In Bible Belt, brewing is a battle
Two dozen guys are crowded into a basement, talking loudly over Triscuits, when Scott Oberman breaks the law.
In defiance of Alabama Criminal Code 28-4-20, he pours his buddy a beer.
“John Tipton’s Chocolate Porter,” he announces. It’s a dark brown beer, almost black, with a taste that starts out astringent, like cheap red wine, then mellows into a silky chocolate flavor, with fleeting notes of coffee and cinnamon.
Tipton, a big-bellied mechanical engineer, brewed it at home, for fun. That’s illegal in Alabama. He estimates the beer is about 8% alcohol by volume. That’s illegal, too.
But it won’t be for long, if the guys in the basement get their way.
Seventy-five years after Prohibition, beer aficionados in Alabama are fighting for the right to brew and chug as they please. That’s raised the ire of Southern Baptists, who frown on alcohol in any form. As they jockey for advantage in the Legislature, one side quotes Scripture. The other cites BeerAdvocate.com. One talks morality. The other, malt.
Though this may seem like an only-in-the-Bible-Belt brawl, booze-related debates have flared recently in a number of states.
In Virginia, for instance, sangria was the talk of the statehouse after a Spanish restaurant was cited for illegally mixing brandy with wine, in violation of a 1930s-era statute. Idaho lawmakers may soon amend the criminal code to permit vodka sales on election days. And in Colorado, lawmakers have considered rescinding a law that bans supermarkets (but not liquor stores) from selling wine with more than 3.2% alcohol content.
Here in Alabama, home-brewing beer has long been a Class A misdemeanor, with a penalty of up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine. It’s another Class A misdemeanor to sell or distribute any beer with more than 6% alcohol content. That puts off-limits 85 of the 100 top-rated beers in the world, as ranked by BeerAdvocate.com. “They think everyone down here is a bunch of damn rednecks and all we drink is Budweiser,” grumbles Tipton, 48.
Whole categories of beer can’t be sold in Alabama (except on federal military bases, where the state law doesn’t apply). Among the forbidden brews: thick, dark Russian stouts, smoky Scottish ales, bittersweet barleywines and the legendary beers made by Belgium’s Trappist monks.
Not much that Oberman and his friends would want to drink.
So as they wait for their legislative lobbying to bear fruit, they gather monthly for illicit tasting sessions, where they pass around up to a dozen home brews to critique. At the moment, they’re sampling a murky-looking concoction billed as an Imperial Stout and served from a 2-liter bottle that once contained Diet Mountain Dew.
“It’s clean, it’s nice, but it’s not big or bold enough,” says Todd Swearingen, 41.
Adam Arnett, 42, takes a small sip from a shot glass, savoring the flavors before swallowing. “Doesn’t punch you in the face,” he says. They pour the rest of the stout into a large plastic garbage can and move on to the next offering.
Oberman’s basement, lit by a bare bulb dangling from the ceiling insulation, is loud and warm; not surprisingly, it smells like a brewery. Jim Trollinger, 46, a big man with a wild beard, takes in the scene with a grin. “This is all an exercise in civil disobedience,” he says proudly.
In fact, Alabama authorities rarely prosecute anyone for home-brewing, or for possessing beer with more than 6% alcohol content.
By law, residents may enjoy such beers only if they order them shipped from an out-of-state vendor to a government warehouse, run by the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. They can pick up the shipment after paying taxes and certifying that the beers are exclusively for their personal use.
Few drinkers trouble with that bureaucracy.
Brew crusaders, banded together in a group called Free the Hops, admit to driving up to four hours each way on beer runs to Tennessee or Georgia. Some bring back as much as $500 worth of booze every few months. On this evening, Oberman plans to raffle a dozen smuggled beers, including a Sierra Nevada Bigfoot ale, a Belgian Lambic infused with raspberries and a microbrew, Nugget Nectar.
“What’s done in a private home often goes undiscovered,” says John Richardson, assistant administrator of the alcohol control board. “You can imagine how confusing it is trying to enforce this.”
California does not impose special restrictions on beer sales. But across the South, many states have long tried to keep out high-alcohol beer. Those laws were overturned in South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia in recent years. This year, campaigns are underway here and in West Virginia and Mississippi.
Free the Hops, which claims 750 dues-paying members, has introduced two bills in Alabama: one to legalize home-brewing and the other to permit sales of beer with alcohol content of up to 13.9% by volume. Last week the state House approved the measure raising the alcohol limit in beer; the Senate is expected to take it up soon. The home-brew bill has not been scheduled for debate.
Arguing that alcohol can corrupt body, mind and soul, Alabama’s Southern Baptists, a politically powerful group, are fighting to derail the 13.9% bill in the Senate.
The Bible contains many references to drinking; Jesus himself famously turned water into wine. But Joe Bob Mizzell, director of Christian ethics for the Alabama Baptist State Convention, prefers to quote from the Apostle Paul: “Be not drunk with wine but filled with the spirit.”
Abusing alcohol, Mizzell concludes, “inhibits communion with God.”
The Rev. Dan Ireland, a former preacher who leads an advocacy group billed as “Alabama’s Moral Compass,” has spent considerable time in the Capitol lobbying against the bill on practical as well as theological grounds. He says legislators seem responsive to his warnings that high-alcohol beer will endanger teenagers, making it easier for them to get drunk.
“We’re losing too many kids now on the road because of drinking and driving. Why aggravate that?” says state Rep. DuWayne Bridges.
Stuart Carter, the president of Free the Hops, counters that most of the higher-alcohol beers do not appeal to teens. They’re thicker, more complex, often more bitter. They’re also considerably more expensive. To him, craft beers have nothing to do with getting drunk. They’re all about flavor. To prove his point, Carter has been known to offer lawmakers an illicit taste of a Yeti Russian Imperial Stout, with 9.5% alcohol content.
“It looks like used engine oil -- black, thick, sticky. It will glue your lips to the glass,” he says.
“The first taste you get is the bitterness. Then you taste coffee. Then dark chocolate. Then caramel, with a hint of plums or raisins. The aftertaste is pancake syrup,” Carter says. “You give it to these legislators and the look on their face is priceless.”
Back at the home-brew club in Harvest, a suburb outside the northern Alabama city of Huntsville, Free the Hops members are talking about the first time they experienced such a revelation.
“I was in San Francisco. I was 25 years old,” Tipton says, as he remembers the Anchor Steam that turned him on to the world of craft beers.
Swearingen steps forward, holding a shot glass half-full of a home-brew the color of Pepsi. “When I first moved here, to me a good beer was Miller Genuine Draft,” he admits.
There’s a chorus of groans.
“I’m sorry,” Arnett says somberly.
“Then I moved up to Sam Adams in college . . . " Swearingen says.
“And finally!” Oberman interrupts.
Swearingen nods: That was it for him. A few Samuel Adams lagers, and he was hooked on the concept of drinking for taste.
“I don’t even like being drunk,” Tipton says. “I just enjoy beer.”
Some aficionados have beer cellars stocked with dozens of rare brews. Others obsessively hunt down new flavors. Oberman once paid $65 on EBay for a bottle of Thomas Hardy ale, vintage 1980, which he shared with several friends. The taste was not stupendous. But the experience, he says, was (almost) worth the money.
As his basement grows steadily noisier, Oberman, 39, slips out for a moment and makes his way to a large workshop.
One wall is covered with ribbons he’s won from out-of-state home-brew competitions. Barley, rye and other ingredients are packed into old kitty-litter tubs. A simple beer takes Oberman about five hours to brew in a series of stainless steel kettles. But he doesn’t stick to simple these days.
In one corner of the workshop, Oberman has piled slabs of broken granite in preparation for a Steinbier, or “stone brew,” which involves tossing glowing-hot chunks of granite into the brewing wort to keep it boiling. (The ancient process caramelizes the sugars and leads to a more robust flavor.)
Another of his experiments is fermenting in an enormous glass jug, covered by a T-shirt to protect it from the light. It’s a light-bodied, sharp-tasting beer known as a Flanders Red Ale, and Oberman has sprinkled wood chips from an old wine barrel into the brew. They’re loaded with bacteria that will eat up residual sugars, leaving a crisp, tart flavor.
Oberman plans to let the beer ferment at least a year before he cracks it open.
Perhaps by then it will be legal.