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Ingesting the Opposition - Week 7: Red Clay Brewing Company

The State of Alabama's football gods require your attention for the third time this season, as Mississippi State and Auburn are set to engage in another clash of SEC-West titans. While the team prepares for the weekend's Feats of Strength, pay homage to what will surely soon be the Loveliest Brewery on the Plains.

Courtesy RCB

You know those guys you see at shows or in record stores who always talk about a band's past as if it occurred in a golden age of uncorrupted cultural purity? The ones that wistfully recall the splendor of the earlier records and performances, and inevitably pinpoint some membership change or creative decision that led the band astray? The ones prone to launch into an oft-repeated story about the first time they saw the band play at a secret gig in the basement of a condemned Section 8 housing project while you were still in middle school, and to wonder aloud about whether the set will include any songs from the pre-[title of commercially successful album that everyone likes] period?

Those guys are jackasses.

I am totally one of those guys.

So I'll just go ahead and get the formalities out of the way: The band you like used to be pretty good, but have sucked since that one record came out that made you start liking them. That show you saw the other day was ok, but was really quite lame compared to the time I saw them in a 50-person dive bar right before you learned they existed.

And yeah, I guess the first album is solid. But really, their first album was better than their first album.

All snobbery aside, there can be something special about the beginning stages of what later becomes an established phenomenon. Consider post-Barrett, pre-Dark Side Pink Floyd, for example. The 1s and 0s that compose this digital scrawl cannot convey the extent to which I geek out over the entire Floyd canon. (As I type, I am sitting next to fourteen different vinyl, CD, and box-set iterations of Dark Side of the Moon. Yes, I admit that I have a problem.) And to this day, it is that brief window of time from 1968 to 1972 that I find most captivating. Not because I think More or Atom Heart Mother or Ummagumma are their best albums. (Though if you think any Floyd music since The Wall is better than anything from that period, be prepared for fisticuffs in the comments section.) Rather, it is because the trajectory of the band wasn't clear. Both live and in the studio, they weren't just figuring out how to be Pink Floyd. They were still figuring out what Pink Floyd really was.

And that, my fellow local-booze-seeking mystics, is exactly the situation we find down in Auburn, Alabama. There is no established local name on the craft beer scene, and the community has been years without a brewery. But that's changing before our very eyes. Three home brewers have taken the plunge and are set to unleash their malty brilliance upon the masses before the year's end with Red Clay Brewing Company, a craft brewery complete with a 10-tap tasting room.

So let's check in with the boys at Red Clay to see if they're ready for the ever-evolving twenty-minute renditions of "Interstellar Overdrive" that may soon spring forth from their young fermenting tanks.

RCB Collage
Where it all begins.

At this point, the story is a well-known one. Dudes like beer. Dudes decide to make beer. Dudes buy home-brew paraphernalia. Beer is made. Beer causes epiphany. The foundations are shaken to the ground and a brewery is raised in its ruble.

This is essentially Red Clay's story as well, and it all started with a home brew kit four or five years ago. John Corbin, an Auburn University grad with a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management, brewed his first batch with fellow Auburner Kerry McGinnis, who is just about to finish work on a Biosystems Engineering degree. The process was fun and the beer was great, so the two tossed aside the kit and dove head first into a sea of hops and barley. A stout or two later, SEC-West brother Stephen Harle—an accountant educated at the University of Mississippijoined the party, and the three set off on a fantastic voyage of home brewing splendor. (Read: They made beer and drank it. And it was good.)

After a couple of years of this, the query present in the universal consciousness of all home brewers everywhere presented itself: Why not do this for a living?

Now, this may not have been a pipe-dream in the same way it was for, say, the guys who started Good People in Birmingham. There was at least some precedent for this sort of thing in the state, and the number of legal obstacles that hampered the growth of the industry was decreasing. Hell, they could even draw inspiration from an Auburn grad abroad who was making one of the best craft pale ales on the market. But still, they had little experience in the field and had to buck a trend that had led to the closure of a local precursor not too long ago.

So the three invested hundreds of hours into their dream. Touring other breweries, talking to established brewers, taking brewing-science classes,[1] meeting with various government officials about zoning and local laws, composing a detailed business plan, perfecting core recipes, promoting themselves at local festivals and community events, scouting potential sites, and so on and so on.

All the work wasn't in vain. The brewery selected a location on the surprisingly quaint Opelika side of the Auburn-Opelika sandwich in a rejuvenated arts district right next door to, what do you know, a brand new local distillery. By early September, the guys had started construction. All (or much of) the red tape has been cut, the operation is fully funded, and the goal is to open the taproom within the next couple of months.

Godspeed with the concrete-cutting, my friends. Thirsty Plainsmen await.

RCB Construction
I assume this is where Red Clay is putting the river of beer.

Red Clay plans on offering at least four year round drinks to customers in bars and restaurants in and around Auburn (and hopefully Columbus, GA, as well), and another six or more experimental or seasonal releases in the taproom. Three of the four year-rounders cover microbrew mainstays: a Saison, an Oatmeal Stout, and an Imperial IPA (which is a super-hopped, high gravity IPA). The fourth? Well, that's an interesting story.

When I've asked craft brewers about the inspiration for their product lines, I often get some variation of this: "We brew what we like, but with an understanding that the beer has to appeal to consumers enough to sell consistently." Now, the approach taken in carrying that out differs brewer to brewer, and certainly the range of palates represented in the industry is extraordinary. Nonetheless, their answers to my question has been quite similar until now.

Red Clay's approach, at least as it relates to their fourth year-round offering, was a little different. You see, when the fellas that eventually started Red Clay were brewing on a small scale for themselves, they wanted their hobby to be something all their families and friends could enjoy. And that included Kerry's wife, who has celiac disease. Because of her condition, she wasn't able to partake of her husband's wheat-, barely, or rye-based creations.

Well, that just wouldn't do. So, the gentlemen at Red Clay years ago became champions of inclusive drinking: they got a bunch of in-season apples, learned how to effectively press them by watching "hours of YouTube footage," and whipped up a batch of English-style cider for Kerry's wife.

Turns out the stuff was good. Like, really good. So much so that everyone who tried it wanted more, even when apples weren't in season. They started using sourced unfermented cider as a base during the off-season, and the popularity of the drink remained. Hence, Red Clay's fourth year-round offering will be a local hard cider, made with in-season, southeastern apples whenever possible.

As a huge fan of quality cider—and of giving your spouse every possible reason to temporarily forget what a buffoon you actually are—I find this to be in incredibly good form.

So, Auburn-Opelika sandwich, rejoice. When Red Clay opens its doors in the coming weeks, you will find yourselves the proud home of a brand new craft brewery. That it just so happens to be one of the few craft cider producers in the deep South—and the only one I've heard of in Alabama—well, that's just a cherry on top of your beer sundae.

RCB owners
The Red Clay family delighting in their own awesomeness.

[1]No matter your team allegiance, take a moment to tip your cap to Auburn University for establishing . . . wait for it, wait for it . . . a Brewing Science and Operations program! Skidoosh! It's not a full-fledged major you can choose—can you imagine the reaction of a tuition-paying parent to an eighteen-year-old's proud announcement that she is going to major in beer?—but it still offers graduate students the ability to study a number of facets of an industry to which they would otherwise have little-to-no access. Kudos, Auburn. If you decide to add a distance-learning opportunity focused on distilling whisky, I may have to go back to school.