The story of Trim Tab Brewing Company doesn’t start with beer, Birmingham or even the birth of its founder and CEO Harris Stewart. It instead starts with an issue of Playboy published in February of 1972.
In this specific publication, American architect, inventor and futurist Buckminster Fuller had a candid conversation with the magazine about the role of the average person within culture. This is where Trim Tab Brewing was truly born.
Fuller referred to a “trim tab” — a tiny rudder attached to the rear of the larger rudder that steers many ocean liners. This tab creates an area of low pressure that brings the larger rudder around, changing the course of the massive vessel.
“The little individual can be a trim tab,” Fuller said. “Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it’s left you all together. But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go. So I said, ‘Call me Trim Tab.’”
Fuller was right to refer to himself this way, because without even knowing it, his moniker changed the direction of Stewart’s life forever.
“I founded the company in my kitchen three years ago with the notion of making complex, balanced beer,” Stewar says. “But there are a lot of breweries out there, which begs the question, you know, ‘Why another one?’ So, I wanted to create something different, something that wasn’t just a brewery. I wanted something based on an idea, a mission. We want to be trim tabs.”
Rather than relying on gimmicky flavor-of-the-week creations to set themselves apart amidst Birmingham’s blooming brewing scene, Stewart designed Trim Tab to be an establishment custom-built for the exchange of ideas, with lovingly crafted beer acting as a conduit.
“Craft beer tells a story,” Stewart says. “It brings people together. So, why can’t we use craft beer as a platform to celebrate people, organizations and ideas that are small sources of big change? Just like a literal trim tab, the smallest movement can create a huge impact. We’re driven by not just beer, but by forming relationships with and between charities, people and groups that are doing things in our community. We can use our beer to champion those people and those ideas.”
Years later, Stewart has succeeded in getting that notion off the ground. Trim Tab’s monthly calendar is currently filled with events promoting food banks and wellness groups, performances by Birmingham bands and DJs, exhibitions by local artists, photographers and filmmakers, and so on.
“Once you dissociate beer as a commodity,” Stewart says, “you discover the people behind it. It grows beyond being just something to drink. When my wife and I came to Birmingham, we began to notice that a light was coming on here. People were becoming aware of what they could accomplish in their own backyard. I see Birmingham becoming not just an icon of the state but also an icon of the entire Southern United States when it comes to positive social change.”
Pairing with such organizations as TEDxBirmingham and the Autism Society of Alabama to create informative and entertaining events, Trim Tab is working to become part of that icon and to encourage Birmingham’s transformation from Southern metropolis into a nationally renowned lightning rod of new ideas.
This focus on high-minded ideals and thinking beyond the beverage isn’t to say that Trim Tab isn’t supremely diligent about the beer that they create. After all, they are a brewery. A peek behind the heady concepts and social leadership reveals a passion for equally heady beer and a dedication to craft.
Will Crenshaw is Trim Tab’s brewmaster. He has a master’s in biochemistry from the University of Tennessee and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis’ Master Brewers Program. He is also a dyed-in-the-wool beer nerd. Yes, positive communal change matters greatly to him. Supporting the local arts matters to him, too. But creating and discussing great beer is what truly lights a fire behind his eyes.
“Harris and his wife Cheri are both very intentional about the company culture, and that’s important to all of us, but I’m usually in there sweating, driving the forklift, making beer,” Crenshaw says, laughing. “Yes, we can use what we make to do bigger things, things that are important to us — supporting charities and artists, you know — but we are a brewing company. We make beer. Thinking about beer keeps us up at night. That’s what drives us.”
Crenshaw insists that no matter how high the praise gets, Trim Tab will always be in the business of tastier beer, first and foremost. “Listening to praise,” he says, “is not the road to excellence. All across the nation, people are learning what a great place Birmingham is for beer. We want to do our part. But we have to be forward-thinking, and strive for no less than perfection with what we make. We owe our customers that.”
“I think we represent an appeal to a certain concept that’s innate within everyone,” Stewart says. “We all have the big changes that we want to see done in the world. We think that there are these proportionate, big solutions to problems, but really it’s the small things that we can influence that are responsible for a larger impact beyond what we can imagine. We can change the world by doing small things like making quality craft beer and have a damn good time doing it.”
Upcoming for Trim Tab is the release of their first Winter Cellar Reserve, NILBOG — named after the fictional town featured in the ‘90s cult classic Troll 2, one of the most entertainingly awful movies ever made — on Oct. 30. The release of NILBOG (“Goblin” spelled backwards) will coincide with the Alabama Theatre’s screening of the feature. Dr. George Hardy, the film’s star and life-long resident of Alexander City, will be in attendance during the screening and also the following night for a Q&A at the Trim Tab tasting gallery.
“George is a perfect example of how people can cause enormous positive impacts by just focusing on the little things,” Stewart says. “He wanted to be an actor his whole life, and the one movie he made was considered to be the worst movie ever made. But instead of running from it, he used that accomplishment as a way to bring joy into people’s lives, celebrating — even reveling — in the ridiculous and hilarious nature of the film. As soon as you see George, you come to understand that this guy is a trim tab. That, combined with the fact that he lives in Alex City…we had no choice but to try and collaborate with him.”
Trim Tab suggested that Dr. Hardy have sole choice of the charity to benefit from the meet-and-greet during Halloween night, so a portion of sales will go to support the Friends Community Cares Day on Nov. 5th, an event run through the UAB School of Dentistry, which extends dental services into underserved neighborhoods.
As Trim Tab’s future grows ever closer, Harris Stewart, Will Crenshaw and the rest of the company are hoping to use events like this one to bring new faces into the brewery in order to build new friendships and continue their mission of grassroots change. (Drinking not required.)
“We want people to come into our brewery and be totally inspired, whether they drink or not,” Stewart explains. “We’ve been experimenting with non-alcoholic options, such as our Nitro Coffee that we’ve created with the help of Seeds Coffee. We want people to come in, enjoy our atmosphere and be spurred on by our space, regardless of their feelings about our beer, or beer in general.”
“Our Nitro Coffee is fantastic. We’re really proud of it,” Crenshaw adds. “There are people out there that have done something kind of like it before us, sure. But we feel like ours is really special because you’re getting a drink that was crafted with passion by two companies that really love this community.”
Even in the short time that they’ve been open, Trim Tab Brewing has made its mark on Birmingham and Alabama as a whole. The brewery’s signature geometric logo now appears in barrooms from Mobile to Huntsville, and it is likely that it will continue to grow as they move closer to a full distribution of canned beers across the Southeast. But no matter how large of a production they become, Stewart promises that they will remain focused on the ideals that got them here in the first place.
“It’s still early on for us right now, we’ve only been in operation here downtown for about seven months,” Stewart says. “But we have a very clear idea of what we stand for, and we’re working every day to establish real attainable goals for one, five, even 10 years down the road, not just in terms of growth, but what we can do for our community. As we get closer to arriving on one year of being open, we don’t want to just celebrate ourselves, but the relationships we’ve built and help build, the changes we’ve help make — the trim tabs, if you will.”
Correction (1:24 p.m., 10/24/14): The founder of Trim Tab is Harris Stewart, not Stewart Harris, and details regarding Trim Tab brewmaster Will Crenshaw’s CV have been amended. We regret the errors.