Alabama’s beer laws have been changing fast, but not fast enough for people who want to make beer themselves — or those who want to sell them the stuff to do it.
Count the folks at Hop City in the latter category.
Kraig Torres, who’s run a store by that name in Atlanta since 2009, planned to open a Birmingham location this week. On offer in the 5,500-square-foot shop on Third Avenue South: 1,200 varieties of bottled beer in all styles, fine wines, and draft beer for sampling on-site and to go in quart- and half-gallon-size bottles called growlers.
Not on the shelves in Birmingham: fermentation buckets, glass carboys, immersion chillers, instruction books, hops, malted barley nor yeast.
Agents from the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board took some of those materials from the store Thursday after finding them on an inspection Wednesday required to get a license to sell beer and wine, according to David Peacock, an attorney with the ABC’s enforcement division. The agency required Torres to remove the rest from the site, he said.
Homebrewing is illegal in Alabama, though it’s a hobby pursued with a passion by an estimated 1 million enthusiasts across the country, according to the American Homebrewers Association. It’s legal in 48 other states; Mississippi’s the other one where it’s against the law.
Owning or selling plastic buckets, glass jugs, copper tubes, barley and hops isn’t necessarily illegal, according to Peacock. All of those can be normal “household items,” he said.
“When you take them all together … they become something else,” Peacock said.
Having all those things in one place with the intent to brew beer is against the law, he said. He pointed to a state law which says having or selling the stuff for “manufacturing any prohibited liquors or beverages” is a felony.
That means it’s a serious crime, punishable by no less than a year in prison.
Peacock said once the materials were removed from Hop City’s Birmingham location, the matter was cleared up, and that it won’t hurt the company’s license application. It’s expected Torres will get the license early next week.
Torres is keen to avoid arguing with the ABC’s version of events, but he’d believed there’d be no problem.
“This component of our business, we were always up front about it,” he said Friday afternoon. “The fact they decided to make an issue of it most certainly was a surprise.”
Peacock, meanwhile, said that Torres had been warned in advance that the materials couldn’t be sold.
Torres points out that other homebrew supply stores in Alabama stock and sell all the same items. Peacock, asked about other such stores, didn’t address the issue directly. Other Alabama stores that sell homebrewing supplies apparently don’t also sell commercially brewed beer, and therefore wouldn’t need an ABC license, meaning enforcement agents wouldn’t have had a reason to visit the stores.
Peacock said he was not aware of the agency taking action against individual hobby homebrewers. He had words of caution, however.
“If it’s not legal, it’s not legal.”
Torres says he’s spent $600,000 getting the Birmingham location ready. He now expects it to open sometime next week.
In addition to the bottled beers, which Torres said will include every variety of beer available for sale in the state, there will be 60 draft taps for samples and filling growlers. Torres plans to host tasting events, as well.
It seems clear that there’s a market for the products Hop City wants to sell.
The changes in Alabama’s beer laws began in 2009, when the grassroots group Free the Hops succeeded in a years-long effort to get the state Legislature to allow beer that’s more than 6 percent alcohol by volume to be sold here. Since then, the group has won changes loosening restrictions on breweries and allowing the sale of the 22-ounce and 750-milliliter bottles favored by many craft brewers.
In the wake of those changes, craft brewing has taken off in Alabama, with as many as nine breweries operating in the state now, where there were none just a few years before.
“We’re really excited about the craft beer scene,” Torres said. ‘With the explosion of new breweries in Alabama, we think the market is ready for” a store like his, he said.
The plan is to have a staff that welcomes questions from people who are learning about the diversity and complexity of craft beer.
“We felt like there’s a hole in the retail scene for experienced beer people,” Torres said.
Gone from the plan for now is serving those who want to make beer themselves. Torres said sales of homebrewing equipment and supplies at the Atlanta store account for about 15 percent of Hop City’s business. He’d hoped for a similar ratio here.
The Birmingham store employs eight people now, and Torres hopes that will match Hop City’s workforce of 12 in Atlanta once it gets up to speed.
He said public support in the wake of ABC’s actions has been a boost.
“It’s great that the citizens of Alabama have expressed the outrage they did” over the incident, he said. “We can’t thank people enough for that.”
Right to Brew, a grassroots movement similar to the one that’s changed other Alabama beer laws came close to getting lawmakers to legalize homebrewing this spring. House Bill 354 passed the House of Representatives and was awaiting final passage by the Senate when the Legislature’s session ended in May.
Brant Warren, a Huntsville-area resident who’s one of the organizers of the legalization effort, framed the issue in business terms when asked about Hop City’s troubles.
“The legalization of homebrewing in Alabama will prevent such serious problems to small businesses from happening,” Warren wrote in an email Friday. “It is one of the major reasons driving so many citizens across the state to work with their representatives to change the law.”
Free the Hops echoed that in a statement the group issued Friday in the wake of Hop City’s difficulty.
“This issue doesn’t just matter to homebrewers,” the statement read, “it matters to small businesses who will lose out on revenue they could otherwise be making off equipment and ingredients for making beer and wine. And it matters to the future of local breweries in our state because most craft brewers start out homebrewing.”