Drinkers thirsty for something other than Budweiser or Miller didn't have many choices in the state just a few years ago, but a series of laws passed since 2009 has opened up Alabama to the world of high-alcohol specialty beers, neighborhood brew pubs and microbreweries. It's a big change in a Bible Belt state that still has dry counties and legally banned home beer brewing and wine making until this year.
Today, Alabama drinkers can still grab some Buds, and many do. But there's also Truck Stop Honey ale, brewed by the Gadsden-based Back Forty Beer Co.; Monkeynaut IPA by Huntsville's Straight to Ale LLC; Vanillaphant Porter by Avondale Brewing Co. of Birmingham; and Section Street Wheat by Fairhope Brewing Co., located on the scenic eastern shore of Mobile Bay.
And unlike before, hobbyists can now legally make their own beer after purchasing supplies at stores like Hop City Craft Beer & Wine, a Birmingham retailer that state agents raided in 2012 before the law changed. Auburn University is even starting a brewing program next year for anyone who needs lessons.
Jason Wilson, founder of Back Forty Beer and president of the Alabama Brewers Guild, said Alabama-brewed beer still accounts for only a tiny fraction all the beer sold in the state. But Alabama's current beer scene would have been impossible to imagine just a few years ago.
"To look back at the landscape when we began ...," said Wilson. "It's pretty surreal now."
Small breweries were common before the United States outlawed alcohol production and sales in 1920 during Prohibition, but large brewers have dominated the industry in the decades since legalized alcohol production resumed 80 years ago.
Small, craft brewers gained popularity in parts of the nation in the 1980s and '90s, but Alabama was all but left out partly because of strict alcohol laws tied to Prohibition and religious opposition to alcohol use.
Good People Brewing began operations in 2008 under the old laws that limited everything from alcohol content to bottle size. Then, in 2009, a grassroots group called Free The Hops got legislators to pass a law that allowed higher-alcohol brews, which are typical for craft breweries. Another law allowed the sale of beer in bottles larger than 16 ounces.
Michael Sellers, a founder and co-owner of Good People Brewing Co. in Birmingham, said legislation allowing breweries to sell beer on-site in tap rooms — tasting areas with seating where beer is virtually the only item on the menu — was critical.
"The thing that I think has spawned all of the growth in the industry is the tap rooms," said Sellers. "That really gives you a ready revenue source rather than having to wait 30 days for a wholesaler to pay."
Twenty different brewers now operate in Alabama, including four restaurant-style brew pubs with full menus, and total employment is estimated to be at least 250 people. Huntsville has the biggest concentration with seven brewers, and other brewers or pubs are located in Anniston, Birmingham, Dothan, Fairhope, Montgomery, Phenix City, and Tuscaloosa, Wilson said.
The Brewers Guild projects 40,000 barrels of beer will be brewed in Alabama this year compared to just 1,000 barrels in 2009.
The numbers are still tiny in comparison to some states — the city of Asheville, N.C., advertises 18 craft breweries alone, and Atlanta's SweetWater Brewing Co. this year expects to produce 147,000 barrels, or 107,000 more barrels than every Alabama brewer combined.
SweetWater's marketing director, Steve Farace, said the growth in Alabama is helping the industry as a whole.
"We've been selling beer in Alabama for more than a decade and our sales continue to climb," Farace said. "The craft community of beer drinkers is growing so therefore sales for all craft beer are growing at a double-digit rate. So there's plenty of room for lots more craft breweries to come online."
Wilson said Alabama-brewed beer accounts for a maximum of 2 percent of the total beer sales in the state, where Anheuser-Busch, which makes Budweiser, Bud Light and other beers, has about 65 percent of the market.
Both Back Forty Beer and Good People Brewing sell in a few other Southern states, but Sellers said Alabama's craft beer industry can only grow so much inside the state's borders because of market realities.
Craft beer generally sells at premium prices in stores — almost $9 a six-pack isn't unusual — and Alabama is a relatively poor state with a population of only 4.8 million people.
"We have a limited market just by demographics," said Sellers.
A law passed this year allows people to make beer and wine at home, and basement operations conceivably siphon some business away from commercial brewers. Wilson isn't too worried about the competition: He says the entire beer industry just needs to keep growing in the state.
"I always say, 'If you're not drinking a Back Forty, please drink a local craft beer,'" said Wilson.