ABC bottles up Hop City's homebrew plans
by Ben_Cunningham
 The Bitter End - by Ben Cunningham
Sep 22, 2012 | 4203 views |  0 comments | 24 24 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
This image of Hop City's Birmingham location is from the company's website.
This image of Hop City's Birmingham location is from the company's website.

Alabama’s beer laws have been changing fast, but not fast enough for people who want to make beer themselves — or those who want to sell them the stuff to do it.

Count the folks at Hop City in the latter category.

Kraig Torres, who’s run a store by that name in Atlanta since 2009, planned to open a Birmingham location this week. On offer in the 5,500-square-foot shop on Third Avenue South: 1,200 varieties of bottled beer in all styles, fine wines, and draft beer for sampling on-site and to go in quart- and half-gallon-size bottles called growlers.

Not on the shelves in Birmingham: fermentation buckets, glass carboys, immersion chillers, instruction books, hops, malted barley nor yeast.

Agents from the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board took some of those materials from the store Thursday after finding them on an inspection Wednesday required to get a license to sell beer and wine, according to David Peacock, an attorney with the ABC’s enforcement division. The agency required Torres to remove the rest from the site, he said.

Homebrewing is illegal in Alabama, though it’s a hobby pursued with a passion by an estimated 1 million enthusiasts across the country, according to the American Homebrewers Association. It’s legal in 48 other states; Mississippi’s the other one where it’s against the law.

Owning or selling plastic buckets, glass jugs, copper tubes, barley and hops isn’t necessarily illegal, according to Peacock. All of those can be normal “household items,” he said.

“When you take them all together … they become something else,” Peacock said.

Having all those things in one place with the intent to brew beer is against the law, he said. He pointed to a state law which says having or selling the stuff for “manufacturing any prohibited liquors or beverages” is a felony.

That means it’s a serious crime, punishable by no less than a year in prison.

Peacock said once the materials were removed from Hop City’s Birmingham location, the matter was cleared up, and that it won’t hurt the company’s license application. It’s expected Torres will get the license early next week.

Torres is keen to avoid arguing with the ABC’s version of events, but he’d believed there’d be no problem.

“This component of our business, we were always up front about it,” he said Friday afternoon. “The fact they decided to make an issue of it most certainly was a surprise.”

Peacock, meanwhile, said that Torres had been warned in advance that the materials couldn’t be sold.

Torres points out that other homebrew supply stores in Alabama stock and sell all the same items. Peacock, asked about other such stores, didn’t address the issue directly. Other Alabama stores that sell homebrewing supplies apparently don’t also sell commercially brewed beer, and therefore wouldn’t need an ABC license, meaning enforcement agents wouldn’t have had a reason to visit the stores.

Peacock said he was not aware of the agency taking action against individual hobby homebrewers. He had words of caution, however.

“If it’s not legal, it’s not legal.”

Growing business

Torres says he’s spent $600,000 getting the Birmingham location ready. He now expects it to open sometime next week.

In addition to the bottled beers, which Torres said will include every variety of beer available for sale in the state, there will be 60 draft taps for samples and filling growlers. Torres plans to host tasting events, as well.

It seems clear that there’s a market for the products Hop City wants to sell.

The changes in Alabama’s beer laws began in 2009, when the grassroots group Free the Hops succeeded in a years-long effort to get the state Legislature to allow beer that’s more than 6 percent alcohol by volume to be sold here. Since then, the group has won changes loosening restrictions on breweries and allowing the sale of the 22-ounce and 750-milliliter bottles favored by many craft brewers.

In the wake of those changes, craft brewing has taken off in Alabama, with as many as nine breweries operating in the state now, where there were none just a few years before.

“We’re really excited about the craft beer scene,” Torres said. ‘With the explosion of new breweries in Alabama, we think the market is ready for” a store like his, he said.

The plan is to have a staff that welcomes questions from people who are learning about the diversity and complexity of craft beer.

“We felt like there’s a hole in the retail scene for experienced beer people,” Torres said.

Gone from the plan for now is serving those who want to make beer themselves. Torres said sales of homebrewing equipment and supplies at the Atlanta store account for about 15 percent of Hop City’s business. He’d hoped for a similar ratio here.

The Birmingham store employs eight people now, and Torres hopes that will match Hop City’s workforce of 12 in Atlanta once it gets up to speed.

He said public support in the wake of ABC’s actions has been a boost.

“It’s great that the citizens of Alabama have expressed the outrage they did” over the incident, he said. “We can’t thank people enough for that.”

Right to Brew, a grassroots movement similar to the one that’s changed other Alabama beer laws came close to getting lawmakers to legalize homebrewing this spring. House Bill 354 passed the House of Representatives and was awaiting final passage by the Senate when the Legislature’s session ended in May.

Brant Warren, a Huntsville-area resident who’s one of the organizers of the legalization effort, framed the issue in business terms when asked about Hop City’s troubles.

“The legalization of homebrewing in Alabama will prevent such serious problems to small businesses from happening,” Warren wrote in an email Friday. “It is one of the major reasons driving so many citizens across the state to work with their representatives to change the law.”

Free the Hops echoed that in a statement the group issued Friday in the wake of Hop City’s difficulty.

“This issue doesn’t just matter to homebrewers,” the statement read, “it matters to small businesses who will lose out on revenue they could otherwise be making off equipment and ingredients for making beer and wine. And it matters to the future of local breweries in our state because most craft brewers start out homebrewing.”

Hopping South
by Ben_Cunningham
 The Bitter End - by Ben Cunningham
Sep 10, 2012 | 1758 views |  0 comments | 28 28 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
The indescribable, imbibable hop.
The indescribable, imbibable hop.
So, I've been reading about hops, the amazing little flowers that give beer its bitterness. On a recent trip to Oregon, I visited a homebrewer who had two tall, magnificent bines growing from planters in his backyard.

Since I got back, I've been curious about the potential for growing hops here in Alabama. It's commonly repeated wisdom, apparently, that hops grow best between latitudes 35N and 55N. Wouldn't you know it, the 35th parallel is Alabama's northern border. However, there are plenty of reports online of hobbyists growing hops successfully well south of that line. 

Are you among those who've trained these clockwise-climbing creepers? If you're growing hops here in the Heart of Dixie, I'd love to hear from you. Drop me a line (or a bine?) at bcunningham -at-, or leave a comment below. 
Out in the Back Forty
by Ben_Cunningham
 The Bitter End - by Ben Cunningham
Aug 30, 2012 | 1456 views |  0 comments | 28 28 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
I paid a visit today to Back Forty Beer's brewery in downtown Gadsden, for an magazine story I'm working on. Brad Wilson showed me around, and I spoke at length with him, with founder Jason Wilson and with brewmaster Jamie Ray. Brad let me rummage around in this bag of Citra hops, which give Freckle Belly IPA much of its flavor.

Back Forty's working on getting the equipment and supplies to produce 22-ounce bottles at the Gadsden plant. It'll be a while yet,but Freckly Belly will be one of the first things to go in the bigger containers, Brad Wilson told me. (Containers bigger than 16 ounces became legal Aug. 1 under the Gourmet Bottle Act, approved by the Alabama Legislature this spring.)
What's on tap?
by Ben_Cunningham
 The Bitter End - by Ben Cunningham
Aug 24, 2012 | 1435 views |  0 comments | 30 30 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
I feel safe in assuming that most of America's beer consumption takes place on the weekends. Given that assumption, one of my favorite things to do on my old blog was to ask readers on Friday where, why and what they'd be drinking over the weekend. So, I'm bringing back "What's on tap?"

Where will you have a beer this weekend, and who'll be with you? What will you be sipping? Is it a special occasion? Leave your comments below to let your fellow readers know how beer will fit into your weekend. Perhaps it'll give some inspiration to those who haven't yet made plans.

That describes me pretty well - no big plans. There are a couple bottles of Sweetwater IPA left in my fridge. This weekend is the Southern Brewer's Festival in Chattanooga; if I can get my lawn mowed and my wife interested, maybe we'll make the drive to the Scenic City. Anyone else going?

Kudzu takes over
by Ben_Cunningham
 The Bitter End - by Ben Cunningham
Aug 21, 2012 | 1626 views |  0 comments | 27 27 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Two mugs of Back Forty's Kudzu Porter sit on the counter at Cooter Brown's Rib Shack.
Two mugs of Back Forty's Kudzu Porter sit on the counter at Cooter Brown's Rib Shack.
I stopped by Cooter Brown's Rib Shack in Jacksonville last night, for the last few minutes of Back Forty Beer's tap takeover. The restaurant had added Back Forty's Kudzu Porter to its row of tap handles for the evening (the Gadsden brewery's Naked Pig Pale Ale, Freckle Belly IPA and Truck Stop Honey Brown are normally available there). A representative from the brewery was there handing out T-shirts, glasses, etc.

It was cool to have all four of Back Forty's regular brews available, but it did mean that another regular craft offering was unavailable for the night: Lazy Magnolia's Southern Pecan Brown Ale. Interestingly, Lazy Magnolia played a big role in getting Back Forty off the ground, brewing the Alabama company's beers at its facility in Kiln, Miss., until Back Forty's Gadsden brewery opened this year.

If you've ever been to Cooter Brown's you know space is very tight, and that includes space behind the bar and in the back. Unfortunately, that means adding new taps is unlikely, people with the restaurant have told me. That means they consider their draft offerings very, very carefully.

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