What’s so special about craft beer? Local breweries are happy to pour you a glass and explain.
In 2006 there were 1,409 breweries operating in the United States. Now, more than a decade later, there are more than 7,300—and three of the newest ones are in Shelby County. Interstellar Ginger Beer and Exploration Co., Siluria Brewing Co. and Oversoul Brewing Co. are part of a national “explosion” in craft beer, which is made by small, independent traditional brewers, according to the national Brewers Association. Call it mom-and-pop beer, if you wish, in contrast to the product of big corporations like Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors. Craft beers are brewed in smaller batches, primarily for local distribution, and are often more experimental in styles and flavors.
Here is a look at the local breweries, in order of debut.
Interstellar Ginger Beer and Exploration Co.
It was college student “poverty” that put UAB microbiologist Dr. Shane Kelly on the path to co-founding Interstellar. “I started homebrewing in 2005 when I moved to Birmingham. I was in grad school and kind of broke, so I decided I needed to brew my own beer,” he recalls. “The first thing I brewed was a mead because that’s my grandfather’s name although it isn’t spelled the same.”
The problem with honey-based mead, the favorite of the Vikings, is it took about 12 months for proper aging. Kelly turned regular beer. Then, he started experimenting with ginger. Unlike traditional beer, which is composed of water, yeast, grain and hops, ginger beer eschews two of those ingredients. Instead of hops and grain, it turns to pure cane sugar and, of course, ginger. “My initial plan was to start a yeast factory, but I found I needed a 100-gallon tank for that,” he says.
Back to beer. And more work with ginger. Enter Daniel Sims. “My business is real estate research. I’ve known Shane a long time, knew he had a solid background in science. We had a real estate meeting, and, as we talked, I decided that what he really needed was a partner. From there we moved to the facility in Alabaster,” Sims says.
“I had a little money,” says Kelly, “And Daniel put up the seed capital. He never drank before, but he liked my ginger beer so much that he wanted to invest in it.”
“I’ve tried a few other things, but the only thing I really like is our ginger beer,” says Sims.
There are others who share Sims’ preference for Interstellar’s product. “We’ve got quite a bit of fans,” Kelly says. “They say that we have the beer that doesn’t taste like beer. We’ve definitely got some regulars.”
“We’re proud of that (a unique product), but it’s a double-edged sword,” Sims says. “On the one hand people are interested in it because it’s unique and different. Others are scared of that. They’re used to that traditional beer flavor, and we’re giving ‘em something out of the box.”
Interstellar is the only local brewery with a current off-premise presence. They invested in a bottling machine and hand labeler, and their beers are beginning to show up on the shelves of retail outlets.
If there is a military flavor at Siluria Brewing Co., it comes naturally. Co-owner and brewer Danny Sample is an active duty colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve. He has been coordinator of the Birmingham Veterans Day Parade for the past five years. It was his travels as an Army officer that led him into craft beer. “We kind of discovered craft beer together in our travels,” says his wife, co-owner and career dental hygienist Tammy Sample.
“She bought me a homebrew kit, and the rest is history,” he says. “She helps me select the style, how we want to do them. It is a team effort. She’s involved all the way so at beer festivals she can talk about it as well as I can.”
“We kid around that this is the Blue Zone where I work,” Danny says, pointing to the corner that holds the brewhouse and fermenters. “She has everything else. She is the management partner in the business. She handles the taproom, the events. This is Tammy’s vision, the décor, the set-up.”
Siluria Brewing opened in November 2018 in the completely renovated old Siluria Post Office building. Danny says the appeal of craft beer was not only the unique flavors of the beer, but also the way it was produced. “I was impressed that most of it was community based rather than large corporation based,” he says. “We wanted to do something that was community based. You know the word ‘pub’ comes from public house, a place where people gathered to get news and information.”
Embracing the trend of most craft breweries today, Siluria is pet and family friendly—again, that sense of community. “He can make good beer, and I can create environment,” Tammy says. “I wanted a place for families. It makes me feel so good when I see families in there playing board games together.”
How has the reception to a brewery been in Alabaster? “It’s been so much better than I anticipated,” Tammy says. Some people were concerned that we were opening a honky-tonk or something. But we have (charity) fundraisers twice a month, and they come in and say, ‘Oh, this is not what I expected.’”
Other community events have included book signings by local author Eugene Rowley, regular live music and food truck visits. The Corporal Rivers Memorial VFW Post 12185 opened in April 2019. It was the first new post in Alabama since 1996. The post and the auxiliary both meet at the brewery.
Siluria opened with four different beer styles: Boxcar Blonde, Lady Grace Wheat, Quarry IPA and Buck Creek Stout. Several other styles, including pale ale and sour, have joined the lineup. “We are mostly about simple, traditional styles. We try not to get too far out on a limb with fruity stuff,” Danny says. “The Boxcar Blonde and Lady Grace Wheat are two of our most popular beers.”
Brothers Jason and Scott Pruitt said the quaint Old Town section of Helena “screamed craft beer” at them. So, Jason says, they sought to give the town “a neighborhood spot, something unique and local, a place to hang out with friends.”
“I just got a vibe that a brewery would do awesome here,” Jason says.
So far the town seems to agree. Since they opened in the spring, they have grown a regular clientele of not only craft beer enthusiasts but also a generous sprinkling of kids and dogs. “Everybody has been great,” Jason says. “We have regulars. For some of them, they’re just happy to have craft beer available locally.”
The family and pet friendly brewery is near local shops and restaurants, the Helena Amphitheater, the Helena Farmers’ Market and scenic Buck Creek—all of which fits the brewery’s name. “Oversoul is the common link between all living organisms, plant and animal. It’s the spirit that runs through all of us, a universal spirit, I would say,” Jason explains. “It’s the connection I get from beer because it starts out as malt, grains and hops, and that’s all blended and becomes a product that bring people together.”
Some of the people, unfamiliar with craft beer, need help making a selection. “The most asked question is ‘What is your lightest beer?’” Jason says. “Well, what do you mean? Light in color, light in abv?” Scott hopes to add a Mexican lager by next summer. That would be more like what the questioners are used to.
Meanwhile, the regular lineup at Oversoul includes Parkside Pale Ale, $2 Pistol Porter, BCB Brown Ale, Lawn Mower Wheat and House IPA. Drawing from the Helena Farmers Market, which operates each Saturday in the park behind the brewery, Oversoul has created a group of beers called the Market Series. Using ingredients from a local farmer, they have brewed peach and watermelon saisons, Big Dill Pale Ale and most recently El Guapo Jalapeno-Cilantro.
Like many craft beer producers, the Pruitts trace their interest to homebrewing. “We started in the backyard in 2006. Then we moved into Scott’s garage, then to the basement, back to the garage again and now here,” Jason says.
The building has been a telephone switch house for the railroad, a bike shop and other businesses. However, most interesting, it was once the Helena jail. They found two-and-a-half metal cell doors downstairs. The missing piece turned out to be at the local historical museum. They donated their half to the museum. The other two doors form an outside corner of their walk-in cooler. Currently open only on weekends, Oversoul is adding attractions. Uncle Beard’s Backyard BBQ will offer food and local musicians will be booked at least once a week.