Alabama beer lovers wait for action on brew bills

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama beer lovers are pleased that the state Legislature passed a measure to allow beer to be sold in larger containers, but they're still awaiting the fate of a measure to legalize home brewing.

The Legislature sent the bill to allow larger bottles to Gov. Bentley's desk on May 9. A Bentley spokeswoman said he's still reviewing the proposal and hasn't decided whether to sign it.

The bill that would make Alabama the 49th state to allow home brewing — Mississippi would be the final holdout — was passed by the House on May 8 and is awaiting Senate action. The chair of the Senate committee that decides which bills make it to the floor could not be reached for comment.

The action came in advance of Wednesday's end of the regular session.

The so-called Gourmet Bottle bill would allow beer to be sold in bottles up to 25.4 ounces. Currently it can only be sold in containers up to 16 ounces.

Gabe Harris, president of the beer advocacy group Free the Hops, says a lot of craft and specialty beer is only sold in larger bottles and the bill could bring more beer and brewers to the state if signed.

Alabama advocates for specialty beer say the state is one of the most restrictive, but has come a long way in a short time.

"Between 2008 and now, it's really a whole new world" for craft beer in Alabama, said Dan Roberts, executive director of the Alabama Brewers Guild.

In 2009 the state first legalized "high-gravity" beers, or beer with an alcohol content of more than 6 percent. Harris said there were only two breweries in the state prior to the passage of the 2009 law. Now there are seven with about three more in the startup stages.

Last year, the Legislature passed a law allowing breweries to set up "tap rooms," or a space to serve beer on-site at their brewery. If Bentley signs the gourmet bottle bill, Free the Hops will have accomplished its legislative agenda, Harris said.

"We'll sit down after this session and talk about what we can do for craft beer in general," he said.

The group may continue to advocate for fewer restrictions on brewing in Alabama, or it may serve a more educational function, letting Alabamians know about what craft beer has to offer. Free the Hops is putting on the Magic City Beer Festival this June in Birmingham to do just that.

"Craft beer is all about choice and taste and being able to enjoy something that's made locally by people who care about beer and about their craft," Harris said. "It's not mass produced for the public — it's a niche group of people who appreciate good food, good beer, good friends."

Not all Alabamians are so gung-ho about the loosening of restrictions on beer and brewing.

DuWayne Bridges, R-Valley, filibustered the bill allowing larger bottles for about three and a half hours when it was being debated on the floor. "It's a known fact that alcohol has broken up many families and caused a lot of abuse in the home and heartache in the home," Bridges said.

He said larger containers would appeal to young people and would mislead Alabamians who get behind the wheel into thinking they could drive after only having one or two beers.

"I'm not in favor of expanding the size or the alcohol content," Bridges said. "I was successful last year — I was able to lead the charge against it (the larger bottle bill) and we killed it, but this year I was outnumbered. But that's not going to prevent me in the future from fighting the expansion of that."

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