Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Today's column

Pitcher This: Birmingham's beer bonanza


With apologies to the Iron Bowl and Talladega Superspeedway's twice-a-year festivities, there's no better time to enjoy beer in Alabama than this weekend.

Saturday and Sunday will see the return of the Magic City Brewfest, which debuted in 2007 to rave reviews despite a few first-year glitches.

The two-day festival will again take place at Birmingham's Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark and will feature beers from dozens of the nation's best brewers and a slew of quality imports. It's organized by Free the Hops, a group pushing for reform of laws restricting beer in Alabama.

Free the Hops' president, Stuart Carter, says there will be as many as 250 different brews on offer, up from around 180 last year.

"That represents the majority of beers available in the state," Carter says.

Though that may sound impressive, Carter says it's actually kind of disappointing. Alabama law limits the alcohol content of beer to 6 percent by volume. That leaves out many of the marquee offerings from brewers who will be at the festival, and keeps whole ranges of beer styles from being sold here. A Free the Hops-sponsored bill to raise the limit to 13.9 percent passed the Alabama House this year, and cleared a Senate committee before it died earlier this month along with tons of other legislation in the upper chamber's end-of-session gridlock. Carter says they'll try again next year.

Other beer that won't be available at the festival: Alabama's only bottling brewery, Huntsville's Olde Towne Brewing Co. won't have its new facility running in time. A fire destroyed the old brewery last July. Founder Don Alan Hankins says if everything goes well, the new place could be bottling by the first half of July, perhaps within a year of the blaze.

One silver lining from Olde Towne's misfortune: Hankins says a new bottling line capable of filling 120 bottles per minute will replace the old 20-bottle-per-minute line that gave the company headaches over quality.

The company will ensure distribution to its Madison County customers first, followed by Jefferson County, according to Hankins. Look for Olde Towne's amber ale, hefeweizen, pale ale and pilsner on shelves and on tap elsewhere after that.

Carter calls the lack of Alabama-brewed beer at the state's only festival "a crying shame." But his group is planning for thousands of attendees anyway, along with live music and the chance to earn converts to its political cause. And of course, there will be plenty of great beer available, along with food from Birmingham-area restaurants. A few tips gleaned from last year's festival:

• Take a designated driver (or two). Even with 2-4 oz. samples, you'll need help getting home safely. The good news: DDs get free admission, plus unlimited non-alcoholic drinks.

• Go with a group. Beer is best enjoyed with friends, and this much beer calls for a lot of company.

• Dress lightly. The festival's all outdoors, much of it while the sun's shining. Shorts, sunblock and shades are all good ideas, especially on Sunday.

• Get outside your comfort zone. There's so much exotic beer on hand, you won't want to waste your time with anything you drink regularly. You'll get a list at the gate of what's available. Mark off everything you've already tried, then circle anything new to you that sounds intriguing.

The festival runs in two sessions, each ticketed separately. Saturday is 7-11 p.m., Sunday is 3-7 p.m. Discounted tickets are available in advance online. They'll be $30 for beer only at the gate, $40 for beer and unlimited food. More info is available at

Friday, May 23, 2008

A good time brewing

The second annual Magic City Brewfest is just over a week away. Organizers say this year there'll be more beer, more food, and probably more people.

The festivities will be at Birmingham's Sloss Furnaces Park, Saturday, May 31 from 7 p.m.-11 p.m., and Sunday, June 1, from 3 p.m.-7 p.m. Tickets are available online now; they'll be more expensive at the gate.

Stuart Carter, president of Free the Hops, which is organizing the festival, says the group learned a lot from last year's inaugural event. Many more people than expected showed up, and organizers are preparing for even mroe this year.

Brewers will be more spread out over the festival grounds to reduce congestion. There will be more food vendors as well, also spaced out around the festival grounds to avoid last year's long lines. FTH also plans to better educate the red-shirted volunteers who will be pouring at the brewers' booths, so they'll be able to share some info on the suds. Between the musical acts on the festival stage, brewers and FTH organizers will be speaking, giving the festival a bit more of an education and advocacy edge.

"This will be about how to appreciate beer as an enjoyable thing, rather than guzzling it as a light macro," Carter told The Star earlier this week.

Perhaps most importantly, Carter says there will be as many as 250 beers available to taste, which he said is the majority of brews available in the state. That's up form last year's total of about 180, he said.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Looking to next year

I just spoke with Stuart Carter, president of Free the Hops, the group pushing the Gourmet Beer Bill to raise the allowed alcohol-by-volume limit on beer sold in the Alabama to 13.9 percent from 6 percent. He said last night's failure by the state Senate to do much of anything has ended any chance of passing the bill this year. Carter and other members were disappointed, to say the least.

"If it had been voted down that would have been a more understandable outcome than it never having been discussed," Carter said. Like most of the other bills awaiting the Senate's attention, the beer bill died as the Senate bickered over and failed to act on the state's 2009 education budget. The beer bill won't be up for consideration if Gov. Bob Riley calls a special session of the Legislature, Carter said.

FTH members and supporters are now turning their attention to the second annual Magic City Brewfest, scheduled for May 31 and June 1 at Birmingham's Sloss Furnaces.

"The Brewfest is an opportunity to introduce more people to the delight of good beer," Carter said. He also said it's "a good way to get more people frustrated and focused in their anger" over the Senate's failure to act.

"And of course we want people to have an absolute blast at the weekend, because we want them to come back for next year’s Brewfest," he said.

Another year to wait?

The Alabama Senate adjourned last night without passing an education budget or accomplishing much of anything else, let alone getting close to touching the Gourmet Beer Bill. Free the Hops' President Stuart Carter, in a post on the group's blog that was also e-mailed to members and supporters, wrote that Alabamans were "failed by the Senate." Beyond FTH's pet issue of raising the ABV limit on beer, Carter urged members to complain to their senators about their lack of action on on much of anything this year (or last), and to remember it come election time in 2010.

In the meantime, what will FTH do about the ABV limit? Wait another year? Try their luck in a special session if Gov. Bob Riley calls one? What are your thoughts. Click below to leave a comment.

Monday, May 19, 2008


It could be that we'll never know if Gov. Bob Riley would sign a bill to increase the amount of alcohol allowed in beer here this year. It could also be that we'll never know if the Senate would approve such a measure. That's because the Senate is stalled in its final day of deliberation on the state's education budget. The Associated Press is reporting that the Senate is in danger of ending the session without an ed budget, meaning any other bills scheduled to be heard today could be left for dead.

Could they come up in a special session, along with the ed budget? That remains to be seen. Whether that happens, or whether Free the Hops has to wait another year, there is at least a bright side: supporters will have more time to educate Riley on the issue, hopefully earning his signature on any effort that gets hard-won approval from the Legislature.

Today's the day

The Alabama Senate should today take up what supporters have called the Gourmet Beer Bill, which would increase the allowed alcohol limit for beer to 13.9 percent from 6 percent. Free the Hops, the citizens' group which has sought the change for three years now, decided two weeks ago to hold off on having the bill considered as tensions were running high in the Senate's rush to get things done.

That brings us to today, the last day anything can be considered by the Senate and become law. If it manages to pass today, it'll then go to the governor's desk for his signature. Previously, FTH had said they'd heard Gov. Bob Riley would sign such a bill. A story in Saturday's Montgomery Advertiser seemed to indicate otherwise, however. Posters at FTH's message forum are understandably nervous.

Will today be the day that the Legislature gives its approval for higher-quality beer in Alabama? And what will the governor do if lawmakers say yes? Anyone in the state who loves beer is sure to be watching today. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Talladega commission looks at ways to allow sale of draft beer

This from The Daily Home in Talladega. -aj

By Chris Norwood

TALLADEGA COUNTY — The County Commission voted unanimously Monday night to authorize county attorney Barry Vaughn to come up with a proposed bill that would allow the sale of draft beer on and off premises in the county following a public hearing.

There was no opposition to the proposal during the hearing, and Sylacauga restaurant owner Alan Sanders presented a petition signed by between 900 and 1,000 people, as well as letters of support from two beer distributors and half a dozen other restaurant owners.

Sanders’ proposal would have allowed the sale of draft beer only by restaurants, but he said he would not oppose allowing licensed businesses to rent kegs as well. The commission asked Vaughn to research ordinances covering both.

The resolution Vaughn would craft for the commission’s approval would be a recommendation to the state Legislature only. The commission itself does not have the authority to pass ordinances, as Commissioner Jimmy Roberson pointed out.

Full story

Monday, May 5, 2008

Down to the wire

Is the promised land in sight? The folks at Free the Hops say the Gourmet Beer Bill, HB196, will finally be up for discussion in the Alabama Senate this week, likely on Tuesday. The bill would raise the allowed alcohol limit on beer sold here from 6 percent alcohol by volume to 13.9 percent.

The group's president, Stuart Carter, sent an e-mail to supporters this morning asking that they call their senators to ask for a yes vote on the bill.

This could the last real hurdle in the years-long effort to raise the ABV limit. If HB196 clears the Senate, it'll go to Gov. Bob Riley, needing his signature to become law. FTH leaders have said they've been told the governor will sign the bill if it comes to him.

Many of the world's best beers contain more than 6 percent alcohol, including much of the stuff being produced by America's many craft brewers, who are seeing an explosion of consumer interest in their beers. Alabama is one of three states where the alcohol limit is so low. Advocates for change say the law is keeping quality beer out of Alabama.