Free the Hops

wiar_free_the_hops6081.jpgIn case any of y'all were curious, I pen a biweekly beer column for Gourmet magazine's online component, Gourmet.com. This is my latest column, about the battles our dear beer-drinking brothers in Alabama are waging to be able to sip a pint o' delicious, high-alcohol nectar. Drink it up!

The Battle for Craft Beer Long deprived of world-class brews, Alabamans are fighting back.

Stuart Carter is crazy for craft beer. The Alabama computer-service technician loves refined Belgian Trappist ales, Great Divide’s rich, dark, decadent Yeti Imperial Stout, and Dogfish Head’s strong, sweet Midas Touch Golden Elixir. There’s only problem: In Alabama, drinking these beers constitutes a criminal act.

“You can buy fortified wine or pure-grain alcohol, but you cannot buy Atlanta’s SweetWater IPA because, gosh, it contains 6.7 percent alcohol,” says Carter, president of Free the Hops, a grassroots beer-advocacy group fighting to reform the state’s many antediluvian laws.

Home-brewing is currently illegal in Alabama. A brewpub can only operate in a historical building situated in a county that sold alcohol pre-Prohibition. You can be fined for bringing two cases of beer into dry counties. And most problematic for craft-suds fiends like Carter, Alabama (along with Mississippi and West Virginia) prohibits the sale of beer that’s higher than 6 percent alcohol by volume (5 percent alcohol by weight)—just a bit stronger than a Budweiser (which has 5 percent ABV).

“Most craft breweries’ beers start at 6.5 percent alcohol by volume,” Carter says, adding that, out of Beeradvocate.com’s top 100 beers in the world, just four are sold in Alabama (though the number varies because the list changes weekly). “We need to bring Alabama into the twenty-first century.”

To remove the restrictions, the three-year-old organization introduced bills into Alabama’s legislature. They failed in 2006. And 2007. Carter partly blames Birmingham Budweiser, which distributes Anheuser-Busch products, for the bills’ defeat; he claims that Birmingham Budweiser vice president Pat Lynch has lobbied against changing legislation (Gourmet was unable to verify the claim).

In January, Free the Hops escalated its tactics by calling for a ban on products handled by Lynch’s distributorship. Lynch did not respond to calls for comment, but on February 13, Free the Hops revealed that the Alabama Wholesale Beer Association (AWBA) had helped broker a compromise between Lynch and Carter’s organization. The beer concerns are hammering out a bill that would increase the allowable ABV from 6 percent to 13.9 percent—welcoming most craft brews to Alabama.

“Passing this should be a no-brainer,” Carter says optimistically about the bill, which should go before the legislature later this year. “Wholesalers will make scads of money, more tax money will go back to the state—and we’ll finally be able to drink good beer.”