Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Today's column

Here's today's column, also available at The Star's Web site.

Pitcher This: What's brewing in the kitchen?


Praising the cook after a sublime dining experience is common enough to have become cliché — "compliments to the chef."

But it's not often one gets to pay the same respects to a brewer after downing a fine pint during a meal out. At least, not in Alabama, though beer lovers here are (slowly) getting more options to drink beer brewed beneath the same roof where-under their steaks are grilled and salads tossed.

Brewpubs, commonplace across the country, have emerged slowly in the Heart of Dixie since the Legislature 15 years ago made it legal to brew beer in the same restaurants where it's served.

Brewpubs have helped to fuel the growing craft beer movement in the United States since first popping up on the west coast in the early 1980s. They were actually a re-emergence of an old tradition. In the 19th century and before, most beer would have been brewed in the inns and taverns where it was served.

The modern brewpub was an outgrowth of demand for styles beyond the typical pale lagers made by the ever-larger breweries that had come to dominate American beer.

Part of the reason for their rarity here is the strict limits the Alabama Brewpub Act of 1992 places on their operation. Brewpubs may only open in buildings eligible to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places or in federally recognized historic districts. They also must be able to seat at least 80 people at a time. The beer may be sold only for consumption in the restaurant, not packaged for retail sale.

But the most limiting part of the law says brewpubs may open only in counties where beer was brewed for public consumption prior to Prohibition in 1919. That knocks out whole swaths of the state where there once weren't enough people to justify having a brewery to sell it.

Does that include Calhoun County? No one seems to know for sure. There are now brewpubs in Montgomery, Auburn and Mobile, and a new one is on the way to Birmingham. Only history knows if a brewpub could be in the Anniston area's future. There were saloons in Jacksonville and Oxford before Calhoun County went dry in 1883, but someone would need to prove they served beer to make restaurant brewing legal here. That could be as simple as poring through old newspapers looking for an ad peddling beer. To date, no one seems to have been interested to do that research.

And they could be forgiven for that. Non-chain restaurants of any stripe are risky ventures. Throw in the specialized art of brewing, and there's every reason to fear failure. Those who've done it say you can't cut any corners. The beer must be top-notch, says Daryl Cargile, who opened the Olde Auburn Ale House seven years ago. But so must the food.

"You're not going to make it on beer only," he says.

Of course, until someone decides to give it a go here, we'll have to reserve our compliments for the chef.