Close your eyes for just a minute and think about your favorite beer in the world. Fat Tire? Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA? Good People Brown? Great Divide Yeti? Whatever the beer is, and however awesome you think it is, what’s your best guess on how the brewer who created it learned his trade?
If you guessed “brewing school,” you’re almost certainly wrong. If you guessed “worked at another brewery and apprenticed under another brewmaster,” you’re still most likely wrong—although the options for that path are increasing as the number of American craft breweries continues to rise.
In reality, the most common way the brewmaster who brews your favorite beer learned his trade is by brewing at home. He started with a fivegallon carboy and a Cooper’s extract kit. He read books by Charlie Papazian, Randy Mosher and Ray Daniels. He fermented some batches too hot. He went too heavy on the early hops once or twice and made some really bad beer. Most importantly, he learned the art of brewing as a hobby, by trial-and error, brewing very small batches. It’s true of the entrepreneurs behind Sierra Nevada, Dogfish Head and Great Divide, and it’s true of every single brewer making the local Alabama brews you enjoy today. Craft brewers start out as home brewers. But we have a problem here in Alabama.
Brewing beer at home is illegal in our state. This harmless hobby that can claim credit for launching well over a thousand successful small businesses throughout the country is a crime here, another antiquated law leftover from Alabama’s sorry, Prohibitionist past. You won’t be surprised to hear we are just one of two states left that have not legalized the hobby, and you probably also won’t be surprised that Mississippi is the other state.
Home brewing is completely safe, harmless and lots of fun as I know from, um, brewing with friends in Georgia. With just a little bit of inexpensive equipment, you can start making batches with malt extract, which allows you to follow a simple recipe combining a few ingredients, boiling the mixture for an hour, cooling it with some ice, then adding yeast. The yeast consumes the malt sugars over the course of a few days producing the alcohol. Then you put it in bottles with a small amount of corn sugar for the yeast to feed on and produce natural carbonation and voila! Beer! Give it a try, um, with friends in Georgia.
Of course that’s the beginner’s outline; it can get far more complicated if you choose to dive deeper, and there are many home brewers who brew beer using precisely the same methods and very similar equipment to what the pros use, just on a much smaller scale. There is no threat to society here, no danger to the person brewing, no way to brew up anything poisonous.
Thankfully, there is a dedicated group working on reforming this asinine law, Right to Brew, and they have a website, alahomebrewing.org. And they’ve gotten a bill introduced in the legislature. HB266 has 23 bipartisan co-sponsors, and it would legalize home brewing in Alabama. This action is long overdue.
If you want to enjoy more beer from local breweries, then you need to support the legalization of home brewing. To do that, you need to call and write your state senator and representative, asking them to support HB266. The alahomebrewing.org site has a form to help automate the process, and freethehops.org/legislative will let you type in your home address and see lots of extra information on positions your senator and representative have taken on alcohol-related issues in the past. That can help you customize the message you send.
Legalizing home brewing will result in more people trying the hobby, and that will eventually produce more local commercial brewers. That means more local beer for you to enjoy at bars around town. You need to get involved in this effort, along with Free the Hops’ efforts to reform the brewpub law and the container size restriction. There is much left to be done to bring Alabama’s beer laws into the 21st century.
“Hopped Up” is a weekly brew review by Danner Kline, founder of Free the Hops and co-organizer of the annual Magic City Brewfest. Send your feedback to email@example.com