The United States’ love of beer is older than the country itself. Among the passengers on the Mayflower during its 17th-century voyage to the Americas was a young barrel maker named John Alden. One of his primary responsibilities was to tend to the ship’s plentiful casks of beer and ensure that the ale did not turn rotten.
Nearly 400 years later, the U.S. is returning to its European beer-making roots with the proliferation of smaller breweries that are rolling out carefully concocted barrels of foam often referred to as craft beer. According to the national Brewers Association, the number of breweries in this country has increased from 537 in 1994 to more than 2, 300 at the beginning of 2013 (including the Mayflower Brewing Co., in Plymouth, Mass., founded in 2007 by the 10th great grandson of John Alden).
Alabama recently has jumped on this craft-beer bandwagon, thanks to several recent changes in state laws. The passage of the Free the Hops bill in 2009 increased the allowable alcohol-by-volume (ABV) level in beers sold in the state, opening up the market to numerous brews that have a more complex taste. Then, in 2011, passage of the Brewery Modernization Act loosened restrictions on operating a brewery in Alabama, allowing brewers to both sell their product on-premises like a brewpub and to wholesalers in and out of the state.
These new laws opened the tap on the ability to brew and sell beer in the state. As a result, there are now 24 licensed breweries in Alabama, including some that are popping up in such smaller cities as Gadsden, Anniston, Phenix City and Florence.
“Prior to the changes in the laws, we never would have been able to open this place, ” says Kade Miller, the head brewer at Railyard Brewing Co., in Montgomery, which began operations in 2012. “The changes have been a major, major advantage in allowing people to brew craft beers here.”
That’s because, unlike such mass-produced beers as Budweiser and Coors, most craft-beer breweries operate on a significantly smaller scale, taking extra time to emphasize the taste of the beer rather than the quantity produced. This, in turn, creates a much smaller profit margin for the specialty breweries, and the numbers simply didn’t add up under the old laws.
“I’ll produce about 10, 000 barrels of beer this year, while Anheuser-Busch will produce over 300 million barrels, ” says Jason Wilson, founder of Back Forty Beer Co., in Gadsden, and president of the Alabama Brewers Guild. “So when you prohibit these small micro-breweries from doing things like selling pints at their production facility, that’s the difference between a profitable and an unprofitable business model. The slightest restriction you impose on them can mean the difference between it being successful and failing.
“Since these pieces of legislation have passed, we haven’t seen a single brewery shut down in the last five years. That’s a testament to the impact this legislation has had.”
If there is one person most responsible for the changes in state laws it would be Danner Kline, founder of Free the Hops in Alabama. Kline was introduced to craft beer during a trip to Texas in 2004 and described it as “love at first sip.” When he returned home, he was dismayed to learn that most of these types of beers were unavailable in Alabama because of the restrictions. It took five years and three legislative defeats before the Free the Hops bill finally passed.
“The increase in craft beers has been going on nationally for more than a decade, and it’s the changes in our laws in Alabama that has allowed it to flourish here, ” Kline says. “It ties into the local, slow-food and organic movements. The Millennial generation is more interested in something they can feel a connection to, that they feel is genuine and has a story, rather than a corporate brand that’s trying to sell based on advertising.”
The popularity of craft beer has increased despite the higher cost of the brews. While a typical Budweiser or Coors will sell for less than $5 a six-pack, craft beers can easily cost two or three times more.
“You’re paying for the quality of what you’re getting, ” Wilson says. “The whole idea of craft beer is we don’t want you to buy a 24-pack. We want to buy a six-pack of a quality beer.”
It is evident that there was pent-up demand for such brews in Alabama, which has led to the increase not only in breweries but also specialty beer stores, such as Hop City in Birmingham, which boasts that it offers more than 1, 700 different beers. Moving forward, however, the question is whether the trend toward craft beer will continue to flow freely or go flat.
“The number of breweries is growing crazy-fast, ” Kline says. “There will come a point that they will grow faster than the demand grows. I don’t think we’re there yet, but that’s going to happen.”
Miller isn’t so sure. He points out that the variety of ingredients in beer — barley, hops, yeast and so forth — allows for an almost endless array of flavor possibilities. So for people who treat beer more like wine, as something to be savored rather than merely consumed, Miller says, the appeal of craft beer won’t wane anytime soon.
“It’s the complexity of the taste, ” Miller says. “You can create all these different combinations. That alone is what drives me to try all the new different beers. There are just so many styles, I think people are going to get more and more interested in craft beer.”
Wilson agrees. He points out that less than 5 percent of the beer sold in Alabama is craft beer, leaving plenty of room for growth.
“I think there’s a fundamental shift in the way people drink beer in America, ” Wilson says. “For a long time after Prohibition, beer was seen as a very generic product in this country. Every other thing that American consumers buy, they demand options. But for so long, the exception to that rule was beer. Now Americans are looking at the beer aisle the way they look at every other aisle. So I think it’s premature to say that we’re reaching some sort of saturation point.”
Alabama’s Craft Brewers
Avondale Brewing Co. • Birmingham // avondalebrewing.com
Back Forty Beer Co. • Gadsden // backfortybeer.com
Beer Engineers • Gadsden //
Below the Radar • Huntsville // btrbrew.com
Black Warrior Brewing Co. LLC • Tuscaloosa // FB: Black Warrior Brewing
Blue Moose Café & Brew Pub • Cullman //
FB: Blue Moose Café & Brew Pub
Blue Pants Brewery • Madison //
Bluewater Brewing Co. • Florence //
FB: Bluewater Brewing Company Inc
Brew Stooges • Huntsville //
FB: The Brew Stooges
Cahaba Brewing Co. • Birmingham // cahababrewing.com
Chattahoochee Brewing Co. • Phenix City // chattbrew.wordpress.com
Cheaha Brewing Co. • Anniston // cheahabrewingcompany.com
Druid City Brewing Co. • Tuscaloosa // druidcitybrewing.com
Fairhope Brewing Co. • Fairhope // fairhopebrewing.com
Folklore Brewing & Meadery • Dothan // FB: Folklore Brewing & Meadery
Good People Brewing Co. • Birmingham // goodpeoplebrewing.com
Huntsville Brewery • Huntsville // FB: The Huntsville Brewery
Main Channel Brewing • Guntersville
Old Black Bear Brewing Co. • Huntsville // oldblackbear.com
Railyard Brewing Co. • Montgomery // railyardbrewingcompany.com
Red Clay Brewing Co. LLC (in progress) • redclaybrewingcompany.com
Rocket Republic Brewing • Huntsville // rocketrepublicbrewing.com
Salty Nut Brewery • Huntsville // saltynutbrewery.com
Singin’ River (in progress) • Florence // singinriverbrewing.com
Straight to Ale • Huntsville // straighttoale.com
Trimtab Brewing • Birmingham // trimtabbrewing.com
Yellowhammer Brewing • Huntsville // yellowhammerbrewery.com
Cary Estes is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Birmingham.
Text by Cary Estes