“We’ve been in breweries all around the U.S.,” she said, “and if this isn’t the best it’s certainly right up there.”
As the Litkes and others streamed into the brewpub near the the corner of 12th Street and Moore Avenue to taste their new favorite beers, they were able to do something that Annistonians haven’t been able to in more than a century: enjoy beer brewed legally right here in the Model City, only two blocks down from the last legal home of the local beer industry.
Cheaha Brewing Company cut the ceremonial red ribbon and celebrated its grand opening Thursday, 80 years to the day that the state of Alabama ratified the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which ended Prohibition by repealing the 18th Amendment.
Nationwide Prohibition began in January 1920, but the death of the beer industry in Alabama was well underway by then. Statewide prohibition had an almost five-year head start, and state and local laws had been chipping away at alcohol for years before.
Even after Prohibition ended in 1933, it took a long time before beer came back to Alabama.
A 1992 state law paved the way for brewpubs in the state, but under very strict circumstances. Revisions to the law in 2011 eased some of these restrictions that made opening brewpubs more economically and logistically feasible, said Dan Roberts, executive director of the Alabama Brewers Guild.
But state law still stipulates that brewpubs can only open in counties where beer was brewed prior to the ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919. When Joe Donahue opened a brewpub last year at Heroes American Grille in Weaver, he had to prove to state regulators that local beer was flowing a century ago. Local historian Robert Lindley traced the hops to 10th Street.
A century ago
Robert E. Garner, remembered today as a philanthropist of the public library and an early Anniston hospital, owned the Iron Queen and the Peerless saloons on West 10th Street between the railroad and the main business district on Noble Street. According to Lindley, working-class folks frequented the Iron Queen saloon and two adjoining restaurants, one for white customers and one for black. The Peerless Saloon, located closer to Noble Street, was the go-to spot for the city’s more affluent patrons.
Based on his research, Lindley believes Garner was not only serving beer in the Iron Queen, but also distilling whiskey and brewing beer in the back. Then he’d bottle his wares on site, storing the beer in a cold storage area Lindley found designated on an insurance map from 1900.
At that time, 10th Street came to a dead end at the railroad tracks, right in front of the Iron Queen, which Lindley said occupied the building that now houses East & Son Tile Company.
With its location right off the railroad, the Iron Queen was beautifully situated to cater to men boarding and leaving the trains, and Garner sold his products to-go in easy-to-carry flask-sized bottles, Lindley said. He also sold his whiskey in pint, half-gallon and gallon-sized bottles and jugs for folks who needed a larger supply.
But in 1908, a change in state law meant that Garner could no longer bottle his alcoholic wares and sell them off-premises, cutting out a large chunk of his profit, according to Lindley.
A city directory lists both the Iron Queen and Peerless saloons with Garner as the proprietor as late as 1905. But by the time the 1908-1909 directory was published, the two saloons were gone.
“The Alabama law is what killed it,” Lindley said. “It wasn’t Prohibition.”
Links to the past
Beer in Anniston is still connected to the railroad.
Cheaha Brewing Company now sits just off the abandoned rail line in a historic 1890s building that served as the city’s freight warehouse, according to Jay Jenkins, who worked with his father, Julian Jenkins, to restore the building in the early 1990s. Both then and in the renovations for Cheaha, as much of the original architectural elements and raw materials were repurposed as possible.
The bar, a new addition to the space, is made from wood reclaimed from the floor of the brewery, where reinforced concrete was required to support the weight of the brewing tanks.
“The building is absolutely amazing—the brick walls, the rustic décor, it just suits what this is,” Cheaha owner Rodney Snider said. “We wanted to keep as much character in the building as we could. All we wanted to do is increase the rustic look.”
And with kegs stacked in one corner, and tables built of raw steel and plank board, the space still leaves a lingering impression of the old freight warehouse while feeling warm and inviting.
The link to the railroad has the potential to draw in more customers as the brewery and the city continue to develop. As city officials work to extend the Chief Ladiga Trail into downtown Anniston along the abandoned rail line in the coming years, Cheaha Brewing Company could eventually offer cyclists and other trail users local food and craft beer just steps away.
Cheaha Brewing Company has been gradually expanding its operations since it first opened its doors in May, first with a limited appetizers menu and beers brewed at other Alabama breweries, and now with a full menu and six of its own beers on tap.
Snider said the brewpub will open for lunch for the first time on Saturday and by the end of August will be open for lunch and dinner Wednesday through Sunday. A few more beers are brewing in the tanks, with the goal to have new varieties each week, and to eventually expand the bar’s 10 taps to 20, he said.
Cheaha’s operations support other local businesses as well: ingredients gracing the menu come from Artisanal Baked Goods on Quintard Avenue, Wright Dairy and Thompson’s Meat in Alexandria, and Miller’s Farm in Delta.
“It’s just an awesome thing to have in Anniston,” Snider said. “It’s awesome to be here, and I can’t wait to continue to grow.”
Staff writer Paige Rentz: 256-235-3564. On Twitter @PRentz_Star.