BREWING IN ‘BAMA

This is a post that will interest you only if you a) Live in Alabama, b) Are intrigued by antiquated brewing laws, c) Are fascinated by state government at work, or d) Are super-duper bored.

I’m all four of those things right now, but I’m also e) Writing this. So I kind of have to be interested in it. I mean, if I’m not even emotionally invested in the post I’m writing then…hey! That dog has a puffy tail!!!

Where was I? Ah yes, the Brewery Modernization Act of 2010. Actually, before we get to the point of this post, let’s digress for a bit and talk about the beauty and majesty of Alabama state government. What’s that? You’ve got somewhere better to be? Then go, fucker. No one wants you here.*

*I’m just kidding, chief. We love ya. Stick around. Have a beer.

Alabama has one of the most convoluted governments of any state in the country and this stems directly from it’s train-wreck of a constitution. The Alabama constitution, written in 1901, is the longest constitution on planet Earth…by far. It is 12 times longer than the average state constitution and 40 times longer than the US constitution. It’s also a billion times longer than the North Korean constitution which simply states “Worship Dear Leader or die.”

The vast bulk of the document’s length comes from its nearly 800 amendments. Unlike other states, Alabama’s constitution includes amendments that cover a single county or city…and in some cases, a single office-holder. This ridiculous state of affairs creates an impossibly centralized government since counties and cities are often helpless to legislate local issues. You may find yourself voting for a pay-raise for the Sheriff of a county you’ve never even heard of. Also, unlike other states, most of the tax code for Alabama is WRITTEN INTO the constitution! This means that minor taxation issues have to be voted on as a constitutional amendment! You can imagine the frustration when a local bill, overwhelmingly supported by those whom it actually affects, is defeated in a state-wide vote.*

*The Alabama Constitution also has sections that outlaw interracial marriage, deny women the right to vote, and disenfranchise all “idiots and insane persons” and those convicted of “crimes against nature” (ie: homosexuals). It also still requires racially segregated education, and unlike the other sections I mentioned, the latter was never repealed via amendment. In other words, segregated schools are still technically the law of the land. Oh, and here’s another fun fact, the President of the Constitutional Convention stated in his inaugural address that the intention of the Convention was “to establish white supremacy in this State.” Ah, Alabama…what a rich, noble history.

I’m insanely off topic here (so insane that I should be disenfranchised). What does all of this have to do with beer, which is ostensibly what a site entitled “Aleheads” should be about? My ramblings are simply to illustrate a point: that everything is screwed up in Alabama…and you better believe that includes the laws that govern beer consumption in the state.

For the first 1.5 years I lived in-state, I couldn’t purchase beer with an ABV above 6%. Liquor and wine was perfectly legal, but the backwards beer laws meant that I couldn’t purchase most of the best beers on Earth in my supposedly freedom-loving state in the freest country in the world (except for North Korea where you are free to do anything as long as it involves worshipping Dear Leader and slowly starving to death). I suspect the lobbies for the Evil Axis (AB/Miller/Coors) might have had something to do with it, but it’s still an insane law. Some legislators decided the restriction was on the books to protect “the children” (despite the fact that, again, liquor and wine was still quite legal here). When a bill was presented to change the law, one legislator went so far as to proclaim “What’s wrong with the beer we got, it drank pretty good, don’t it?!”

*I know I’ve told that story before, but it’s just too damn funny…and depressing.

Finally, in 2009, a grass-roots movement called Free the Hops got the law changed with their Gourmet Beer Bill. Free the Hops was founded in 2004 and quickly grew into a legitimate movement with real political advisers and 501(c) 3 status. They had been pushing the Gourmet Beer Bill for years but were stymied at every turn by stupid, crazy, and stupid-crazy politicians. But finally the state legislature ran out of inane reasons to keep tabling the bill, and it passed. Good beer could finally be consumed in Alabama (unless it came in a container larger than 16.9 ounces, but that’s a story for another time).

So if all that happened almost a year ago, why write about it now? Because there’s ANOTHER bill on the docket this week that significantly affects the craft-brew community in ‘Bama. While good beer is now plentiful in the state, locally produced beer is not. Alabama is one of the most brewery-poor states in the country and that is entirely due, as you might suspect at this point in the post, to some absolutely ridiculous fucking laws.

Since the folks at Free the Hops are the experts on this matter, I’ll let them explain the situation. The following is swiped wholesale from their website:

Tap Rooms

Many breweries outside of Alabama have a tap room – basically, it’s the brewery bar where folks can come in and try the local beer. You can try a sampler – typically a 5 oz “flight” of some of all of the brewery’s beers or you can get a pint of the new seasonal. You can take a tour and see how beer is made, buy a shirt, and talk to the brewers about what you like or don’t like in their beer.

Unfortunately, tap rooms are illegal in Alabama’s distributing breweries. Before you can buy their beer in Alabama, it has to go from the brewery to a distributor to a retailer, and then to you. The result is that you, the brewery’s customer, are far-removed from the actual brewery.

Brewpubs

A brewpub is basically a restaurant that brews its own beer. Alabama law allows for this special class of breweries, but the legal restrictions on opening and operating these businesses are enormous. This is a large reason why Alabama has only two operating brewpubs while the states surrounding us have dozens.

Let’s take a look at the restrictions on brewpubs in Alabama:

  1. Must be located in an historic building
  2. Must be located in a wet county that had a brewery prior to 1919
  3. You can ONLY sell the beer you brew in the brewpub. You can’t sell to wholesalers or stores
  4. Must have a restaurant which seats at least 80
  5. Must not brew more than 10,000 barrels of beer annually

Opening a brewpub is already a tough endeavor. That equipment isn’t cheap. In Alabama, you also need to find (and pay a premium on) an historic building in one of the five counties in Alabama that had a brewery before 1919. If you manage to find a place for your new business, the state limits how much beer you can sell and you’re not allowed to open up an additional revenue stream by selling the beer outside of your brewpub.

Enter the Brewery Modernization Act

The result of the current brewery laws is that you can either be (1) A distributing brewery, where you can sell your beer in stores but not interact direct with the consumer, or (2) A brewpub, where you can sell your beer direct to your customers, but with severe restrictions, and you can never sell your beer in other bars, restaurants, and stores.

Our 2010 legislative agenda is called the Brewery Modernization Act. The goal is to make it easier to open and successfully operate a brewery in Alabama. The bill is a little bit complicated (the lawyers in Montgomery haven’t even finished writing it yet) because the current law is complicated. The end result, if the bill passes, will be this:

  1. There’s no more “brewpubs” and “distributing breweries” as legal distinctions. If your business is licensed to make beer, it’s simply a “brewery.”
  2. A brewery can sell beer at the brewery (at a tap room or brewpub) and/or sell it through a wholesaler to other bars, restaurants, and stores
  3. Breweries are specifically allowed to have tours and to participate at beer festivals

That’s our 2010 agenda. As always, the legislature may alter the bill during the process, or we may be yet again the bystander victim of filibusters about the budget. But this is our goal, and we hope it will mean as much for beer in Alabama as our last achievement.

So where do we stand today? The bill, through some miracle, passed the Senate on Tuesday. It’s in the House now (it has to pass in both the House and Senate before being presented to the Governor to be signed into law). It looks like the bill “should” pass the House sometime next week and then on to the state house for the Governor’s sig (Governor Riley had no qualms about the Gourmet Beer Bill in 2009 and should not be a roadblock for this bill either). So in a nutshell, this bill should pass, and many of the absurd laws that restrict local brewing ‘Bama will be lifted. Sure it will be awhile before local breweries start getting off the ground. But every journey begins with a single step. I can’t wait to see what this journey brings…

Advertisements

5 comments

  1. Attention venture capitalists. Please make checks payable to:

    Brother Barley McHops
    RE: Let Freedom Ring Brewery
    69 Recently Segregated Way
    Backward, AL 10101

  2. Sweeney · · Reply

    Dear Sir,

    Your tales of woe bring tears to my soul. I highly recommend moving to a state with taprooms and breweries on every corner. I might add that the rural taproom is one of the most interesting aspects of drinking beer in the West because you can stop there on the way back from hunting, fishing, or gathering. You can head to some random middle of nowhere backwards-ass town-fit to be sent Alabama…and low and behold…there’s a taproom….http://beeradvocate.com/beer/profile/9820. OK, Beer Advocate gave it a C+, but it’s fucking Buckley, they’ve got more of everything than people, what do want? And I found the IPA good enough to warrant a growler. Fucking Beer Advocate Hipsters.

    Kindest Regards,
    Sweeney

  3. @ripped the address has recently changed.

    BB McHops
    Beacon of Absurdity Taproom
    3 Masshole Cr
    Birmingham, AL 35203

  4. […] SOLID SIXPACK SAMPLED TO SUPPRESS OUR STATE SENATE SORROWS Well, the Alabama Brewery Modernization Act has failed to pass. Having made it through the State Senate, it got bogged down in the House and […]

  5. […] me on this Conundrum. As I have described on numerous occasions, my current home (‘Bama) is one of the most draconian states in the country when it comes to beer. The distribution laws here are laughably backwards and the restrictions on ABV and container size […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: