Four day weekends have the potential to go one of two ways – they can turn into mini-vacations giving one the time to explore a new city or they can rush by in a flash filled with errands and sleeping in. Now don’t get me wrong, I love sleeping in but this last long weekend I wanted to take a mini-adventure. I decided on a day trip to Huntsville, Alabama to visit the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. The city is a three hour drive from Atlanta and I was sold the moment I was told that I could see the Saturn V rocket. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be wondering why one of the greatest space museums in the world is in a place like Huntsville.
After the second World War the City of Huntsville gained 118 new residents: German rocket scientists who surrendered during the war. These were the men who had built the V-2 rocket and were more cautious about the American Government’s choice of location to dump them in. One of the men is interviewed in The New York Times about his initial thoughts on the state, saying
“They make their money moonshining and that’s what they drink for breakfast, and supper. And so we, in a way, were a little bit disappointed that it was really not that bad.”
My personal thoughts on the state aren’t that far off, which is unfair to Alabama and Huntsville in particular, as the city went from to someplace in the middle of nowhere to “Rocket City”. The museum now sees over half a million visors every year and is the home to every child’s greatest dream, Space Camp.
The drive from Atlanta to Huntsville takes over three hours on small back country roads filled with one street towns. There were some genuinely nice hills and landscapes on the way out but driving back in the dark was a nerve racking experience. Huntsville is a small town with a population of 417,000. It lacks the quaint charm of Chattanooga and generally seemed to be empty for our entire visit. There was one interesting group around; an elderly trike convention had descended on the Rocket Center from all over the country. I did a little digging and found out that Wing Ding 37 was in town. Elderly couples in flashy leather vests and loud pants were scootering all over the Rocket Center. Not really what I have planned for retirement, but do whatever makes you happy I guess?
I had mixed feeling about our visit to the US Space and Rocket Center. Perhaps I was expecting more having grown up on a diet of Space Camp fantasies and astronaut movies. The museum is divided up into several buildings, many of which appeared to have peaked in the mid-90’s. The exhibits are dingy and broken down. The main training floor for Space Camp was roped off, including the tank where scuba-clad campers go through buoyancy training.There was a strange shrine to the military next to a broken and closed “Women In Space” section. After leaving the disappointing first hall Eric and I walked around the rocket park which strangely enough had an amusement park ride in the middle of it. Thankfully my disappointed disappeared when i stepped into the Saturn V Hall.
Containing one of three Saturn V rockets on the planet, this new renovated exhibit hall was well worth the three hour drive and the $20 admission. The exhibit hall runs the full length of the rocket surrounding interactive learning displays and artifacts. Two of the highlights for me were the timeline of Von Braun’s team of engineers and the Mobile Quarantine Facility. The Mobile Quarantine Facility is an converted Airstream trailer which returning astronauts where isolated within to stop the spread of any interstellar diseases. Only Apollo 11, 12, and 14 used the trailers. The Airstream in Huntsville was used to house the returning astronauts of Apollo 12. The trailer was lost for years as it was sold to the CDC and then “misplaced”. Eventually, the trailer resurfaced in a fish hatchery in Marion, Alabama. The Rocket Center has done a wonderful job of restoring the high-tech sliver Twinkie to it’s former glory. The Rocket Center was completely redeemed by the final exhibit hall and even though I’ll never get to go to Space Camp, there is always time to love learning about the galaxy.
After four full hours exploring the museum, Eric and I were getting peckish and thirsty. Time to explore Huntsville’s craft beer scene! For such a small town, it’s very impressive that Huntsville is home to nine craft breweries. I decided to visit one of the town’s most established breweries, Straight To Ale. I have written about Straight to Ale on this blog once before when I reviewed their Monkeynaut IPA in my 50 States, 50 Beers series.
Straight to Ale is soon to be the largest brewery in the state once it completes renovating an old middle school into a restaurant/event space/pinball arcade. Straight to Ale was founded in 2010 immediately after Brewery Modernization Act was pass which allowed the creation of new breweries. Before 2010 only brewpubs where allowed in the state of Alabama, and these had to be housed in “an historic building … in which county beer was brewed for public consumption prior to the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1919” which created an effective blockade for any new brewpubs. This law was overturned in 2010 but was sadly not the cap of Alabama liquor law crazy, as it was illegal to home brew in the state until 2013. These restrictive laws make what is happening at Straight to Ale all the more impressive.
Eric and I entered the brewery around 5:30 on a Friday. The taproom was deserted with no sounds other than the theme to Cops blaring on the TV. I have a strange irrational fear of empty restaurants and bars, so it was a blessing that the bartender rounded the corner right before I could flee. Nick, the bartender who dabbles in tree wrangling, was a super nice, knowledgeable guy. He was expecting me as I had emailed the Operations Manager earlier to set up a visit. Nick answered all of our questions about beer laws in the state (terrible but getting better), where everyone was (camping or triking around) and what exciting things Straight to Ale is up to (lots of barrel aging). He poured us a rocket-shaped sampler and allowed us to wander the brewery, including the pinball arcade. We stayed for longer than originally planned; eating Banh Mis from a local food truck, watching “sports” and chatting with other drinkers. Everyone we met in Huntsville was incredibly nice. After a year of living and traveling in the South, this was the first time that I experienced the mythical southern hospitality.
Session IPA / 4.2% / ? IBUs
Oh session IPAs, how do I love thee? They manage to keep the flavor high and the ABV low. I can enjoy a blast of hop flavor without worrying about what my Snapchat story will look like the following morning. This beer has a bitter aftertaste but that’s an essential part of the IPA experience.
Final score; four out of five pints of hoppy goodness.
American Pale Wheat Ale / 5% / ? IBUs
I know I gushed all about FATE Watermelon Wheat in an earlier post, and that is an outstanding beer. But. This one is better.
Final score; five out of five tears shed over its limited distribution.
International Space Saison (ISS)
Sasion / 8.3% / ? IBUs
A tremendous perk of breweries with the ability to sell their beers on site is that brew-masters are encouraged to brew limited batches of unique beers. The International Space Saison is clearly a beer that inspires creativity as it has been aged in rum, tequila, and chardonnay barrels so far. The particular glass that I enjoyed was aged in rum barrels, and boy oh boy could you taste it. The rum flavor was spicy sweet which balanced perfectly with the tart flavor of the Saison. It has a rich depth of flavor which matched its strength but never became overpowering.
Final score; five out of five! This was an over-the-top beer to match the hospitality everyone showed us at Straight to Ale.