MOBILE, Ala. (AP) – “Rebranding during COVID was not a great decision,” deadpans brewer Simon Sothras.
“It was not,” agrees John Serda, straight-faced.
Then the two crack up.
In part it’s happy laughter, and with good reason: After a tough effort to reinvent itself, Serda Brewing is putting new beers on store shelves. There’s another note in there too: They’re laughing the way people do when they’ve been through an ordeal and think they can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
2020 was tough for almost everybody. For Mobile’s first craft brewery of the current era, it was a hell of a time to try to find a second act.
Serda Brewing wasn’t the first craft brewery to open in Mobile, or in the Mobile area. The Port City Brewery opened in the early ’90s, but it and successors at its Dauphin Street site struggled under old, restrictive state laws. The last of them closed in 2009 and the equipment was hauled off in 2011, at which point the state was left without a single functioning brewpub.
Change was at hand as grassroots group Free The Hops successfully advocated for a series of reforms that gave new ventures a fighting chance, and entrepreneurs waded in. Multiple breweries sprouted up in Birmingham and Huntsville, but Mobile lagged behind. Fairhope Brewing opened in 2013, followed by Big Beach in 2016 in Gulf Shores. But the cradle of Mardi Gras conspicuously had nothing to offer.
That changed in December 2017. After a long effort to find the right place and renovate it, Serda Brewing finally opened. Its founders included John Serda, a downtown businessman respected for his Serda’s Coffee, and head brewer Todd Hicks, a well-known local brewing pioneer whose resume went back to Port City Brewing. Other founding partners included John Serda’s brother Matt Serda, their father Ed Serda and Tim Mahoney. The new venture turned an old tire service center that had long been a Government Street eyesore into a gleaming new attraction.
Two years later, as 2020 approached with its grab bag of trauma, omens were mixed. Mobile had gained a brewpub, Iron Hand, in the DeTonti Square neighborhood north of downtown. Another brewery, Haint Blue, had sprouted up within walking distance of Serda, developed a reputation for exquisitely crafted specialty beers, then abruptly closed in late 2019. Old Majestic Brewing opened in December on St. Louis Street, with Braided River to follow in early February.
In general, it seemed like things had kicked off. But all was not well at Serda Brewing.
John Serda raised a hand into the air. “Our sales were here, then they went here, then they went here, over three years,” he said, lowering his hand a little each time.
“We didn’t want to admit to ourselves it was the beer,” he said. But eventually he came to think Serda’s had positioned itself poorly. “We kind of fell into this realm where we weren’t craft beer for craft beer drinkers, but we were too crafty for the commercial beer drinkers,” he said.
Hicks would later share his take in a Facebook post and comments in mid-April, announcing that he’d finished shutting down most of the brewery’s production equipment and that his active work for the brewery had come to “an idle.” Hicks attributed the shutdown partly to a normal cyclical industry downturn, exacerbated by COVID, but also said he’d anticipated taking his leave since a leadership shakeup the previous October.
Reading between the lines, there’d been a substantial difference of vision and Hicks was not impressed by the vision that won out. Hicks said he planned to “weather the shakeout and open an evolutionary brewery concept after the dust settles.”
In a normal year this might have been a run-of-the-mill business shakeup. But this was 2020, and the upshot was that Serda Brewing hit the pandemic like a canoe going sideways over a waterfall. In advance of developing a new product line, the brewery had pulled its products from distribution. That left taproom sales as a source of revenue, but no one had anticipated a statewide shutdown of such facilities followed by months of limited capacity.
“The timing couldn’t have been worse, because we’d decided to stop distributing,” Serda said. “And then COVID hit, and the lifeblood for most breweries was distribution, because they couldn’t utilize their taproom anymore. We had to shut down the entire month of March.”
Mobile’s upstart breweries, particularly Braided River, got their new beers to interested patrons via to-go sales, in those early days of the pandemic. “Basically we were just selling out of what we had left,” Serda said. “We had a lot of inventory left over from the old days and we were just trying to get rid of it.”
“For us it was a difficult time, because we were sucking wind,” he said.
In April, a cofounder of Birmingham’s Yellowhammer Brewing was named as the new head brewer. In July he announced his departure, citing the desire to be closer to family in north Alabama.
That’s when Serda and Simon Sothras stumbled across each other. Sothras, a self-described “gypsy brewer” who’d started in Portland, Ore., and spent the last six years brewing and consulting all over the world, had finished up a contract in Miami. With the pandemic raging, his initial plan of traveling to India didn’t seem so hot. But he’d never worked in the South, and the Serda Brewing situation seemed to present an interesting challenge.
“When I was coming in, I was comparing Birmingham and Mobile and I didn’t understand why there’s not an anchor brewery here,” Sothras said. If you’re on a coast at the crossroads of two major interstates, he said, you ought to have a regional brewery.
“I walked into this brewery, and John has put a lot of money, personal money, into this place, and it was a shame to see it,” Sothras said. “I spent a month and a half just cleaning and cleaning.”
By June and July Sothras was putting some new hazy IPAs on the menu and throwing Serda some curves.
“John didn’t believe me that I could make a yogurt beer,” Sothras said. “I had to prove him wrong. You should have saw his face when I took him to Publix … I saw the fear in his eyes.”
“It wasn’t fear,” said Serda. “It was just, ‘Are you sure …’”
“I told him ‘We’re about to spend $200 on yogurt,’” said Sothras. And then they were about to start dumping it into a fermenter.
This isn’t an insane as it might sound. Sothras said his family roots are in Iceland. Iceland produces a yogurt-like dairy product called skyr. The cultures active in the fermentation of skyr can be used to sour the mash used to brew a beer. Done to a German gose style, this creates an Icelandic style called skyr gose or skyrgosi. Sothras uses the technique to make a Berliner weisse that he calls his “base sour,” a recipe that can be varied with fruit flavors and other modifications.
Given the amount of work that had to be done, Serda said, the effects of the pandemic weren’t all bad. “Stimulus money did help a lot,” he said. As for the shutdown and slowdown, “It did give us the time to make the beers right,” he said.
“It gave us the time to play around,” said Sothras. “It gave us the time to see what the market wanted.”
From late summer into early fall, it seemed to be paying off. “I started seeing people I hadn’t seen in a long time,” said Serda.
Serda Brewing has returned to commercial distribution with four taproom-tested beers. Atticus Empire is a hazy double IPA with a complex flavor profile and an 8% alcohol content by volume. Mangalore is a slightly lighter IPA at 7.5% ABV, with significantly less bitterness and more tropical flavor. The Ranger is a milder (4.6%) sour with a very sweet, very forward watermelon flavor.
Serda said he expects those three to be standards, while the fourth will be a seasonal offering: Jubilator, an 8% helles doppelbock that might be right up your alley if you like Abita’s Andygator.
Others are on the menu at the taproom, as the experimentation continues: stouts and dubbels and Belgians and more. Serda said he’s very excited about Beach Trip, a Pilsner going into distribution this spring, and about a limited run of mead using local honey. Sothras said he’s itching to make some ciders, which he thinks are well suited for Mobile’s summer heat.
There’s no clear-cut finishing line. Last year, for the first time, the Mystics of Time started their Mardi Gras parade in front of their new home just across the street. “It’s crazy,” Serda said. “That Saturday is just crazy. We love it. It’s just a good time.”
While uncertainty remains about Mobile’s public Mardi Gras celebrations, many of the parades and balls already have been canceled for 2021. Whatever happens, it’s clear that the season won’t bring the surge of business it usually does. Serda Brewing’s second act remains a work in progress. (Updates can be found at serdabrewing.com and www.facebook.com/serdabrewing.
Sothras said that in the long run he sees Mobile as “a very young market” with room for growth.
Serda said he’s already looking ahead to Mardi Gras 2022, but he things good things are coming before then. He expects 2021 legislation to bring more flexibility to state limits on who can distribute and who can serve what alcoholic beverages. Most of all, he expects a gradual return to normalcy as COVID-19 vaccines are distributed.
“I think March is going to be a good month for us,” he said. “In general people are just so tired and sick of not being able to do anything, and so afraid. It’s going to be great.”
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