Well, the calendar just ticked over to 2011, and the first few days of a new year are a great time to look ahead at what to expect in the coming months. One thing every beer lover should be eagerly anticipating is the start of the Alabama legistature’s 2011 regular session, when Free the Hops (FTH) will again introduce legislation to improve the beer laws of our state. I’m going to give you a preview of what to look for, but first I’ll set the stage with some important info about our legislature.
Many people who don’t actively keep up with politics don’t realize that unlike the U.S. Congress, the Alabama legislature does not work year-round. People often ask me “So what’s going on with the container issue right now?” and my answer is “Not much until the next session begins in March.” Our legislature only meets in the chamber to debate and vote on legislation for 30 days a year (usually 2 days per week), and the entire session can only run for 105 calendar days. So our state Representatives and Senators are only in Montgomery about three and a half months of every year. That’s a tight schedule in which a lot must get done, which is one of the challenges facing grassroots groups like FTH that are pushing bills only a small segment of the population cares about. Lots of bigger issues have a higher priority.
The great news (in my opinion) is that the single biggest issue that has mucked up the efficient operation of the legislature for the last several years almost certainly will not be a factor this year. Of course I’m talking about bingo, or if you side with Governor Riley, “illegal gambling.” Millions of dollars in special interests ensured that outrageous amounts of floor time were wasted on filibusters over bingo bills that didn’t quite have the votes to pass. But you might have heard about a federal investigation into criminal activities related to lobbying for one of these bills. Now several of the key players are under indictment. Not only that, but several of the powerful legislators that allowed bingo bills to dominate the legislature’s time were defeated in the recent election. There’s essentially no chance that the issue will pop up again in 2011, which will free up a tremendous amount of time for other issues like FTH.
This year FTH will push two separate bills. One will be the Brewery Modernization Act (BMA), identical to the one that made progress last year. The other bill would lift the existing 16 ounce limit on bottles and cans of beer.
The BMA is the most complicated of the two. It’s complicated because the laws regulating breweries in Alabama are complicated. The big problem is that our laws force commercial brewers to make a pointless and detrimental choice. Any brewery wishing to sell beer in restaurants and retailers such as grocery stores is not allowed to sell beer at the brewery. So no taproom, no tastings, no way to promote their brand right where the beer is made—something that’s been critical to the success of many breweries in other states. And any brewery wishing to sell beer at the brewery is not allowed to sell beer in restaurants and retailers. They are restricted to selling their brews at one location only—their own.
Not only that, but breweries choosing to sell beer at their own location (a.k.a.brewpubs) must be located in a building officially declared historical, and must be in a county that was wet prior to the enactment of Prohibition in Alabama, and they must have a large restaurant as part of their operation. As you might guess, all these inane restrictions make it almost impossible to be profitable running a brewpub, so it’s hardly surprising that Alabama’s last operating brewpub shut down last year. At our peak, we had four brewpubs in Alabama. Now we have none. As brewpubs are a vital part of local beer culture throughout the U.S., it’s imperative that we modernize these archaic laws. The BMA would get rid of strange requirements like having to operate in a historical building. It would also allow breweries to open taprooms and allow brewpubs to distribute to other retailers. It would be a giant leap towards Alabamians having access to more local beer.
The container bill is simple. Our 16 ounce limit keeps out hundreds of world class craft beers that are packaged in 22 ounce and 750 milliliter bottles. Name almost any sought-after American craft brewery and you can bet that they put at least a couple special releases in one of the large format bottles and some package dozens of different beers in them. Lifting the alcohol limit got us about 70% of the way to legalizing all the world’s finest beers in Alabama. Lifting the container limit will get us the other 30%.
The session starts March 1st. Make sure you’re subscribed to the FTH newsletter to stay up to date on everything being done to modernize Alabama’s beer laws.
“Hopped Up” is a weekly brew review by Danner Kline, founder of Free the Hops and coorganizer of the annual Magic City Brewfest. Send your feedback to email@example.com