I remember the smart asses so well. “Why’s it called ‘Free
the Hops’ when you guys are trying to raise the alcohol limit, huh? Shouldn’t
it be called Free the Malt?” (More malt yields more alcohol in beer). There
were many good answers in reply, but ultimately, Free the Hops (FTH) was never
about the alcohol in beer. It’s always been about reforming a variety of
antiquated beer laws and helping bring the best beer in the world to Alabama.
So after success in 2009 on the push to raise the alcohol
limit, FTH has achieved another victory in its belt two years later. This time,
the new law will exclusively benefit in-state breweries, a feature that was integral
in helping the Brewery Modernization Act (BMA) pass. You are probably wondering
exactly what this complicated bill means for Alabama. I am here with answers.
Let’s start with the best news: your local brewery can now
have a tap room. Until Governor Bentley signed the BMA into law, Alabama
brewers could not serve any alcohol at their breweries. The only way you could
legally get a taste of their wares was to buy them at a bar or some other
Visit any brewery in most other states and you can buy a
pint of beer just a few feet away from the fermenters. There’s no fresher way
to enjoy beer than right after it’s kegged at the brewery, and now you can
expect just about every Alabama brewery to start serving beer on site. It’s
The next best news: brewpubs just got much easier to open
and to keep profitable. Before the BMA became law, the hurdles to opening and
succeeding as a brewpub were just stupid. You had to be in a building that was
officially historic, meaning you had to sink big money into massive
renovations. Restriction: gone. You had to have an 80-seat restaurant.
Restriction: gone. You could not sell any of your beer at other restaurants
around town. Restriction: gone.
The less-than-awesome news is that some restrictions remain
on brewpubs. Most notably,
even though the “historic building” requirement is gone, a mandate remains that IF a brewpub is not in an historic building, it must either be in a district that has been declared historic or some part of town that a city council has deemed “economically distressed.” There’s not enough room in this column to explain why this wording made it into the bill. The important thing to note is that city councils will have almost complete discretion in deciding whether to designate an area economically distressed, so if someone working on planning a brewpub can get his city council on his side, he should be able to open his brewpub in any of a wide variety of places, and his building can be new. That’s a huge improvement over the way things were.
A big clarification is warranted here. Several people who
were close to the process of the passage of the BMA and who I would’ve thought would
know better have repeated something that’s just not true. Many people assume
that since brewpubs can now sell their beer to other retailers (via
wholesalers) that they can package their beer in bottles or cans. They cannot.
The wording of the bill specifically limits the sales of beer by brewpubs to
wholesalers to “barrel or keg containers.” This was a very intentional aspect
of a compromise with the bill’s opponents. What this means is that once
brewpubs start opening up, they can sell their beer to other bars to be served on
draft, but they can’t bottle their beer and sell it to grocery stores. That’s
frustrating, but it’s still a gigantic improvement over the way things were, so
I’m thankful for what we got.
Something else to note is that production breweries can only
sell their own beer on site; they cannot buy beer from wholesalers and have
“guest taps.” That’s something else that’s a little annoying, but again, being
able to sell any beer at all is a major improvement. In contrast, brewpubs can buy
beer, wine and even liquor from wholesalers to sell in addition to their own
brews, but that freedom comes with another restriction. Brewpubs are allowed to
brew no more than 10,000 barrels of beer per year. Of course, the chance that
any brewpub would ever get anywhere close to that limit is virtually nil, so
the volume limit is not as big a deal as the prohibition on bottling and
In a nutshell, there is a lot to like about the new law and
a few things to find annoying. The annoying stuff is all a direct result of
compromises made to get the bill passed, which is just how politics works. I
think you’ll find the compromises seem much less annoying when you’re sitting
at Avondale’s new bar in a few weeks, gazing at their brew kettle and drinking
Battlefield IPA kegged just hours earlier. You can thank Free the Hops and the
Brewery Modernization Act for that privilege.
The 2012 agenda for FTH has not been made official, but the
smart money is on the group devoting 100 percent of its attention and resources
to lifting the 16-ounce limit on containers of beer. Get ready for 22s and
“Hopped Up” is a weekly brew review by Danner Kline, founder of Free the Hops and co-organizer of the annual Magic City Brewfest. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org