It all started in 2003 when Kline first began experimenting with new beers. On a trip to visit family in Corpus Christi, Texas, Kline, then 30, happened to stop in a restaurant called B & J Pizza, which stocked 300 different beers.
“That was kind of just the ‘wow’ moment, when I first tried a lot of things that we were unable to get back home,” Kline says. “It was kind of hard to explain, but I just had this — I got this idea in my head that it was just not fair, that I can’t stand the fact that I can’t get this stuff.”
Frustrated by his lack of access to good beers in Alabama, Kline took to the Internet, where, in 2004, he discovered the website for Pop the Cap, a grassroots organization that was working to do in North Carolina what Free the Hops would eventually do in Alabama (Pop the Cap was successful in 2005). Whereas Pop the Cap became the model for Kline’s organization, the North Carolinians were emulating a similar group in Georgia called Georgians for World Class Beer, which had successfully raised the alcohol-by-volume limit on Georgia’s beer in early 2004.
With the knowledge that Georgians had been successful in overturning their law, and that there was an ongoing effort to do that in North Carolina, Kline was brimming with optimism. He knew he could change Alabama’s beer laws, but that the journey would be difficult for him and his family. “In mid-September 2004, I talked to my wife, talked to my friends and mulled it over,” Kline says. “I just couldn’t bear to not get it done. I just couldn’t stand to continue dealing with the laws and knowing it was possible and I just said, ‘OK, I’m going do it.’”
With his family’s support, he registered an internet domain, FreeTheHops.org, and start working on a web site. Of course, Kline could not free the hops alone. He needed supporters, helpers, organizers and other people interested in beer. “I was asking around, trying to get people involved, but I barely knew anybody who liked any decent beer because I had come from Samford [University],” Kline says, laughing. “I was more into the teetotaling culture of Samford than the rebellious culture of Samford.”
One of Kline’s first steps was to contact Kim Thompson, who with his wife SunAe owns Alabrew, a homebrewing supply store in Roebuck. Thompson listed Kline’s contact information in a newsletter, which inspired current Free the Hops Vice-President Lee Winnige to contact Kline. “He was just kind of that missing link,” Kline says of Winnige, a local architect. “I barely knew anybody that liked good beer, but he knew a bunch of folks.”
The burgeoning organization began to gain momentum in January 2005, when a Birmingham Beverage delivery driver picked up a Free the Hops flier from local beer paradise Vulcan Beverage and brought it back to Birmingham Beverage owner Harry Kampakis. Kampakis had previously made an unsuccessful effort to get wholesalers to support an increase in the alcohol limit, and after a meeting with Winnige and Kline, he agreed to work with Free the Hops. “He thought a consumer group pushing for it could really turn the tide,” Kline says.
The media laps it up
With Kampakis talking to businesses about Free the Hops (not to mention providing Free the Hops with some much-needed funds and a meeting place in the form of a conference room at the Birmingham Beverage offices), and Winnige working to get supporters from amongst his network of beer-appreciating friends, Kline just needed some media attention. He credits Birmingham Weekly with being the first publication to approach Free the Hops. The March 17, 2005, issue of Birmingham Weekly featured a cover story by staff writer Phillip Jordan on Kline, Winnige and Kampakis’ effort.
Other print and TV coverage soon followed. Eventually, Kline and friends developed something of a national buzz (no pun intended), which culminated in an October 2005 appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. In his appearance, Kline made the case for Free The Hops calmly and clearly (except for a moment in which he swallowed hard and then described drinking a Russian Imperial Stout as a “beerlicious experience”), but the piece ridiculed Alabama in all the familiar ways.
“I took a lot of heat because people were ticked off at the negative portrayal of Alabama,” Kline says of his appearance. “But I knew that going in — I’d been a fan for years and knew what the likely outcome would be. I just knew that it was worth it, that all publicity was good publicity.” Kline says that The Daily Show segment prompted a surge in traffic on the Free the Hops website.
“Once we had the media coverage, that was it,” Kline says. “At that point, it just became tenacity. We were organically growing. It was a combination of the internet being the enabler, spreading the message and just the driven nature on the part of those involved to just get it done.
“We knew it could be done, and we were going to do it,” Kline says.
The battle in Montgomery
At that point, the legislative push began. Free the Hops hired a lobbyist, Michael Sullivan, who had previously lobbied for the Alabama Wholesale Beer Association. “And thank God we did — you can’t sneeze in Montgomery unless you have a lobbyist,” Kline says.
Even then, things were difficult. Kline says that Alabama’s legislators had no clue what high-gravity beer was, and didn’t care. That year, the bill was chosen for the “Shroud Award,” which is awarded to the bill with the least chance of passage.
Free the Hops responded to this setback by hosting several gourmet beer receptions and tastings for legislators and urging supporters to call their representatives. Gradually, the tide began to shift.
“An interesting thing, kind of this perfect cocktail, was having a professional in the form of a lobbyist who could work the system, combined with the credibility that comes with a citizen’s organization with a few thousand supporters that are making phone calls,” Kline says. “They know that it’s an alcohol issue, it’s kind of touchy, but they’re getting calls in favor a hundred to one versus calls against. That abated a lot of the fear that it was some kind of political risk.”
In 2008, the results of the organization’s efforts were clear. The bill passed the House and moved on to the Senate. There, the bill, like many others that session, died in the Senate’s gridlock. Free the Hops President Stuart Carter (Kline stepped down after his wife gave birth to their second child) expressed his frustration in a May 2008 blog post:
“It is time for you, the people of Alabama, to feel outraged at this. The senators behaved in a way that brings shame on the state, and they need to learn that their actions have consequences on their own political careers.”
Nonetheless, early in the 2009 session it looked like the Gourmet Beer Bill (along with many others) was headed for the same end it had in 2008. However, Free the Hops supporters were steadfast. After thousands of calls and e-mails, the state senate passed the Gourmet Beer Bill (which the House had already passed) on May 14, 2009. Free the Hops then made another push to urge Governor Bob Riley to sign the bill into law.
“So, we’re asking you to make one more call,” Kline wrote on the Free the Hops blog. “Let’s meltdown the switchboard this morning.”
On May 22, after years of sheer luck and dogged determination on the part of Kline and the thousands of avid Alabama beer lovers, Gov. Riley freed the hops. Kline was elated.
“It was amazing. It was hard to — you just can’t put it into words,” Kline says. “I just cannot do justice to the emotional investment I had in the success of this organization, and to finally have it happen, to finally hear that Riley had signed it into law — just one million pounds lifted off my shoulders.”
Even in their elation, Kline and the organization’s supporters and officers are looking to the future. In October, Free the Hops will meet to decide whether to pursue a change in Alabama’s container-size limit, or change Alabama’s homebrewing or brewpub restrictions. Kline will continues his effort to educate consumers about beer with a new column about beers, the first installment of which appears in this week's print edition and on www.bhamweekly.com.
To learn more about what’s next for Free the Hops, visit www.freethehops.org.