In Huntsville, Alabama, home of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, space and rockets are a part of the local culture — even, as it turns out, the beer culture.
Dan Perry is a co-owner of the Straight to Ale brewery, based in Huntsville, where he has lived for most of his life. When naming his company's line of beverages, Perry said it just made sense to incorporate NASA and spaceflight.
The company's signature brew is named in honor of Miss Baker, the first monkey sent to space by NASA who successfully returned alive. Other space-based brews include Wernher von Brown Ale (after Wernher von Braun, an early rocket developer for NASA and former director of Marshall). There's also the Laika Russian Imperial Stout, after the Soviet dog Laika, who became the first live animal to orbit the Earth. [Photos of Pioneering Animals in Space]
"It's just the culture we grew up in. You just become comfortable with it," Perry said. "My wife was a counsellor at Space Camp. My dad worked in related industries, and most of our other partners here in the business work with or for NASA. We've got a customer who is big into those model rockets that go like a mile, and once they're done, he hangs them in the taproom. So we just try to embrace it."
Straight to Ale also makes a series of space beers to honor the International Space Station; the most recent are the ISS Tequila, ISS Rum and the ISS Chard, which are bourbon-barrel-aged Belgian farmhouse ales. The brewery also makes an extended line of brews named after Laika the dog that are bourbon-barrel-aged stouts. Additionally, there's the Dark Planet English strong ale, Rocket City Red Irish ale, Rocket Bock doppelbock and Gorillanaut imperial IPA.
From space-based fiction there is also the Illudium and Unobtanium bourbon-barrel-aged old ales (Illudium is an explosive fuel used by Marvin the Martian of "Looney Tunes," and Unobtanium is the material being mined in the movie "Avatar").
Perry grew up in Huntsville (which, in his casual Alabama drawl, he pronounces as "Huntsvll"). He said, as a kid, he visited Marshall's U.S. Space and Rocket Center at least a few times a year, where Miss Baker the monkey lived before and after her flight to space. Perry said he remembers seeing her in an enclosed habitat at the center. (The beer is actually called Monkeynaut IPA.)
"We thought that if anybody deserved a beer named after them, it was poor Miss Baker," Perry said. It seems that Perry isn't the only person who remembers the squirrel monkey fondly. He recounts with a laugh a story about Miss Baker's grave (she passed away in 1984), which is located near the Space and Rocket Center: " "People will leave bananas on top of the tombstone out there, and now people have been leaving cans of Monkeynaut."
Engineering a great brew
Perry has been brewing his own beer since the 1980s, and early on he joined a local brewer club called Rocket City Brewers. The group attracted lots of engineers who worked in the defense and space industries.
"Home brewing and craft brewing in general tend to draw in engineer-type people," Perry said. "They like to get into the engineering of the brewing systems and all that kind of stuff, and creating things. So it always drew a lot of that crowd."
Having those engineers critiquing his home brews made it possible to jump into professional brewing in 2009, Perry said.
"They were just people who home brewed beer, but they were really, really good at it," he said. "They would dissect your beer at every meeting and tell you exactly what you were doing wrong. And you'd cry a little about it, but they'd tell you why something was wrong, and then you could fix it. And they really helped me out."
Straight to Ale has made an effort to support its local community by making its taproom available for community events, and Perry said even the Space and Rocket Center has hosted fund-raisers at the taproom.
The space-themed brews and other concoctions from Straight to Ale can be found in many parts of the southeast United States, including in most of Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee; the Florida Panhandle; and the Atlanta area of Georgia. Perry said there are plans to expand to the entire southeast region of the United States.