Southern homebrewers fight for the right to make their own beer
DIY brewers are legally considered identical to moonshiners in Alabama, and beer hobbyists there are pushing to have their legal status changed. Mississippi brewers just got a reprieve.
Sat, Mar 30 2013 at 9:32 AM
Did you know that there’s only one state left in America that bans the homebrewing of beer and wine?
That’s right. When Gov. Phil Bryant signed the state’s new homebrew law on March 18, Mississippi became the 49th state to officially legalize homebrewing. (It was not explicitly banned before that; the attorney general had announced that homebrewing was fine, but only if Mississippians purchased a $1,000 commercial brewer’s license.)
It was a big win for grassroots groups like Raise Your Pints, who have worked tirelessly to reform Mississippi’s outdated beer laws, from raising the allowable ABV (or alcohol by volume) of commercial beers to explicitly allowing homebrewers to openly participate in their hobby.
Next door in Alabama, the fight goes on. Homebrewing in the Yellowhammer State is a felony. Brewers are legally considered identical to moonshiners (at right, in 1911), and possessing or selling homebrew equipment in the state is illegal. That could change as soon as April 2, if legislation currently pending in the state House comes to a vote.
This isn’t the first time homebrewers in Alabama have worked to overturn the ban, but this year looks like the state’s best opportunity yet. Reform bills were introduced in both the House and Senate at the start of the legislative session, and both have made it through committee and come to the floor. The Senate bill, SB 153, made it out of committee on Feb. 23, while the House version, poised for a floor vote, was held up in unrelated wrangling. Across the state, the grassroots reform effort has been bolstered by brew clubs, commercial craft breweries, and pubs, all rallying under the slogan “Right to Brew” and distributing pint glasses emblazoned with the logo.
Huntsville’s Straight to Ale Brewing — the brainchild of former homebrewers Dan Perry and Rick Tarvin — produces craft beer with Rocket City-themed names like Wehner von Brown Ale and Monkeynaut IPA (a nod to the simian occupants of early U.S. and Soviet space capsules, several of whom lived out their days at Huntsville’s Space and Rocket Center). In recent months, Straight to Ale has opened the brewery to area hobbyists, who’ve been invited in to participate in crafting the Right to Brew series of beers, a highly drinkable way to educate Alabamians about legalization efforts in the state.
Local homebrewer Jason Sledd brewed two batches for the RTB series – a Black Wit and a Watermelon Wheat. “I felt these would be good examples of what one can do as a homebrewer that can’t easily be found in the commercial beer world,” he says.
Sledd also traveled to Montgomery in February as part of the half-dozen strong contingent from Rocket City Brewers, his local homebrew club. “I tried to impress upon [the committee] that I was a fine, upstanding citizen that likes to make beer at home,” Sledd says, “much in the same way that I like to make barbeque at home, even though there are some fine examples of ‘commercial’ barbeque out there.”
Committee members heard testimony from both sides, and asked questions of those who spoke. Sledd says the only query that caught him off-guard was when a member asked, “What do you tell your kids about the fact that your hobby is illegal?”
“I basically told them that I don’t point out that my hobby is illegal in Alabama,” he says.
And with any luck, it won’t be for much longer. Alabama HB9 is on the House’s Special Order Calendar for April 2, and supporters are optimistic that it will get an up or down vote and finally pass both chambers, moving the legislation to the governor’s desk for signature.
In the meantime, Straight to Ale will host Right to Brewfest on March 30, which could just be the last time that craft brewers in Alabama have to educate the public about the state’s outdated homebrewing law.
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