Readers might think we spend entirely too much time focusing on the travails of beer legislation in the great state of Alabama. There’s an easy explanation for that: I live in Alabama, and things that affect ME directly are more important than things that affect YOU directly. At least that’s how I see it…
Getting legislation passed, particularly when it relates to the political dirty bomb that is alcohol, can be difficult in any state. But in a place like Alabama, where guys like Alvin Holmes are elected officials, it’s an almost Sisyphean task.*
*Do yourself a favor and click on that link….even if it’s just for the comedic value.
At the center of the storm of Alabama beer laws is a little grass-roots organization called Free the Hops that we have heralded often on these pages. When I first moved to ‘Bama in 2007, I couldn’t purchase a beer with an ABV above 6%. This was unfortunate since the average ABV of beers I like is probably somewhere around 12%. In 2009, Free the Hops scored their first big win when they passed the Gourmet Beer Bill which more than doubled the allowable ABV for beer sold in the state. But it was just the first step in loosening up some of the most restrictive beer laws in the US. The organization continues to work for Alabama citizens by fighting to end the draconian regulations that limit the growth of the craft beer industry in the state (and thus limit the new jobs and tax revenue that go hand and hand with craft beer). Rather than write another post about Free the Hops in my usual, uninformed, speculative fashion, I decided to go right to the source and discuss the past, present and future of the organization with one of their key players: Free the Hops’ VP of Legislative Support, Dan Roberts.
BARLEY: Dan, what’s your background and how did you first get involved in Free the Hops?
DAN: I’m a 29-year-old electrical engineer and software developer in Huntsville. After I separated from the Marine Corps in 2004, I moved back to Alabama. My then-girlfriend, current-wife worked at a small alternative paper in Tuscaloosa that did a piece on Free the Hops. I come from a family that’s very tuned-in to local and state politics, and I was a burgeoning beer nerd, so it was a natural fit. I joined some time in late 2005, I think. At meetings I would weigh in with what I knew of the legislative process and the politics of Montgomery. Eventually I was helping to make political decisions and at some point I was named a VP – it was all quite natural. During all this, I also started the Tuscaloosa Chapter. When I moved to Huntsville I was asked to be the new chapter head, and our #1 priority was creating the Rocket City Brewfest. We pulled it off because Huntsville has a very active and passionate chapter that was very excited about it. This was one of the first times I saw what our members can accomplish, and I was quite impressed with the level of dedication and professionalism from a bunch of volunteers.
BARLEY: What’s your current role with the organization?
DAN: I’m the VP of Legislative Support for Free the Hops (I gave up the chapter head hat after the first Rocket City Brewfest). I “report” to the President and execute the political policies set by the Board of Directors. I’m the primary point of contact with our lobbyist and manage our grassroots activism. My goal is to avoid “form letters” and petitions like the plague. We could easily get thousands of halfway-interested people to sign a petition, but I prefer to have hundreds of real people calling and emailing on their own. We try to keep everyone informed but we don’t tell them what to say or make it too easy for them – it’s a real grassroots movement and our members and supporters deserve all the credit. All I do is send emails to tell them what’s up.
BARLEY: And that system has been effective for you?
DAN: We actually have a very sophisticated constituency database. If a legislator is on the fence and tells us he’s not sure this is important to his constituents, we can email everyone in our database that lives in his district. Again, we never say, “Call him and say this.” We say, “This is where your representative is. We think it would be very helpful for you to let him/her know where you stand on these issues.” It’s been very effective. It’s the same system as this tool: http://freethehops.org/legislative/
BARLEY: Do you have any other duties (either official or unofficial)?
DAN: I also call myself the “Street Boss” at the Rocket City Brewfest. I’m part of a 3-person leadership team that organizes and executes the festival with the help of about 22 other active members and several hundred volunteers.
It may shock someone to see how much involvement someone has in Free the Hops, but I can tell you that although I’m one of the more public faces of FtH, we actually have several people in the organization that put in the level of effort I put in. All of our officers and board members are extremely dedicated and put in a lot of time to the cause. Even more amazing are the people who don’t even get the recognition of a title. In Huntsville alone, I can name a dozen people who are absolutely essential to our success and get no recognition from it except the gratitude from their fellow active members. Of course, they also get the benefits that our legislation provides everyone.
BARLEY: Are you paid in your current capacity?
DAN: I’ve never been paid by Free the Hops. I’m currently debating whether or not I should be reimbursed for expenses incurred on a recent trip to Montgomery. I probably won’t.
BARLEY: For our readers who aren’t from Alabama, could you give a quick and dirty recap of how Free the Hops got started and what its mission has been over the years?
DAN: Free the Hops started in Danner Kline’s kitchen from what I’ve heard. Just three beer guys – Danner, Chris, and Lee – who thought the beer laws in Alabama were dumb and wanted to change them. None of them were in the beer industry. Danner was a telecommunications specialist (or something), Chris is an occupational therapist at UAB, Lee is an architect. A couple of years ago, Danner went to work with a beer distributor in Birmingham.
FTH was incorporated in 2004. We got 501(c)(6) tax status in 2007. The first laws we identified as priorities were the 6% ABV restriction and the container size restriction. Later, we identified the brewery laws as needing reform. We also introduced a homebrew legalization bill one year, but because we were so laser-focused on ABV at the time, a group of homebrewers and homebrew clubs asked to carry that torch the next year.
Since being founded, our membership and support has grown organically, and it’s been quite impressive to watch it all happen. Most of the credit should go to Danner, who carried the whole thing on his shoulders through the early years before us Johnny-come-Latelys started getting involved.
We passed the ABV law (the Gourmet Beer Bill) in 2009. Our brewery reform law – the Brewery Modernization Act – passed the Senate in 2010 but we never made it to a vote in the House due to some politics which had nothing to do with our bill. We passed the Senate again this year and are awaiting a vote in the House.
This year, we introduced two bills – the Brewery Modernization Act and the Gourmet Bottle Bill. We are also lending support for Homebrew Legalization, although it was defeated in the House on April 26.
BARLEY: That was frustrating, of course. You just talked about the Gourmet Beer Bill which “moved the needle” on the allowable ABV of beer from 6% to 13.9%. What were the major roadblocks in getting that legislation passed?
DAN: Major roadblocks – The fact that beer contains alcohol and that we were asking to dramatically change the beer business in Alabama.
Minor roadblocks – The fact that everyone though it was a crazy idea that would never be taken seriously. It was hard to get scheduled for a vote. No one in the legislature wants to waste their time on a bill that’ll never make it anywhere.
BARLEY: How would you say the beer landscape has changed in Alabama since 2009?
DAN: It has changed dramatically. I used to drive out of state several times a year to “stock up” on the kind of beer I wanted to drink. Now, I only “stock up” when I’m traveling anyway, and only on bigger bottles and a few breweries which just happen to not distribute in my area. We’ve also seen several breweries start operations or start planning. Many of them say they would not have started if the ABV law dictated that they could only produce a limited range of beer styles.
BARLEY: Have there been any negative repercussions since the Gourmet Beer Bill passed that opponents of the legislation can hang their hats on?
DAN: No negative repercussions. I’ve been keeping an eye on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for DUI numbers and the passage of the Gourmet Beer Bill appears to have had no effect. In fact, traffic fatalities across the board went down by more than 12% in Alabama the year the law passed. Once the NHTSA releases their 2010 data, we expect to have some good data to show that our opponents’ fears were unjustified.
BARLEY: That’s excellent news. The longer high-gravity beer is available in the state without any negative consequences, the easier it will be to “sell” craft beer legislation to the House and Senate. Can you very briefly discuss the legislation you are you currently focused on? Where do these bills stand right now?
DAN: HB418, the Gourmet Bottle Bill – We came up for a committee hearing but the bill was carried over due to some opposition from “interested businesses.”
SB192, the Brewery Modernization Act – We passed the Senate on April 5 and we made it through House Committee on May 4. The legislature is currently on a two-week break as they hold hearings on redistricting, but we expect to come up for a full vote in the House when they come back. Assuming we pass the House, this bill will go to the Governor. SB192 was amended from it’s original form, which you guys covered on your podcast.
HB266, Homebrew Legalization – Not our bill, but we’re very interested. This bill passed the Senate last year. This year, they focused on going through the House first. Unfortunately, the bill failed in the House after some mind-numbing debate. It is dead this year.
BARLEY: I realize it may be a sensitive topic, but can you give us some “insider” information about the recent Free the Hops boycott and what triggered the decision to start it?
DAN: The decision to start was laid out pretty openly on the blog, although it might have been confusing to newcomers. Here are the Cliffs Notes. I’ve been a bit vague about some details on purpose. Sorry, but some things are quite sensitive as you said.
- One group of Anheuser-Busch distributors basically ambushed our Gourmet Bottle Bill in committee… very effectively.
- One particular group of Anheuser-Busch distributors informed us they were opposed to the Brewery Modernization Act. We tried to sit down to work out the differences. We worked out several compromises that they reneged on. Eventually, we were presented with terms of compromise that were completely unacceptable. This whole process basically wasted weeks of legislative time just so they could tell us that they were unwilling to concede any of the primary points of our legislation.
In our eyes, AB distributors were killing us. We had been floating the idea of a “boycott” and/or a ban on our festivals since the Gourmet Bottle Bill was sandbagged. After the frustrating, ball-moving negotiations on the Brewery Modernization Act which basically ended with them saying they would work against our bill unless we made it a useless piece of legislation, we decided to go through with it. The biggest AB distributors in the state were working against both of our bills to varying degrees.
The FTH leadership talked at length about the implications of the boycott. We realized that because AB was the sole distributor of brands like Back 40, Great Divide, and Avery, that we would effectively be hurting our friends. We contacted or attempted to contact all affected craft breweries. We simply saw no other way.
We never wanted the boycott to last long. In my opinion, it should have been over a day or two after it was announced. We knew the Bottle Bill was a hard sell in the Alabama legislature regardless of the wholesalers’ position, so our goal was to get them on board with Brewery Modernization Act.
BARLEY: What factors played into calling off the boycott?
DAN: In the end, we accepted a version of the Brewery Modernization Act that was less than we planned to accept, and called a ceasefire to the boycott. Several factors made this the correct decision.
A big one: the Homebrew Legalization Bill failed. In the eyes of the legislative leadership, they wasted an hour of legislative time on a beer bill that failed. You have to realize that Alabama’s legislature is constitutionally mandated to meet no more than 30 days a year. A hour of debate on a failed bill is not something they like to see happen. Here’s something to back up my point. The Homebrew Bill is the ONLY bill that has failed a House vote so far this year. The leadership doesn’t like wasting legislative time, and they are very reluctant to schedule controversial bills for a vote if they think it will fail. And they know we were fighting with the wholesalers. Unless we are all on the same boat, the leadership probably won’t let us come up for a vote. And honestly, I don’t blame them for that. There are a lot of important things that the legislature does – budgets, redistricting happens this year, ethics reform has come up a lot. I don’t blame them for not wanting to waste precious time on such a specialized issue.
There were other factors in the decision. We’re running out of time for the session, the boycott had helped us get a few major concessions, they now know that we’ll use this tool, etc. It just became clear that a continuance of the boycott would give us nothing except hard feelings and the chance to beat our chests over idealism. Ending the boycott would get us substantive brewery reform this year. We’re pragmatic so the choice was clear.
BARLEY: What was the response to the boycott both locally and across the country?
DAN: In state (ie, the people we actually exist for) – Overwhelming support. I know you can find one or two people who were critical, but the vast majority of people were on board.
Out of state – Mixed. Some out-of-staters started a drive to “Buy nothing but Great Divide outside Alabama to offset the boycott.” The idea was that they could support us by giving more sales to the brewery while we took sales from their distributors. I thought that was great. Most of the opposition was from people who didn’t understand or care what was going on in Alabama. They just said, “They’re telling people not to buy Great Divide,” called us stupid rednecks who didn’t know anything about good beer, and went on to trolling elsewhere. It was kind of frustrating to read that stuff, but we were focused on Alabamans and passing a bill which would help an Alabama-based industry expand economic development and create jobs. It was interesting, but it didn’t affect our decision-making.
BARLEY: What are the key hurdles in getting ANY beer legislation passed in Alabama? How big an impact do “conservative values” have on such legislation? What about corporate interests swaying the legislature?
DAN: I actually think of support and opposition in terms of arguments more than special interests. That may sound naive, but we simply can’t compete with our opponents on any other level. We’re a consumer advocacy group. The vast majority of our funding comes from membership dues and two beer festivals. We don’t give campaign contributions. We can’t go to Montgomery and buddy-buddy with the legislators. We do employ a contract lobbyist which has been instrumental, but we’re simply not on the same level.
BARLEY: Are our elected officials as incompetent as they are often made out to be?
DAN: After several years of doing this, I’ve come to the conclusion that the elected officials in Montgomery aren’t quite the bogeyman fatcats that many of us seem to assume they are. Most just want to do the right thing. They want laws which protect the life and liberty of Alabamians and which are conducive to economic development.
BARLEY: But they’ve clearly made some specious arguments against changing the beer laws in the state. What are the most oft-cited concerns?
DAN: As far as arguments, this is what we spend most of our time refuting:
- If you pass this bill, the streets will be littered with the bodies of dead children. (I think that’s a direct quote)
- This bill will make it easier/cheaper/more convenient for poor people to get drunk and ruin their lives.
- This bill will increase drunk driving.
- I miss Prohibition.
- This bill will change the economic environment and people will lose their jobs in the shuffle.
- This bill will destroy the three-tier system.
We have never promoted a bill which would kill kids. We have never promoted a bill which would make it easier, cheaper, or more convenient for people to drink. Drunk driving has not increased after our bills; states with laws similar to ones we are trying to pass do not have higher rates of drunk driving. Prohibition was a failure. Our bills have and will increase tourism. Our bills are drafted in a way to not affect the three-tier system.
BARLEY: What have you learned about the Alabama legislative process during your Free the Hops battles? What are the biggest issues with the system and what, if anything, could be done to fix them?
DAN: This is why more politically sensitive than I want to get into.
Editor’s Note: The correct answer is “we need to light the Alabama State Constitution on fire and write a new one that does NOT exist solely to create a state of white supremacy”. I think that would be a good start. If you want to know a little more about the world’s worst Constitution, check out this link and scroll down to Sections 8 and 9. This transcript comes from the OFFICIAL proceedings of the Alabama Constitutional Convention of 1901. Good times.
BARLEY: What does the future hold for Free the Hops? Will you keep pushing for the recent “concessions” made in regards to the Brewery Modernization Act next year (assuming the compromised BMA is passed this year)? In a perfect world, if you got the “ideal” Brewery Modernization Act passed AND the Gourmet Bottle Bill, what would be the next step for your group?
DAN: Our legislative agenda is decided by our Board of Directors each year before the session starts. There are political realities to consider that we just can’t account for right now. I’m not on the Board of Directors, so I can’t even speculate what they’ll want to do.
After BMA and GBB? No clue. Maybe dissolve as an organization. Maybe tackle growler laws. Maybe have no agenda and divert our fundraising operations to worthy charities – we already hold a few events where all proceeds go to organizations like the Alabama Autism Society. We’re also using our Brewfests this year partially as a fundraiser for tornado relief funds in Alabama.
BARLEY: Tell us a little about the upcoming Brewfests. How can people get involved in Free the Hops?
DAN: Rocket City Brewfest (Huntsville) – May 13 & 14
Magic City Brewfest (Birmingham) – June 3 & 4
The easiest way to get up to date is to read the blog and subscribe to our free email newsletter. We also love our members. The annual membership dues are $25, or people can get a lifetime (Sustaining) Membership for $100.
BARLEY: Can you tell our readers about the new breweries sprouting up in Alabama. Any you’re particularly excited about?
DAN: Good People continues to grow and is definitely the largest brewery in Alabama. I believe it’s one of the larger breweries in the South.
Back 40 is building a new facility in Gadsden and I’m excited about that.
Straight to Ale is rapidly growing. They are moving into a huge facility that will be ideal for a taproom and events if we pass SB192 this year.
Yellowhammer is just starting out and is making great headway.
Blue Pants is a nanobrewery, but has been well received. I’m amazed how much beer they make on their little system.
Avondale Brewing should be up this year, possibly in time to have a small amount of beer at the Magic City Brewfest. I talk with one of the owners about legislative issues – they are very excited about having a taproom at their location.
Below the Radar appears to be a viable brewery-in-planning for Huntsville. Of course I’ve never had any beers from the potential brewers because that would be illegal, but I’m very excited about their recipes.
BARLEY: Can you look into your crystal ball and tell us what the future of craft beer looks like in Alabama 10 years from now?
DAN: In 10 years, this is what I expect. Huntsville will have the most vibrant brewery scene in Alabama (I’m biased) and will be nationally known as a craft beer destination. The market share for local craft beer throughout Alabama will be dramatically increased. Bigger cities like Huntsville and Birmingham will have the most breweries. Tuscaloosa, Gadsden, etc. will start to see a brewpub or two pop up…maybe a production brewery mixed throughout.
I think Alabama could currently support 20 craft breweries without even thinking about it. We have 5. As craft beers continue to increase in market share, I think we’ll definitely see more local beer in Alabama in the coming years.
BARLEY: Let’s hope you’re right, Dan. Thanks for keeping us updated about Free the Hops and for fighting the good fight!