Beer enthusiasts are toasting the Alabama Legislature for passing a bill that they hope will lead to a resurgence of brew pubs and the opening of more breweries.
The Senate voted 19-6 Wednesday to go along with changes the House made Tuesday night in a bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Bill Holtzclaw of Madison. If it is signed by the governor, it will allow brew pubs to sell their beers through other locations and allow breweries to serve their products at their plants.
“It’s the biggest change in Alabama brewing laws since the repeal of prohibition,” said Gabe Harris, president of Free the Hops. The grassroots group of beer enthusiasts has been pushing for several years to change Alabama’s beer laws.
Holtzclaw said he expects the bill to result in more brew pubs and breweries because it will create new revenue streams to help ensure their profitability. “I view this as an economic development bill,” he said.
Free the Hops vice president Stuart Carter said he foresees the day when Alabama will have enough of the businesses that state tourism officials will want to print a tourism brochure for driving tours like they do for music attractions, civil rights landmarks, top restaurants and other tourist attractions.
“The state will be able to print a beer tour map of the state where people can go from Huntsville to Mobile visiting brew pubs and breweries,” he said.
Carter and Harris said they are not aware of any brew pubs in Alabama that remain in operation because they found it hard to turn a profit under Alabama’s restrictive laws. Montgomery’s brew pub, which was located in a historic building downtown, closed last year because of declining business.
Holtzclaw’s bill does away with a requirement that brew pubs include restaurants with at least 80 seats and that they be in historic buildings. Instead, they would have to be in historic districts or areas designated as economically distressed by city councils. In the past, they couldn’t sell their beer at any other locations. Holtzclaw’s bill will allow them to sell to a wholesaler, who could offer their beer in other restaurants and retail stores.
Carter, a self-described “beer nerd,” said the goal is to give brew pubs new revenue by having their products available in grocery stores.
Harris said Alabama has three breweries in Huntsville, one in Birmingham and another about to open in Gadsden, but none regularly offers tours because they can’t offer their products for tasting.
“No one wants to tour a brewery without being able to try the product,” Harris said.
The bill allows them to offer free samples or sell their product to visitors to consume on site.
Harris said he and other Free the Hops members were in a bar Tuesday night listening to the House over the Internet when it passed the bill 58-25. They celebrated with a toast to the House and planned another Wednesday night for the Senate.
Republican Sen. Bryan Taylor of Prattville said he voted against the bill because it applies statewide and some cities may not want breweries or brew pubs.
Gov. Robert Bentley’s communications director, Rebekah Mason, said he has not indicated whether he will sign the bill. But Holtzclaw, a freshman, said he’s optimistic about the first bill he has guided all the way through the Legislature.
Two years ago, Free the Hops got the Legislature to pass a law allowing stronger beer to be sold in the state, which opened up Alabama to more specialty and foreign beers.