All around the country, home-brewers can proudly brag about their newest IPAs or chocolate porters. They can openly discuss their malts, their mash, and their wort. They can even pop into a local shop to pick up a bottling bucket or hydrometer. All around the country, that is, except in Alabama. But that may soon change.
Alabama is the last state in the country in which home-brewing is illegal. In fact, it’s illegal just to own the equipment to brew beer. It’s a ban that dates back to the end of prohibition, when states were given the right to make their own laws governing the consumption and distribution of alcohol. But two bills—one in the state House of Representatives and the other in the state Senate—making it legal for individuals to make as much as 15 gallons of beer, wine, or hard cider every three months could pass as early as next week.
"I don’t want to compare this to the civil rights movement, but there is a parallel there," said Jason Sledd, an amateur homebrewer from Huntsville. "I mean, we’re just making beer in our garages so it doesn’t hold a candle to what people were fighting for in the civil rights movement. But, we are Alabama and we do have a history."
The popularity of craft beer and home-brewing has certainly been on the rise around the country. Just this past week, Mississippi became the 49th state to legalize home-brewing, joining former holdouts such as Utah and Oklahoma, which came on board within the past five years. Home-brewing became legal under federal law in 1978, and today the American Homebrewer’s Association estimates that nearly 1 million people brew beer or make wine in their homes at least once a year. Even the White House produced a Honey Ale last year.
“Alabama is last again,” said Republican Bill Holtzclaw, the sponsor of the Senate bill. “When you try and think about reasons why the state doesn’t allow it, you just can’t come up with good answers.”
But just because Bill Holtzclaw can’t think of points of opposition, others can. Advocates who've been fighting for legalization since 2009 have been met with sharp resistance from a religious group called the Alabama Citizen Action Program. Currently led by a Baptist pastor named Joe Godfrey, ALCAP has been fighting for temperance since it was founded in 1937.
Godfrey says a lot of issues are at play here: children getting access to alcohol (“How will parents know if they take a swig from a gallon jug?”); the policing of activities (“Nobody’s going to raid houses to make sure they aren’t making too much of it or selling it”); and the slippery-slope argument (“Pretty soon you’re going to have a distiller say if you can make beer and wine, why not have a moonshine operation?”).
Between ALCAP's opposition and the task of trying to pass alcohol legislation in a state with 26 counties that are at least partially dry, it’s been an uphill slog for home-brewers. In 2011, a House version of the bill failed so miserably it won the award for “deadest bill of the year.” There is an actual award for this. It comes in the shape of a coffin.
State Rep. Richard Laird told National Journal he would not be supporting the bill this year because he is afraid that without enough oversight, underground connections between home-brewers and moonshiners could arise.
“If people start making and stockpiling beer, who’s to say the moonshiners wouldn’t come up and buy their supply and resell it?” he asked.
Gary Glass, the director of the American Homebrewers Association, which has helped out on the legislation, says it’s been the most difficult attempt at legalization he’s dealt with, including getting a bill through a mostly Mormon Legislature in Utah. But this year, he believes the efforts will pay off in Alabama.
“There used to be a perception that home-brewing and moonshining were the same thing,” Glass said. “The perception has changed in the past years.”
While Laird, who is an independent in the state Legislature, might not agree, it sounds as if Glass is right. Even Godfrey says he expects the bill to pass (“But not without me making them work for it”), and the governor has said he will sign it into law if it gets to his desk.
All this is music to Glass’s ears.
“Home-brewers should be able to operate in the open,” he said. “And it’s not just about the hobby. This country has a unique beer culture, and many of these craft beers and new beer styles all start with someone making it in their home.”
Update: This story was updated to include a quote about civil rights in Alabama.