brewing industry

Alabama Goes From Craft Beer Wasteland to Model of Progress

In June of 2007, the Free the Hops bill to raise the alcohol-by-volume limit on beer from 6% to 13.9% was given the “Shroud Award” in the Alabama House of Representatives. That’s a humorous award presented to the sponsor of the bill considered the “deadest” of the session. You can read the lengthy, pun-filled resolution here: http://www.freethehops.org/blog/2007/06/gourmet-beer-bill-wins-the-shroud-award/

Hundreds of other bills were equally dead that year, not having been passed into law. But the Free the Hops bill received the Shroud Award because of the intensity of opposition it faced. The floor debates featured angry diatribes from devout, religiously-conservative legislators about the terrible ills of alcohol and the dangers it posed to families.

Furthermore, though the religious opposition to the bill was the most vocal and public, the truly influential forces holding the bill back worked behind closed doors — the beer wholesalers. Ten years ago, many in the wholesale industry had serious concerns about negative impacts on their businesses if Alabama’s beer laws were changed to allow for the sale of a greater variety of craft beers. Their opposition helped prevent the Free the Hops bill from passing in 2007 and again in 2008.

The bill finally became law in 2009. It passed the House with a vote of 49 in favor to 37 against, and the Senate with a vote of 19 in favor to 9 against. But it went down to the wire that year with all of us terrified senator Hank Erwin would filibuster the bill and prevent final passage. Once it finally passed the Senate we refocused our terror on the very real possibility that governor Riley would not sign it, which would have prevented it from becoming law. We launched a massive campaign of phone calls, emails, and faxes to his office asking for his signature, and he came through.

Fast forward to 2016. In the last seven years Alabama has gone from being home to two breweries to having, I don’t even know… twenty-something? At the time of this writing there are twenty-nine brewing members of the Alabama Brewers Guild but several of them are not open yet. These breweries have been a critical component in the economic revitalization of several areas around the state. For one example, the highly popular Avondale area in Birmingham is now home to about a dozen bars, restaurants, and music venues that didn’t exist before Avondale Brewing Co. became the anchor in the area. Which would not have happened without reforms to the state’s beer laws. All of the breweries have created jobs and contributed a tremendous amount to the state’s economy.

And remarkably, the legislature understands that and is behaving accordingly. This year the Brewers Guild lobbied for a bill to give new freedoms to Alabama breweries. And it passed. By huge margins. Without any weeping or gnashing of teeth from legislators. It passed the House by a margin of 68 to 17 and the Senate by a margin of 23 to 4. With never a fear of filibusters.

The bill will allow breweries to sell a limited amount of their beer directly to consumers to take home. It could be a few six packs or a couple growlers of specialty items filled at the tap room. It will also remove several asinine restrictions on where brewpubs can be located, making them a more viable business model. Restrictions that were once put in place at the behest of beer wholesalers, who feared brewpubs were an existential threat to the three tier system.

All of this is happening because everyone came to their senses. Religious opposition to the liberalization of alcohol laws is still a thing, but it has withered so much it’s incapable of halting progress. The wholesalers recognize the growth of craft beer is helpful to their businesses, not harmful. And the lawmakers have witnessed the tremendous benefits from the explosion of new small businesses made possible by said liberalization of alcohol laws.

In nine years Alabama has progressed from calling a pro-craft beer bill the deadest bill of the legislative session to passing a new pro-craft beer bill by landslide margins with no drama whatsoever.

Obviously, our state still has many problems, and our legislature is often dysfunctional on some of the most important duties it has, like passing budgets in a timely manner. But progress is possible. The history on this issue is proof.

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Visualizing Breweries Per Capita

Related to yesterday’s post, here is a little context on where Alabama currently stands with regard to the number of residents per brewery. Sure California has over ten times as many breweries as Alabama, but it also has nearly ten times as many people. On a per capita basis, Alabama is not massively trailing the country’s leading state for craft brewing. Yet we’re way behind places like Oregon and Colorado, and way ahead of Georgia and Mississippi.

I chose the states in the graph to add useful context. Throw in a few of the states with the most advanced craft beer culture and a few immediate Southeastern neighbors. Both comparisons are helpful.

ScreenHunter_09 May. 21 15.08

It seems to me the biggest takeaway from this is that Alabama is now ahead of the curve in the Southeast, but there’s no reason to think we are completely saturated. It’s all about the pace of growth. We’re not yet at a point where we can sustain 24K residents per brewery. But in 30 years, who knows?

Below is the raw data. I tried to get information as up-to-date as possible, but that’s not always easy. I also added in the year of the opening of the oldest brewery in each state, to show how long different states have been cultivating their respective brewing industries. While Alabama is in the middle of the pack on breweries per capita, we have the youngest brewing industry on the chart. So we’ve had the most rapid growth. Mississippi is so far behind the curve I included their breweries-in-planning.

Alabama

  • Breweries: 28 (May 2014)
  • Population: 4.833 million (2013 est.)
  • Residents per Brewery: 172,607
  • Year Oldest Operating Brewery Opened: 2008

Oregon

  • Breweries: 166 (2014)
  • Population: 3.899 million (2012)
  • Residents per Brewery: 23,487
  • Year Oldest Operating Brewery Opened: 1984

California

  • Breweries: 312 (2012)
  • Population: 38.04 million (2012)
  • Residents per Brewery:  121,923
  • Year Oldest Operating Brewery Opened: 1980 (excluding Anchor, a very unique case)

Colorado

  • Breweries: 217 (2013)
  • Population: 5.268 million (2013 est.)
  • Residents per Brewery:  24,276
  • Year Oldest Operating Brewery Opened: 1979

North Carolina

  • Breweries: 103 (2014)
  • Population: 9.848 million (2013 est.)
  • Residents per Brewery: 95,611
  • Year Oldest Operating Brewery Opened: 1986

Mississippi

  • Breweries: 7 (2014)
  • Population: 2.985 million (2012)
  • Residents per Brewery: 426,428
  • Year Oldest Operating Brewery Opened: 2003

Georgia

  • Breweries: 30 (2014)
  • Population: 9.992 million (2013 est.)
  • Residents per Brewery: 333,066
  • Year Oldest Operating Brewery Opened: 1993

Tennessee

  • Breweries: 36 (2014)
  • Population: 6.495 million (2013 est.)
  • Residents per Brewery: 180,416
  • Year Oldest Operating Brewery Opened: 2003