Update on Free the Hops movement
Here is an update on the Free the Hops movement in Alabama…
In case you did not read the previous blogs … here are the links:
Drink Craft Beer, You’ve Earned It!!
Home brewers try to change state law
By Rick Harmon
As he examines documents in a posh east Montgomery boardroom, John Little doesn’t look like a criminal.
There are few states outside of Alabama where he would be one.
In other states, he has been honored for what he does. Last year he was recognized as the 2007 Mid South Master Brewer of the Year, which designated him as the best home brewer in Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina and Georgia.
He doesn’t deny being a criminal — at least in Alabama. He does deny being the best brewer.
“There are friends of mine in Alabama, mentors of mine, who are far better than I am. They just didn’t choose to enter (the competition),” said Little, who lives in Auburn, but commutes to Montgomery to work at Kaufman Gilpin McKenzie Thomas Weiss.
These friends, like Little, are criminals in Alabama. They also are engineers, professors, scientists, retired military officers, doctors, bankers and pharmacists.
The American Home Brewers Association has about 250 Alabama members.
“I would estimate that maybe one out of 10 home brewers in the state is registered,” Little said.
So about 2,500 Alabamians are probably criminals, and Little said that is the real crime.
“The only other states in the country where it is illegal are Mississippi, Utah and West Virginia,” he said. “Title 28 in the Alabama state code was written immediately after prohibition and just has never been changed.”
If convicted, home brewers could face penalties of up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine.
“For me personally, the thing that bothers me the most is the threat that someone could come in and confiscate all the equipment and all the ingredients I have worked so hard to find,” Little said. “That bothers me more than a potential fine or charge.”
He’s also afraid for his friends who love to home brew.
“I have friends that are just as passionate about brewing as I am, and many of them could lose their jobs if they were charged with a crime,” he said.
Some of the most dedicated home brewers in the state are scientists and engineers in the Huntsville area. Because they work with government and military contracts, an arrest, even for a law that many don’t believe should be on the books, could cost them their jobs.
At first, the move to change the law was as much out of principle as out of a real threat.
In more than a decade no organized attempt had been made to enforce the law on Alabama’s books.
Little said there was one case in which the home of a home brewer was robbed, and the rural sheriff investigating confiscated the brewer’s equipment. But that’s the only case of home enforcement Little said he has heard of.
That is until they started trying to change the law.
The Los Angeles Times did a story on Free the Hops, Alabama’s outmoded beer law and a Huntsville brewer.
Just last week a representative from Alabama’s Alcohol Beverage Control Board visited the Huntsville brewer, to warn him to stop unless he wants to face prosecution.
“If there is a crackdown because of the publicity we’ve helped create to try and change the law, it will be a nightmare for some very respectable people,” Little said.
Still, after what happened to the other home brewer, Little agreed to this interview.
“If changing this law means an increased risk of arrest because of the media coverage, I am still willing to do it,” he said. “This is simply a horrible, outmoded law that needs to be changed.”
Some of the people who don’t take the law seriously are Alabama lawmakers. Earlier this year Free the Hops had a legislative reception.
“We had five tables of beer — four of fine beers imported from out of state and one of home brews that our members made,” Little said. “I was at the home brew table and told everyone ‘What you see before you was illegal for us to make. It is illegal for us to be in possession of, and it will be illegal for you to drink.’ It didn’t stop anyone from drinking it. It was by far the most popular table there.”
But he believes the fact that such an “unfair law” is being enforced may provide more incentive for the Legislature to pass the bill legalizing home brewing quickly.
The bill, SB355, like so many others, has been held up in the Senate Tourism & Marketing Committee.
Little said it is hard to understand why the state wouldn’t allow home brewing. He said no home brewers sell their beer — they couldn’t afford to.
“It’s a big expense, a big time requirement and a big learning curve,” he said.
“You could not buy a beer in a store as expensive as what it probably costs us to make our beer. I know I’ve spent thousands of dollars on mine. The big joke we have with our wives is that at least our hobby is probably cheaper than being a bass fisherman with a $25,000 bass boat.”
Brewers couldn’t make it as cheaply as you can buy in a store if they wanted to, he said.
But Little said no home brewer wants to.
“We brew for the enjoyment of creating the perfect beer that can’t be bought,” he said.
That’s not to say there is no commercial aspect to home brewing.
He said that changing the beer laws would help Alabama attract businesses from countries with sophisticated beer cultures, such as Germany. It also would help the state attract professionals from the rest of the country, where beer laws are not as outmoded.
Also, Little said some of the major independent breweries in the country have been started by home brewers.
He dreams of a day when Alabama’s Department of Tourism will be able to have a craft beer trail like the Alabama wine trail it recently announced.
“We have the skill in the state now,” he said. “We have the brewers who can do it. The only thing is right now they are doing it at home.”
That, and the fact that right now, it is illegal.
For now, Little’s dreams of the future merge with nightmares of the present.
The visions of Alabama’s home brewers using their talents to create craft beer trails and to help create a bevy of quality brew pubs for the state are in the future.
For the present, Little hopes the talents of “good, hard-working people” don’t land them in jail in a state where brewing good beer is a crime.