Harris and Cheri Stewart started TrimTab Brewing in Birmingham, Alabama, in 2012 and officially opened the doors in 2014. They had lived in Asheville, North Carolina, surrounded by some of the finest craft beer in the country and a clientele that was loyal to local and excited about the regular beer happenings. When they moved to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for law school, it was a different scene.
“I was an avid homebrewer, but I hated life,” Harris Stewart says. “There was nothing to do in the city, and I didn’t know my place in life or have something to create and be inspired by. So we moved to Birmingham and started building things from there.” A devotee of the futurist and inventor Buckminster Fuller, Stewart took a famous quote from the man involving the trim tab, the small rudder that is a part of the larger rudder on massive ocean-going ships. This small piece is responsible for moving the big piece and therefore the whole thing.
“For me, seeing the craft-beer renaissance fifteen years ago affected me on a personal level,” Stewart says. “It’s amazing, the power that craft beer has. You get a real cross section of a community gathering for a common thing.”
With “being small” in mind but knowing the power it can bring, the Stewarts launched the brewery “to tell the story of pride in a community, of energizing a community,” and they invited their guests to embody that as well.
A Diverse Lineup
Of course, the brewery makes an IPA, but it’s not hazy. It’s cut from the Old School cloth—a 6.5 percent ABV orange-hued amber that’s loaded with Pacifica hops, giving it a mixture of flavors and aromas such as rose and marmalade. It’s joined with two other year-round beers: Pillar to Post, a 5.5 percent ABV, easy-drinking chocolate malt–forward brown ale; and Paradise Now, a raspberry Berliner weisse that took home a Great American Beer Festival bronze last year.
The popularity of that last one was admittedly a surprise to Stewart, but as soon as locals started asking for it more and more, it became a staple offering. “It’s huge here; it’s our market disrupter.”
Lest you think it’s just those three beers that keep things interesting and people walking through the doors of the taproom that’s also an art gallery (more on that in a moment), the five-member brewing team wants you to know there’s basically something new each time you walk in.
“This brewery is pure passion. Production is well over where we were this time last year, and we’re releasing at least three new beers every month,” says Brewmaster Luke Garner. “It’s been draining at times but rewarding because the creativity and the ability to be creative are what’s leading things, driving things, and waking my guys up in the morning and getting them to work.”
The beers that are done in house come off a 30-barrrel Specific Mechanical Systems 2-vessel brewhouse. The brewery is also brewing beer at Abita Brewing in Louisiana, says Stewart. This relationship has the brewery on track to make 7,500 barrels this year. “It’s been a growth year for us,” he says.
One thing not commonly done (in Alabama, at least), says Garner, is experimenting with different fruits. This has recently included a toasted-coconut lager and a strawberry cream ale.
Then, of course, there have been customer hits with a dark-chocolate milk stout and a churro milk stout with cinnamon.
“But we want to make sure there are layers, no matter what—that the beer doesn’t get lost among all the flavors,” he says. “We’ve taken cues from a lot of brewers around the country but are trying to do things on our own and try new things.”
This includes a lineup of cocktail-inspired beers that one of the assistant brewers, a former bartender at a cocktail bar, has been working on. TrimTab hopes to release a mai tai IPA and a margarita grapefruit gose in the near future.
“To me, it’s why not one more? Why do we stay in existence? We try to challenge ourselves and hopefully offer a unique contribution to beer. The past year, especially, is evidence of that,” Stewart says.
Art and Beer and Art
When you visit the brewery at its home location, you’re not just visiting a taproom; you’re visiting what they call a “tasting gallery,” and that’s because TrimTab has made it part of its mission to focus on the local art community. In the tasting gallery, both emerging and established artists can display their latest works. Stewart hopes that it will inspire brewery visitors to expand their horizons and maybe be exposed to something that is new to them.
The frequently changing installations also keep the tasting gallery fresh. Much in the same way that the brewers are constantly trying to release something new and to get patrons excited, the gallery displays mean that there’s often something different that could potentially inspire.
The tasting gallery also serves as an event space for local gatherings.
The brewery has a manifesto that they’ve posted on their walls and website—a few simple guiding principles that have helped keep them grounded and focused while the brewery has taken off beyond the wildest expectations. With a focus on mindfulness, creating change, and having their voices matter, it ends with this final point: “We believe that beer is a springboard for creating community and that as brewers we hold a special role and responsibility in it.”
As much as they are trying to further beer culture, Stewart is very mindful of where the brewery is. “We’re located in the South and distributed in the South, so while we look at the national market for trends, our overall mantra continues to be that we’re evolving and making complex and artful beer,” he says.
Balance is key—listening to what the local consumer desires most and not really trying to “out extreme anyone,” even on the hops-driven beers. Knowing where they are means making beers that you can drink a full can of in the full sun on a summer afternoon. “Growth can be dangerous. We’re trying to make sure fans are resonating with us,” says Stewart. “We will keep building things up as they are demanded.”