world than to criticize beers that a lot of people worked very long and very hard to create. Brewing beer on a commercial scale is an extremely expensive, tricky, and time-consuming endeavor. And to have someone question your product when your business is just starting has to be frustrating. So I’ll try to keep my criticism VERY specific.
I started with the cask-conditioned Monkeynaut IPA. I LOVED the aggressive hop profile. The StA guys weren’t kidding around with this one. It’s at 70 IBUs but drinks even hoppier than that thanks to some strong citrus/grapefruit notes. A nice, smooth, medium body, a very pretty, hazy golden color and excellent carbonation add to the enjoyment. So what’s the issue? In a word: Band-Aids.
Every homebrewer has run into the Band-Aid flavor on occasion. It’s inevitable when you’re dealing with the imperfect conditions of home brewing. My last batch of Brown Ale was spot on (if I do say so myself) except for a faint Band-Aid tinge in the finish. What causes that off-flavor? It’s generally associated with chlorophenols. These compounds can arise when there’s too much chlorine in the water, or when the brewing equipment isn’t properly rinsed off after being sanitized. It can also come from improper sterilization since some wild yeasts (particularly Bretts) can lead to that phenolic, medicinal flavor.
What caused the Band-Aid flavor in the Monkeynaut? Who can say? But it was very distinct, very noticeable, and absolutely killed my enjoyment of the beer. The Monkeynaut also had some less major issues with an overly aggressive, astringent finish and an inability to hold much of a head or lacing (though, the cask-conditioning is probably 99% to blame for the latter). The good news is that those problems can be fixed pretty easily. The phenolic compounds will probably be eliminated in future batches as the StA guys better filter their water supply and tweak their sanitization methods. And the astringent flavor in the finish was probably caused by leaving the bittering hops in for too long or putting them in too early in the boil. These are all minor kinks that I’m sure will be worked out in years to come. You can’t judge a restaurant based on opening night and the same is true of a brewery. I’ll give 2 Hops to the Monkeynaut with high hopes that it will rise in the ranks in the future.
The Wernher von Brown Ale fared a tad better. It had a pretty, dark chestnut color and a lovely nose of strong espresso beans (very unique for a brown ale), caramel, toffee, and roasted malt. The taste was mostly sweet, caramel malt up front and a slightly bitter coffee finish. Lots to like here…but the mouthfeel was just a disaster. This was one of the thinnest Brown Ales I’ve ever had. While the taste was robust, the body felt like it was half-water/half-beer. As Wifey McHops said, the body simply couldn’t hold up to the flavor and aroma. Beer is a sensual experience and when one facet can’t compete with the others, it severely hampers the beer. Add to that absolutely no head, carbonation or lacing and the beer just wasn’t a success. The Wernher clearly needs more malted barley or perhaps some different specialty grains to add body and heft. If the StA folks can beef it up a bit, I think this Brown Ale will be an absolute winner. 2.5 Hops rating for now, but as with the Monkeynaut, I’ll revisit later.
So there you have it. I’m thrilled to welcome Straight to Ale to the ‘Bama brewing scene. Their offerings may not be perfect, but they’ve got some great ideas and they obviously love making beer. I can’t wait to see how the brewery adapts and evolves and I look forward to watching them grow and perfect their recipes. No brewery can “nail it” right out of the gate. It takes time to create world-class beers, and I have faith that Straight to Ale will get there eventually. Stay tuned!