Alabama

Hops in Heaven: Cahaba Brewing Co. in Birmingham, Ala.

A positive sign of the growth of craft beer in any place is breweries growing and moving to new, larger spaces.  After four years operating at a location off 3rd Avenue South in the Lakeview district, Cahaba Brewing Company moved to a former industrial site in the Avondale neighborhood.  The brewery opened the new taproom on Jan. 19, 2016 in an expansive 51,000-square-foot building that used to be part of the Continental Gin.  It isn’t always easy to find the brewery when driving north on 5th Avenue South, even though a sign points visitors in the right direction.

The sign near the street directing people to the brewery.

The brewery draws its name from the longest free-flowing river in Alabama, the Cahaba, which has its headwaters near Birmingham.  So building on an nature-oriented concept, we Jump In to explore the expansive space that houses the brewery.

Main entrance to the brewery.

Immediately after entering the brewery visitors have options for where to explore.  Turning right leads people to the primary seating area of the taproom with the bar and a view into the production side of the facility.  Turning left takes visitors to a lounge area and a bank of pinball machines sure to entertain kids of all ages.

The ability to have a dimly-lit lounge and arcade space in addition to a traditional bar and taproom illustrates the size of the building.  So turning my attention to the taproom, I captured a few photos before meeting with sales representative extraordinaire Randy Bressner and production manager Jared Subock.

It was at a high-top table that my wife Katie and I shared a couple of flights to sample all of the beers currently on draft at the brewery.

The flights were created to accentuate similarity in styles.  One flight consisted solely of India pale ales while the other flight focused on maltier beers.  The malty flight had Bohemian Pilsner, American Blonde, Oktoberfest, and Irish Stout.  The IPA flight had Pale Ale, White IPA, Oka Uba IPA, and Oak-Aged Oka Uba.  With the move to its current location, Cahaba went from using a 3.5-barrel brewhouse to a 30-barrel brewhouse, so I have sampled many of their beers.  Of the eight I tried during this visit, my favorites were the Irish Stout and the Pale Ale.  The Irish stout is dry and reminiscent of Guinness while the Pale Ale was piney and hoppy like a classic American pale ale.  The American Blonde is the brewery’s benchmark beer, but according to Subock it was an accidental discovery.  It was originally brewed for Cullman’s Oktoberfest in 2011, but is not truly a lager and instead is Helles-like brew.  It has been the brewery’s most popular beer, and is a great introductory beer for people who have not tried craft beers before.

As a geographer, my favorite thing about trying a flight of beer was the flight board.  It was cool to see the brewery accentuate its location in the state of Alabama by using flight boards shaped like the state, including the unique tail of the Tennessee River that forms the state’s boundary with Mississippi.  In fact, I liked it so much that I bought a flight board and set of glasses for myself.

After finishing our beer, Jared took us on a tour of the facility.  We started with the event space immediately next to the taproom, which used to house the brewery’s barrel program and other equipment.  The barrels and equipment were relocated because too many people interfered with the barrel-aging process by removing plugs.  So after passing quickly through the event space we came into the production side of the brewery.

An overview of the brewery’s production side.

When Cahaba moved to its current location in late 2015, the brewery kept its original brewhouse and now uses it for small batches.

The brewery’s old equipment is utilized to brew small batches for the taproom.

Near the pilot system is where the brewery now stores its barrel far away from meddling guests.

Barrels are stored near the brewery’s pilot system.

Although the taproom has a cutout that allows visitors to see the production facility, it is quite awe-inspiring to be on the other side of the glass and see just how LARGE the facility really is.  Cahaba now has three 60-barrel fermenters, three 120-barrel fermenters, one 60-barrel brite tank, and one 120-barrel brite tank.  However, there is still plenty of room for future expansion.

Speaking of expansion, I got to see one of the latest additions to the production side of the facility…

A view of the canning line.

the canning line.

It does not take up a significant amount of space, but is critical because it reduces costs for the brewery.  Previously Cahaba has been canning its beer through a mobile-canning company that came to the brewery at scheduled appointments, which meant that production had to be carefully kept on time or else the company would miss its opportunity to can its beer, and have to wait before the company would cycle back around.

Not far from the canning line are two pieces that made the move from the company’s former location on 3rd Avenue South.

The original cooler and the chalkboard beer list both made their way to the new facility.  The cooler is still used, but the chalkboard is simply preserved to honor the hard work of the bartenders who had to write out the list each time it changed.

Past the production side is the brewery’s primary storage area, which really gives visitors an idea of how much space the brewery holds in its current location.

An overview of the brewery’s storage space, which contains cans, kegs, and grains.

Among all the storage space there is another cold storage facility and the brewery’s grain elevator.

There is also some office space that the brewery leases out to other businesses.

The most unique thing that I got to see on the tour was the brewery’s lab.

An overview of the brewery’s lab that helps ensure quality control of the finished product.

While most brewery should have a laboratory to ensure the quality of their product, Cahaba’s is unique because of how Subock has acquired much of the equipment for it.  Due to the brewery’s location in Birmingham and the top-rated UAB School of Medicine, Jared has purchased several pieces of equipment through the university’s surplus sales.  Most visitors who tour the brewery won’t get to see the laboratory, but if you get an offer it is worthwhile checking out.

There is a LOT to like about Cahaba Brewing’s taproom and facility.  It is a huge space with plenty of seating and several game options to entertain people whether it’s pinball or Skee-Ball.  There is also a large stage for music performances.  If visitors don’t want to be indoors there is a long, covered patio that stretches the length of the building that is a great space on days with nice weather.  Although best known for its American Blonde, Cahaba offers a variety of beers sure to please any palate.  Although removed from the hustle and bustle of the Avondale neighborhood that centers around Avondale Park, Cahaba regularly has food trucks on site serving appropriate pub grub.  So Jump In, and enjoy a pint at the former Continental Gin building.

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Categories: Alabama, craft beer

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