Congressional leaders in Alabama have nearly finished writing a bill that would change many of the state’s Prohibition-era laws, advancing the cause of craft brewers in the state.
Particularly notable, leaders say, is that Alabama lawmakers managed to bring together representatives from all three tiers to propose the changes. While craft brewers in Georgia and Mississippi appeal to local officials for updated industry regulations, the state’s example is one that some hope will serve the rest of the South.
“This was a very joint effort because one wrong leak in the wall would have pushed it all down,” said Donna Alexander, executive director of the Alabama Wholesale Beer Association (AWBA). “But everyone met together, and I have to say the ability of everybody to come together is what made this work.”
After nearly nine months of research conducted by the Alabama Alcohol Study Commission (AASC), the Alabama Law Institute has begun drawing up proposed legislation that would grant long sought-after rights to the state’s craft brewers. If passed, the new law would allow small breweries in Alabama to sell limited quantities of beer directly to consumers for off-premise consumption and eliminate outdated zoning restrictions.
“Honestly I was really pleased with it, and I couldn’t have picked a better group of [legislators] to do this,” said Dan Roberts, Director of the Alabama Craft Brewers Guild, about the AASC. “They were really interested in how Alabama could be competitive, and how we compared to other states, so we weren’t losing out because of antiquated laws that could hurt small businesses.”
Alabama and Mississippi are currently the only states in the country that completely prohibit breweries from selling beer directly to consumers for off-premise consumption. Georgia lawmakers created a legal loophole for breweries last year, but a subsequent amendment from the state’s Department of Revenue effectively squashed the allowance by making it cost prohibitive for the beer makers.
Craft brewers operating in those states are actively lobbying for similar rights, but have encountered resistance from the local wholesalers. In Alabama, however, the AASC successfully brought the state’s craft beer makers and distributors together to find common ground.
“It’s natural to assume that the wholesalers and brewers wouldn’t be able to come to an agreement, but I think we’re all on the same page now”, said Roberts of the negotiation process. “They realize that we’re not trying to put them out of business, we want them to succeed. I think everyone involved was really invested in this outcome.”
Bringing wholesalers and brewers together was not the only hurdle the committee had to overcome, however. The AASC also reached out to local churches and community leaders — inviting them to participate in the review process alongside industry professionals.
“They went across the state, held public hearings and asked all interested parties to come forth and give their input,” Alexander said. “There were people from churches, there were people from retailers, there were people from the wholesalers.”
The inclusive approach also gave officials the opportunity to present their support of the craft beverage industry as matter of statewide economic benefit.
“Alabama as a whole is interested in temperance over all,” said Alexander, “but we are also very interested in supporting this growing industry and that is our future.”
That future could be a bit easier for Alabama to navigate thanks to the road maps laid out by states considered pioneers of the craft beer movement.
“By seeing what the other states did, we were able to cherry pick the best practices for the state of Alabama for the three tier distribution system – benefiting all parties as partners,” Alexander said.
Alabama could end an industry leader in its own right – showing both Georgia and Mississippi that it is possible to change state regulations with the collective support of all three tiers, Roberts hopes — if it passes.
“In the Deep South it’s kinda hard to get anything done, interests are very entrenched,” he said. “I know they got quite a battle ahead of them in Georgia and Mississippi, but you know, we all support each other, and I really hope that with the passage of this bill that Georgia and Mississippi can point to [Alabama] and say ‘Hey, why can’t we get this? It’s not some crazy thing we’re asking for.’ It’s not just something for us but hopefully something for every state exploring best practices.”
While Alabama’s approach to the changes could map a pathway for similar progress in other states, Dan Roberts says the work is far from over.
“This is a significant step forward, but also a careful step forward,” he said. “I don’t wanna say we’re done for the rest of all time, I think it’s gonna satisfy us for a very long time.”
The Alabama Law Institute could not confirm the state of the bill at press time. Roberts, who has seen early language of the bill, felt confident it would be voted on this year.
“I have every confidence that it will be completed in time, they probably plan on dropping it February 2,” he said.
State lawmakers will return to Montgomery next week for the start of the legislature’s regular session.