Since the Gourmet Beer Bill became law, a TON of new beers have entered the market in Alabama. Chimay, Bell’s, Terrapin Rye Squared, Great Divide, and dozens of other new beers and breweries are now sold in Alabama’s stores, restaurants, and better beer bars. After more than 4 years of effort, Alabama has a good beer market and the future looks bright as more craft American breweries and importers plan to enter the state when they can handle the capacity.
But Free the Hops has always been about promoting beer culture. Although it’s great that we now have access to some of the best craft beers from around the country and world, real beer culture starts local. We want more local beer. Unfortunately, the current laws in Alabama make it difficult for home-based breweries to succeed and reach their customers.
The Yazoo Tap Room – Nashville, TN
Many breweries outside of Alabama have a tap room – basically, it’s the brewery bar where folks can come in and try the local beer. You can try a sampler – typically a 5 oz “flight” of some of all of the brewery’s beers or you can get a pint of the new seasonal. You can take a tour and see how beer is made, buy a shirt, and talk to the brewers about what you like or don’t like in their beer.
Unfortunately, tap rooms are illegal in Alabama’s distributing breweries. Before you can buy their beer in Alabama, it has to go from the brewery to a distributor to a retailer, and then to you. The result is that you, the brewery’s customer, are far-removed from the actual brewery.
A brewpub is basically a restaurant that brews its own beer. Alabama law allows for this special class of breweries, but the legal restrictions on opening and operating these businesses are enormous. This is a large reason why Alabama has only two operating brewpubs while the states surrounding us have dozens.
Let’s take a look at the restrictions on brewpubs in Alabama:
- Must be located in an historic building
- Must be located in a wet county that had a brewery prior to 1919
- You can ONLY sell the beer you brew in the brewpub. You can’t sell to wholesalers or stores
- Must have a restaurant which seats at least 80
- Must not brew more than 10,000 barrels of beer annually
Opening a brewpub is already a tough endeavor. That equipment isn’t cheap. In Alabama, you also need to find (and pay a premium on) an historic building in one of the five counties in Alabama that had a brewery before 1919. If you manage to find a place for your new business, the state limits how much beer you can sell and you’re not allowed to open up an additional revenue stream by selling the beer outside of your brewpub.
Enter the Brewery Modernization Act
The result of the current brewery laws is that you can either be (1) A distributing brewery, where you can sell your beer in stores but not interact direct with the consumer, or (2) A brewpub, where you can sell your beer direct to your customers, but with severe restrictions, and you can never sell your beer in other bars, restaurants, and stores.
Our 2010 legislative agenda is called the Brewery Modernization Act. The goal is to make it easier to open and successfully operate a brewery in Alabama. The bill is a little bit complicated (the lawyers in Montgomery haven’t even finished writing it yet) because the current law is complicated. The end result, if the bill passes, will be this:
- There’s no more “brewpubs” and “distributing breweries” as legal distinctions. If your business is licensed to make beer, it’s simply a “brewery.”
- A brewery can sell beer at the brewery (at a tap room or brewpub) and/or sell it through a wholesaler to other bars, restaurants, and stores
- Breweries are specifically allowed to have tours and to participate at beer festivals
That’s our 2010 agenda. As always, the legislature may alter the bill during the process, or we may be yet again the bystander victim of filibusters about the budget. But this is our goal, and we hope it will mean as much for beer in Alabama as our last achievement.