My current home-state is behind essentially every other state in the union (except good ol’ Mississippi) when it comes to beer laws. Part of it is due to the conservative, religious fundamentalism that dominates Alabama (there are an astonishing amount of self-righteous teetotalers here), but it’s mostly a function of a broken political system. Alabama has the longest Constitution on Earth…longer than every other state, longer then the U.S. Constitution, and longer than the Constitutions of any country in the world. Why? Because the Alabama state Constitution has over 827 amendments (no, that’s not a typo). How is that possible? You see, back in 1901, when the Alabama Constitution was being written, the elite, white, racist power-brokers that were in charge of the Convention decided that the purpose of the Constitution was to “establish white supremacy in this State” (that’s a direct quote from the President of the Convention). But how could they possibly hope to control the recently emancipated slaves who now had the opportunity to vote (kind of) and who could theoretically challenge the ruling elite? Simple…the Constitution was written to keep all power in the hands of the state legislature in Montgomery. Cities and counties in the state have little to no authority and cannot legislate on local matters including levying taxes. Every decision funnels back to the state legislature and even the most seemingly trivial proposed law gets thrown on a ballot as a proposed amendment to the Constitution. One ridiculous consequence of this is that the people directly affected by a law may vote in favor of the amendment only to see it rejected in a statewide vote by voters whom the law has no bearing on.
Another big consequence of the insane centralization of Alabama state government is the potential for corruption. Alabama has had a brutally checkered past when it comes to corruption. And unlike other famously corrupt states like Illinois, it’s almost laughable how little money is involved in these scandals (in last year’s “Bingo” scandal, some of the bribes were trivial at best…though there were some multi-million dollar payoffs as well) . Because a small group of legislators essentially controls everything in the state, a lobbyist or charismatic businessman can buy votes or sway the system easily. All it takes is a little money and the ears of a handful of state congressmen and you can table a vote on a bill you don’t like indefinitely. And because Alabama’s legislature is legally restricted to working just 30 days a year, if your bill doesn’t get voted on in that incredibly truncated time-frame, it’ll be another 9 months or so before you can even get it looked at again.
This all brings us to the current situation pertaining to craft beer in Alabama. As stated earlier, Alabama is woefully behind every other state when it comes to laws affecting the beer industry. In 2009, a grass-roots non-profit called Free the Hops helped Alabama take a step forward when they were finally able to get the Gourmet Beer Bill passed. This bill allowed the sale of beer with an ABV of 13.9% or below (prior to the passage of this piece of legislation, 6% was the maximum ABV allowed for beer…a restriction that eliminated the sale of any and all high-gravity craft beer offerings). It was a great first step, but there are still so many other obstacles that need to be overcome if Alabama is to enter the 20th century (let alone the 21st century). For starters, Alabama is the ONLY state in the nation that restricts the sale of beer in bottles larger than 16 ounces. You can’t buy a 22-ounce or a 750ml bottle of beer in the state even though those two types of large-format bottle are the preferred storage method for specialty craft beers (actually, some breweries like The Bruery in Orange County, CA ONLY use large-format bottles for their offerings). This is despite the fact that it is completely legal to buy giant bottles of wine and jugs of cheap liquor (because clearly a 22-ounce bottle of Imperial Stout is more dangerous to society than 1.75 liters of cheap, rot-gut whiskey). Then there are the restrictions on breweries themselves. I’ll let Free the Hops explain all of the details, but the key issue here is that a brewery can not sell their products on-site and a brewpub can not distribute their beer off-site. This greatly limits a huge potential revenue stream for any brewery or brewpub that wants to open its doors in the state and it’s the reason Alabama has so many fewer successful breweries than nearby states like Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and even über-conservative South Carolina. In those states, brewery taprooms (essentially on-site bars) and brewpubs are completely legal. In Alabama, taprooms are illegal and brewpubs are so ridiculously restricted that that state doesn’t have a single one operating today.
Free the Hops has come to the rescue again with two proposed bills called the Gourmet Bottle Bill and the Brewery Modernization Act. The Brewery Modernization Act was actually on the docket last year but it never came up for a vote (it stalled out thanks to the inane legislative process discussed above) and the congressional session ended without the bill ever really being debated. This year, it seemed like there was more momentum for the bill AND plenty of support for the Gourmet Bottle Bill. The former has the added bonus of being an economic stimulus bill (less brewery restrictions = more local breweries = more jobs = more tax revenue) while the latter just seems like a no-brainer (if you’re the only state in the country with a 16-ounce-or-less beer bottle restriction, there’s a pretty good chance your law is stupid). Everything seemed to be moving along according to plan…until the Evil Empire (Anheuser-Busch) decided to sink it’s filthy, poisoned hooks into the legislative process.
In a nutshell, Anheuser-Busch’s distributors* appear to be doing everything in their power to quash the Free the Hops legislation. If the term “distributor” is foreign to you, you should know that after Prohibition, a “three-tier” system was developed in the US where the tiers are made up of producers (breweries), wholesalers (distributors), and retailers (package stores, grocery stores, restaurants, bars, etc.). Distributors do pretty well in this system and they would argue that they serve a positive function in society by encouraging moderation and social drinking (yeah, I don’t understand that claim either, but you hear it all the time). They also claim that they are beneficial to small craft breweries since they have the infrastructure and logistical acumen to handle efficient shipping and delivery of beer to retailers (this claim holds a bit more water since many small breweries simply don’t have the manpower to distribute themselves). The problem is that anytime a producer in ANY industry can’t sell directly to the public, you’ve introduced a “middleman”. And middlemen are notorious for jacking up or fixing prices, favoring certain producers over others, and using their influence to manipulate the political process to maintain the status quo. Breweries aren’t anti-distributor…they just want the OPTION to use a distributor or not. The most thriving beer-producing states in the country have many breweries that self-distribute…but wholesalers are STILL successful there because many breweries would prefer to let someone else handle the complicated nature of distribution. When it comes to beer, a free market is a VERY good thing…and distributors in strict three-tier states are adamantly opposed to anything that even smells like a free market.
*Let me take a moment here to recognize that there is a BIG difference between the Anheuser-Busch distributors and the company itself. With that said, the distributors HAVE hired one of Anheuser-Busch’s high-powered lobbyists to help them with their legislative stalling tactics. This hatchet-man represents the company’s interests first and foremost and I have no doubt he has convinced the local distributors that what’s best for Anheuser-Busch is best for them. So while it’s not really fair to blame “Anheuser-Busch” as the villain in this battle, it’s still a convenient shorthand.
The Anheuser-Busch distributors want to keep the status quo intact in Alabama for many reasons. Let’s start with the Gourmet Bottle Bill first. Commenter Danner (the Founder of Free the Hops, by the way), illuminated our readers by discussing why AB would fight something as seemingly impossible to find fault with as the Gourmet Bottle Bill. Let me just quote his words verbatim:
Right now, singles of 16 oz cans of Natty Light in Alabama are not cheaper than singles of 22 oz cans of Natty Light in Georgia. If Alabama gets wide open to large packages, singles around here will stop being 16 oz and start being 22 oz. Which will bring the wholesalers the same gross revenue per unit. But they will pay more for those cases from the suppliers because of the higher volume of beer. In other words, they will be selling a higher volume of beer in terms of total ounces at a greater cost, with the same total revenue. So, allowing larger packages cuts into profits on the cheap stuff, not via competition from craft beer. The people who care are the Alabama wholesalers who make a lot of money off of the sale of singles of cheap beer.
Make sense? In a nutshell, Anheuser-Busch distributors want to keep selling oil-cans of cheap, shitty beer at premium prices. Increasing the maximum allowable size of beer bottles and cans in the state would force them to sell oil-cans of cheap, shitty beer at slightly more reasonable prices. The horror!!!
As for why the AB distributors are opposing the Brewery Modernization Act…your guess is as good as mine. My assumption is that it’s simply a matter of restricting competition. Less breweries in the state means less producers that the Anheuser-Busch distributors don’t have control over. But that’s not what they’re telling people. They claim that they’re fighting the law because they want to protect the existing three-tier system from lawsuits. But as Free the Hops has stated again and again (and again), they have no interest in trying to destroy the three-tier system. In fact, they’d be happy to put wording into the legislation that PROTECTS the existing system. I firmly believe that the distributors and their AB-delegated hatchet-man are just using that language as an excuse to kill a bill that would open up the state for more local breweries that could cut into AB’s bottom line in Alabama. I think it’s all just bluff and bluster and ultimately AB is fighting Free the Hops with everything they’ve got because they’re AFRAID of the craft beer revolution and they know that Alabama is a state that is very easy to get your way in when you’ve got cash and influence. And the scary thing is, it seems to be working. Just last week, the Gourmet Bottle Bill was “carried over” (which means it was tabled for now) and it looks like the Brewery Modernization Act might follow suit shortly.
*A bill to legalize homebrewing was also “carried over” despite the fact that homebrewing has been federally protected for over 30 years AND there are a handful of homebrew supply stores operating in Alabama that seem to operate without any legal interference. Allow me to put in a quick plug for Alabrew, my favorite local homebrewing shop.
Once Free the Hops caught wind of the Anheuser-Busch distributors’ increasingly successful attempt to kill the pro-craft beer legislation, they decided to take action in the only way they could…they boycotted all Anheuser-Busch distributed beers. This led to a bit of a commotion as many excellent craft breweries were caught in the crossfire. Aleheads favorites like Great Divide and Avery are sold by Anheuser-Busch wholesalers in Alabama and they were understandably upset that Free the Hops, the de facto face of craft beer in the state, was boycotting their products from all events (which include the influential Magic City and Rocket City Brewfests in Birmingham and Huntsville respectively). But as Free the Hops explained, they had no choice in the matter. They KNOW that breweries like Great Divide support their efforts and want what’s best for craft beer in Alabama. The problem is, when you buy Great Divide offerings here, you’re filling the coffers of the Anheuser-Busch distributors. And those are the folks who are fighting to kill pro-craft beer legislation. To put it more simply, you’re indirectly hurting the craft beer movement by buying Great Divide, Avery and Boulder (and many more) beers. It sucks, but as Slouch pointed out, when you dance with the devil, sometimes you get burned.
So what can you do? Well, first of all, if you have any sort of soapbox or public voice, make sure people know what’s going on here. And if you’re an Alabama citizen, contact your state representatives NOW and let them know that you fully support the Gourmet Bottle Bill and the Brewery Modernization Act. If the state legislators think that a lot of their constituents are watching them when it comes to these bills, they’ll be MUCH less likely to bow to the political and financial pressure of the Anheuser-Busch distributors. All we want is for Alabama to be like its neighbors when it comes to craft beer. We want the same consumer choice as everyone else. I’m TIRED of driving to Georgia to stock up on bombers of beer because my home state restricts bottle sizes. I’m TIRED of traveling to other states to visit taprooms and brewpubs because my home state puts such insane restrictions on producers that they can’t compete here (all I want is a tasting room at Good People…is that too much to ask!). But mostly, I’m tired of writing diatribes like this because my state government is so backwards, corrupt, and ignorant. For once, do the right thing Alabama. Ignore Anheuser-Busch and its distributors…regardless of what kind of pressure they’re putting on you. Craft beer can and WILL flourish in the state if you give it a chance. It will add new jobs, tax revenue, and prestige to a state that needs all three of those things.
I’m begging you, Alabama. Do the right thing. Please.