Free the Hops: How a Small Grassroots Movement Brought Craft beer to Alabama


BRENT ROSEN (this article was first published August 1, 2012)

Fork in the Road is an occasional travel column. Click the logo for more of this fun column.

Fork in the Road is an occasional travel column. Click the logo for more of this fun column.

In August 2012, consumers in Alabama will notice something new on the shelves in their grocery and specialty food stores. Starting next month, beer will be available in containers up to 25.4 oz, allowing for the sale of 22 oz and 750 ml bottles of beer. Craft breweries use these large format bottles to showcase seasonal, unique or limited-time offerings. While in most states, purchasing these beers requires nothing more than a trip to the store; in Alabama, an act of the legislature was necessary before these beers became available. This act, known as the Gourmet Bottle Bill, represented the culmination of over seven years of diligent work by Free the Hops.

Free the Hops is a grassroots, non-profit that began in 2004. The founding members of Free the Hops wondered why the craft beers they had seen and enjoyed in other states were unavailable locally, and were surprised to discover that the unavailability of craft beer was the result of antiquated Alabama laws. At that time, a typical grocery store beer department dedicated 90% of its shelf space to the MillerCoorsBudweiser three-headed monster; craft beer of any kind was simply not for sale. Free the Hops started with a simple mission: to bring high-quality craft beers to Alabama. What began as a passion project for a few people in Birmingham ballooned into an organized political interest group with more than 600 members, 89 business sponsors, and thousands of newsletter subscribers and twitter followers (@freethehops).

U.S Prohibition – disposal of alcohol

The story of Free the Hops is bound up with the history of alcohol regulation in America. In January 1919, decades of pressure from progressives and members of the temperance movement resulted in the passage of the 18th Amendment, ushering in the era of prohibition. After remaining sober for 13 years, the people of the United States came to their senses, and prohibition was repealed by the 21st Amendment.

However, the second section of the 21st Amendment provided: “The transportation or importation into any State, Territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.” This section was interpreted to mean that the individual states retained absolute control over the sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages. In essence, section two represented a compromise; alcohol would be legal, but subject to regulation at the state and local level. Thus, many states continue to have dry counties, Alcoholic Beverage Control Boards, and restrictions on where and when alcohol can be sold, despite federal law that makes the purchase and consumption of alcohol legal throughout the United States.

Alabama took full advantage of Section 2 of the 21st Amendment and created a number of laws in the 1930’s designed to limit the pernicious influence of alcohol on the state’s hapless residents. Beer drinkers in particular were impacted by laws that limited the alcohol content of beer to less than 6% and the size of beer containers to less than 16 oz. These restrictions were designed to prevent intoxication, as weak beer in small containers would, at least in the eyes of our ancestral legislators, limit people’s ability to get drunk. The effectiveness of these laws, and their logical underpinning, was always questionable, but nevertheless they remained in effect long after other states dropped these sorts of restrictions. The effect of these restrictions was obvious to anyone interested in quality beer – it simply was not available in Alabama.

Craft breweries that wanted to open within Alabama’s borders were further burdened by regulations regarding on-site brew pubs. Breweries in Alabama were forced to choose between selling their beer on the premises of the brewery or through a distributor. There was no “all of the above” choice available. In addition, if the breweries chose to sell their beer on-site, the brewery was required to be located in a historic building, in a county that had been “wet” (meaning alcohol was available for sale) before prohibition, and the location had to include a restaurant that seated at least 80 people. If the brewery chose to go in the other direction, and sell off-premises through distributors, the brewers would be unable to have public tours or tasting rooms at their facilities. This presented a real dilemma for Alabama craft brewers, as choosing either option foreclosed the other and eliminated a major source of revenue that was available to brewers in other states. The end result: as late as 2004, there were no independent craft breweries operating in Alabama.

Terrapin Golden Ale. Photo by Speed-Light on Flickr

Free the Hops started its grassroots lobbying efforts focused on three main goals: to change Alabama law limiting alcohol content of beer to less than 6%, to modify the laws that prevented craft breweries from selling direct to the consumer through brew pubs, and to increase the legal size limit on beer bottles and cans from 16 oz, allowing for large format beers to be sold in the state. From the outset, Free the Hops had no ties to the alcoholic beverage business. Instead, architects, doctors, lawyers, accountants, administrators and tradesmen came together to make Alabama better and more competitive.

When Free the Hops approached the state legislature suggesting updates to the beer laws, the biggest obstacle was the legislator’s lack of education. Initially, the legislature did not understand Free the Hops’ goals. One legislator believed that if the 6% maximum alcohol content was increased, InBev (it is very hard for a native St. Louisan to write that) would flood the Alabama market with 80% alcohol Bud Light, exponentially increasing drunk driving and underage drinking. FTH had to explain that InBev (cringing still) was not about to change the formula of Bud Light to corrupt the people of Alabama. Instead, micro-breweries like Great Divide and Terrapin would be able to enter Alabama and provide more choice for Alabama beer drinkers.

Another argument that Free the Hops routinely heard was that changes in the beer laws would encourage underage drinking. This concern highlights a lack of understanding about what craft beer is and who craft beer is for. As anyone with underage drinking experience can tell you, Milwaukee’s Best, Natural Light and Keystone are normally found at high school and college parties because they are cheap and sold at gas stations and convenience stores by disinterested clerks worried more about getting robbed than in checking ID’s. Free the Hops had to explain that a six-pack of many craft beers cost almost as much as a case of the above mentioned beer, and craft beers are sold mainly in specialty and grocery stores that implement strict age checking policies.

The group hired a dedicated lobbyist who worked in Montgomery during the legislative session. Free the Hops’ lobbyist built relationships and educated the legislators about the impact on Alabama’s economy and on consumer choice that changes in beer regulation would create. The legislature needed to understand that Free the Hops wasn’t about derelicts and drunks enjoying King Cobra, but a dedicated group of professionals that wanted to put Alabama on an equal footing with other states that had embraced the craft beer movement.

The group’s passion for the project turned out to be its greatest asset. Free the Hops was a small army of beer enthusiasts ready to reach their state legislators by phone, email and twitter whenever a Free the Hops sponsored bill was up for a vote. Free the Hops so blanketed the legislature that receptionists at the legislator’s offices started answering the phones by asking “are you with Free the Hops?” any time a Free the Hops sponsored bill was up for a vote. Many legislators have stated that Free the Hops is the best organized and most effective grassroots group in the state, and this tight organization eventually paid dividends.

After four years of lobbying, in May 2009 then Governor Bob Riley signed legislation allowing an increase from 6% to 13.9% alcohol by volume for beer. This legislation allowed a host of new beers to enter the Alabama market, with craft beers from Oregon and Colorado and Georgia, and imports from Britain and Belgium now available state-wide (at least in wet counties. Sorry Cullman). Soon store shelves in Piggly Wiggly’s and Publix’s that had once been 90% MillerCoorsBudweiser were 70% craft beer, and bars throughout the state are now lined with refrigerators full of the best beer available, regardless of alcohol content.

Free the Hops followed this success with a proposed Brewery Modernization Act. This act would cut through the red tape that made it nearly impossible to operate a brewpub in the state of Alabama, creating new opportunities for craft breweries to open and flourish. Before Free the Hops proposed the Brewery Modernization Act, there were exactly zero brewpubs in Alabama. June 2011, Governor Robert Bentley signed the Brewery Modernization Act into law, and within months tap rooms were opened by Good People and Avondale breweries in Birmingham, and by Back Forty Brewing Co. in Gadsden, Alabama, with more tap rooms to come. This legislation was not just good for Alabama beer lovers, but also for Alabama’s economy, as tourists will be encouraged to visit Alabama to try their favorite brews.

Free the Hop’s third goal, increasing beer size from 16 oz to 22 oz, was accomplished in the last legislative session. Prior to this act’s passage, non-keg beer in Alabama could only be sold in 12 oz bottles or in cans up to 16 oz in the major metropolitan areas of Birmingham, Huntsville, Montgomery, and Mobile. This prevented breweries like Rogue or Chimay from selling their large format options in Alabama, limiting choice for Alabama beer consumers. Free the Hops had proposed the Gourmet Bottle Bill over the last few legislative sessions that would allow for these special large format beers to enter the Alabama market. The bill finally passed the Alabama legislature and was signed into law by Governor Robert Bentley last May. With the passage of that bill, Alabama consumers now enjoy a full range of craft beer in Alabama. Free the Hops had completed all of its major goals.

So what does the future hold for Free the Hops? I spoke with the group’s president, Gabe Harris, shortly after the Gourmet Bottle Bill passed, and he informed me that Free the Hops is not about to shut down. The group’s leadership will meet later this summer to discuss its future agenda, and the Alabama Brewer’s Guild, made up of the 12 Alabama craft breweries and their allies, will work with Free the Hops to determine the next steps for craft beer advocacy in Alabama.
One obvious issue is that tap roomscan be operated in only 11 of Alabama’s 67 counties  even with the passage of the Brewery Modernization Act. An expansion of that list would make it possible for more enterprising beer lovers to open their own breweries in those parts of the state.

Another related issue is home brewing. Currently, home brewing is not legal in Alabama. While Free the Hops has not taken this issue on directly, it has been incredibly supportive of the Alabama Home Brewers Association, which has been working for four years to legalize the hobby of home beer and wine making. Free the Hops realizes that the future of craft beer in Alabama is in home breweries. All brewers begin as home brewers — like kids with a chemistry set that eventually become scientists. Home brewers start small, but their eventual products are the next generation of Alabama craft beers. The criminalization of home brewing keeps people from legally enjoying something of their own creation, something that could eventually become a functioning Alabama business. Perhaps Free the Hops will put its highly effective grassroots organization behind the legalization of home brewing now that it has achieved all of its own major goals.

Regardless of the Free the Hops’ next steps, the lesson of Free the Hops is clear: if something is wrong in your community, you have the power to change it. Free the Hops began as the dream of a handful of people in Alabama. Eight years later, the efforts of that handful of people completely changed the beer landscape of the state. If Free the Hops can change the beer laws in Alabama (of all places), imagine what you could do in your own community.

Photo courtesy of FreeTheHops.org
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