Backyard beer comes out of the shadows
by Ben Cunningham
May 11, 2013 | 7454 views |  0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Steven Shelton brews beer legally at his home in Anniston. (Anniston Star photo by Bill Wilson)
Steven Shelton brews beer legally at his home in Anniston. (Anniston Star photo by Bill Wilson)
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Steven Shelton stood in his front yard Friday, brewing beer in the noonday sun.

He had nothing to hide.

The 32-year-old Anniston resident was making his first batch of beer since Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley signed a bill Thursday afternoon that shook the stigma off of home-brewing of beer, wine, cider and mead.

“This is something I can say, ‘I made this,” he said, beaming through a brown beard at the stainless kettle standing on a propane burner in his yard. He learned to brew in Georgia, but found it was illegal in his new home state when he moved to Anniston two years ago, he said.

Across the state, homebrewers are finally free to come out of the shadows. Before Bentley inked the bill into law — which took effect immediately — making alcoholic beverages of any kind without a license from the state was forbidden. Now that domestic brewing and winemaking have the state’s blessing, some advocates say hobbyists will help a nascent Alabama industry that has been growing since 2009, when the state started loosening restrictions on beer.

Stopping no one

To be clear, many people were brewing in Alabama before it became legal this week, an estimated 5,000 of them, according to the American Homebrewers Association, a membership organization that promotes the hobby.

Dan Roberts is director of the Alabama Brewers Guild, a group that represents the state’s independent commercial brewers. The organization has 19 member companies, he said, including a few breweries still in the works. Almost all of those have been founded since 2009, when Alabama raised the amount of alcohol allowed in beer sold in the state, he said. And brewery owners or partners who didn’t start out brewing at home are the exception, Roberts said.

“Most of the primary partners are homebrewers,” he said.

According to a report released in February by Roberts’ group, 85 Alabamians were employed in brewing in 2012. With more breweries expected to open across the state this year, employment in 2013 was projected to reach 189.

Stuart Carter is a director of Free the Hops, the state grassroots group of beer lovers that pressed for lifting the alcohol limit in 2009 and has scored other legislative wins since then. He predicted that the next wave of brewery owners will come from among Alabamians now brewing legally at home. Part of that, he said, is because the new law allows brewers to take their creations to competitions to be judged alongside other beers.

“It’ll let people scratch their itch, to try something, put it in a competition,” Carter said. “The better you do and the more consistently you win stuff in competitions, the lower becomes the bar to opening a commercial brewery.”

Roberts said he wasn’t sure what the effect will be on the state's beer industry because of people brewing at home under the new law.

“It depends on how many people were not brewing because it was illegal,” he said.

But he noted that it was the federal government’s legalization of homebrewing in 1978 that led to the boom in small and independent beer makers to which Alabama is only now catching up; it was the last state to pass a law allowing homebrewing.

“A lot of these guys, a certain percentage of them, started going pro,” he said of the hobby’s early aficionados. New styles began to appear on shelves, Roberts said, like nothing that had ever come out of the big breweries operated by Anheuser-Busch, Miller or Coors. The new flavors were often developed, Roberts said, by hobbyists tinkering with recipes at home.

The creations of those professional brewers in turn inspire new beer fans, who themselves turn to homebrewing.

Starting something

Rodney Snider began sharing craft beer with friends years ago, and eventually hatched a plan to open a brewery in Anniston. He tried his hand at homebrewing. Now that’s helped prepare him and his partners to open Cheaha Brewing Co. in downtown Anniston, where brewing equipment is still being prepared for production. Snider said that after the brewpub — a combination brewery and restaurant — opens in a few weeks, he’d like to cater to homebrewers, perhaps offering classes to help novices get started.

Among them will likely be Matt Hunter of Anniston. Several years ago he began trying the new beer styles he’d seen on the shelves and sharing them with friends. The Anniston resident now prefers India pale ales to his old standby, Coors Light.

An Army Reserve officer, Hunter was called up to an active-duty assignment in Huntsville three years ago, he said. That’s just when Huntsville’s craft beer scene began to grow. He started visiting breweries and tasting in their taprooms.

“You can talk to the guy that made the beer,” he said. “I just thought that was kind of interesting.”

He and some friends in Anniston decided to try their hands at making their own beer “a couple years ago,” Hunter said. They did it, he said, knowing it was outlawed in Alabama, and in hindsight perhaps should have been more cautious.

“We weren’t very discreet about it,” he said.

Now, there’s no need to be.

For Steven Shelton, the freedom to make his own beer in Alabama has him eager to experiment. Standing on his lawn amid the earthy smell of boiling malted barley Friday, he bubbled with ideas — brown ale flavored with the pecans from his backyard, a saison infused with strawberries from Watts Strawberry Farm, his mother’s business in Munford, or with the honeysuckle creeping up his back fence.

“The limits are endless,” Johnson said.

He checked under his boiling kettle’s lid, and adjusted his brown shades against the sunlight.

Managing Editor Ben Cunningham: 256-235-3541. On Twitter @Cunningham_Star.

Editor's note: This story has been modified to change information attributed to Dan Roberts of the Alabama Brewer's Guild in the 12th paragraph about the effect of home brewing on the beer industry.
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