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Ala.’s long-brewing beer battle ready to come to a head

Mike Johnson pours a sample beer during a meeting of the Auburn Brew Club in Montgomery, Ala. That state is not among the 46 in which home brewing of beer is legal.

Mike Johnson pours a sample beer during a meeting of the Auburn Brew Club in Montgomery, Ala. That state is not among the 46 in which home brewing of beer is legal.

For years, Alabama beer aficionados have been trying to get home-brewing and the sale of high-alcohol brews legalized, but have failed.

Now the proposal’s startling transition from dead bill to potential law mirrors the transition of Free the Hops, the nonprofit, beer-loving statewide organization that brought up the legislation. During the past three years, Free the Hops has gone from a grass-roots group that believed it had ideas for good laws, to a more sophisticated organization with a plan on how to transform these ideas into laws.

Free the Hops emerged in 2004 because some of the state’s most dedicated beer connoisseurs believed Alabama’s beer laws were so outmoded that the state had become out of sync with the rest of the country.

Among other changes, the group wanted to reform Alabama’s restrictive laws on brew pubs, which required that they be in historic buildings in counties where beer was brewed before prohibition. That law limited the number of brew pubs in the state to three.

The group believed the changes would not only help beer drinkers enjoy exotic brews, but have a huge economic impact on Alabama, where the laws made it possible to sell only a handful of what were usually selected as the top 100 beers in the world.

The group knew its beer. When it initially tried to get the alcohol-content law passed in 2006, it didn’t know the Alabama Legislature.

Any bill in Alabama that deals with alcohol is controversial, and there were groups working hard to defeat “alcohol legislation” that they believed would only hurt the state.

Some opponents argued that the higher-alcohol beer would corrupt teenagers and lead to more drunken-driving arrests.

Rep. Thomas Jackson, D-Thomasville, a bill sponsor, said it was unlikely that teenagers would try a get drunk on beer that can cost about $40 a six-pack.

But a representative of Alabama Citizens Action Program, which opposes any expansion of alcoholic sales in Alabama, said if teenagers wanted the beer, they could find a way to get it – including by stealing it from their parents.

“The bottom line, is that the more alcohol there is, the more alcohol problems you’re going to have,” said Joe Godfrey, executive director-elect of Alabama Citizens Action.

Free the Hops faced another problem: Legislators had no real reason to listen to their arguments. At that time the group only had about 50 members.

Beer distributors, who have a lobby, would gain nothing from passage of a bill allowing independent beers and expensive imports into the state.

Faced with all these problems, the bill literally became a joke. Two years ago, the House presented it the Shroud Award for the “deadest bill” of the session.

“In the long run, I think (the award) helped us both because it got us publicity, and because it showed us some of the things we needed to do,” said Dan Roberts, Free the Hops’ legislative liaison, which like all the organization’s positions is unpaid.

In 2007, the organization used some of its limited funds to hire a lobbyist.

John Little is not only a Montgomery, Ala., attorney but also one of the South’s most talented home brewers who believes that Alabama should legalize home brewing like most of the rest of America. He knows many professionals who brew beer and have declined to come into Alabama from the 46 states where brewing is legal.

In 2007, the Free the Hops bill failed by only three votes.

The group then found something more important than a lobbyist – voters.

By having events throughout the state, the group increased its membership to more than 900 members this year. It also began mobilizing them.

The organization found members who lived in the districts of legislators who were unsure of how to vote – and had them make a call or write a letter, Roberts said.

And unlike last year, this time the organization has the facts to back up its argument and is making sure legislators hear them.

“I think Georgia changed its beer laws in 2004, North Carolina in 2005 and South Carolina just did it recently, in 2007,” Roberts said.

“So we can look at those states that have recently done it and then look at the drunk driving statistics and see that there has been no change. You can look at the underage drinking statistics, no change. The only major change you see is economic impact.”

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For all of the stories that were archived by the Tucson Citizen newspaper's library in a digital archive between 1993 and 2009, go to Morgue Part 2

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