Twelve days ago, patrons began sampling the first pints of Donahue’s Patriot Joe’s Ales. He has teamed with Heroes’ Marc and Sharon Spaulding, owners of the popular Weaver restaurant, to serve beer brewed at the eatery and bar.
It was likely the first Calhoun County-brewed beer sold here since Prohibition-era laws banned the sale of alcohol.
On Friday night, after the kegs had been flowing for a week, Patriot Joe’s held a grand opening celebration. As he spoke to customers, Donahue’s beard framed an irrepressible smile.
“What do you think,” Donahue asked as he stopped by a table where four diners were deep into their first pints. As if in answer, the customers soon ordered another round, each trying a different ale than they’d already quaffed from among the three on offer: a bright and bitter India pale ale, a crisp hefeweizen and a dark-and-sweet raspberry-chocolate porter.
The Patriot Joe’s-Heroes team-up is the first local ripple in a wave of beer change that began sweeping the country in the 1980s. That’s when small breweries out west started making what is now known as “craft beer,” basically alternatives to the mass-produced lagers offered by Budweiser, Miller and Coors.
The beer-drinking public, apparently thirsty for flavors not available from the country’s mega-breweries, has been lapping it up ever since. The Brewers Association, an industry trade group, says there were eight craft breweries operating in the United States in 1980; in 2010, there were more than 1,600.
Beer fans now can enjoy scores of different styles and sub-styles of their favorite beverage made all over the country by brewers who enjoy everything from strict traditionalism to wild experiments. For Alabama drinkers, however, “craft beer” long meant “beer from somewhere else.”
The state of local beer
Alabama’s beer laws have long been among the strictest in the country, limiting what could be sold or brewed here. That started changing fast in 2009, after the grassroots group Free the Hops won a years-long battle to raise the state’s limit on the amount of alcohol allowed in beer. Lawmakers raised that limit from 6 percent to 13.9 percent alcohol by volume (wine typically is between 12 and 15 percent alcohol by volume), increasing the range of available beer styles.
Alabama beer has been booming ever since. When the law passed, there were two craft breweries making beer in Alabama, according to Dan Roberts, executive director of the Alabama Brewers Guild, an industry trade association. Today there are at least nine, and Roberts says more are planned.
Gadsden’s Back Forty Beer cut the ribbon on its downtown brewery in January after initially having a Mississippi craft brewer produce its recipes.
Jason Wilson, Back Forty’s founder and president, says that localism and sustainability — familiar concepts to foodies — are important to craft beer brewers and drinkers. He says those concepts are also built into Southern culture.
“That’s been a way of life here in the South for a long time, but it was done out of necessity,” Wilson said. “Sustainability? How about if you don’t take care of your farm, your family doesn’t eat the next year? That’s sustainable.”
Roberts said that besides the flavors offered by craft brewers, the appeal of having something brewed nearby is a draw for many drinkers.
“It’s basically your neighbors,” he said. “Of course, you’ve got to have a quality product. It works because that’s what people want, that’s what people are interested in.”
Wilson, who also is vice president of the Alabama Brewers Guild, said he gets at least one phone call per week from someone interested in opening a new brewery in Alabama. He and Roberts believe there is room for plenty of other players in the state beer market. In the three years Back Forty has been selling beer, Wilson said, the company has seen triple-digit percentage increases in sales. Customers are buying the beer as fast as Back Forty and the state’s other breweries can make it, he said.
“We don’t even know what the ceiling for this really is. There’s no single source of beer in Alabama that can meet the demand,” Wilson said. So, he doesn’t mind providing guidance and advice to new brewers, as he did with Donahue. “We’re all running out of beer every month.”
Roberts and Wilson said it’s feasible to imagine 30 to 40 breweries operating in Alabama in the not-distant future. Wilson predicted that soon “every town in Alabama” would have its own local brewery or brewpub.
In 2011, lawmakers passed another beer measure, the Brewery Modernization Act. Among other changes, that law eased restrictions on brewpubs, restaurants that serve beer brewed in-house. Patriot Joe’s is the first venture of its kind in the state to take advantage of the new law, Roberts said.
From hobby to business
Donahue said he’s been passionate about brewing since trying the beer at an Atlanta-area brewpub eight or nine years ago. When he got home, he immediately began learning how to make his own beer.
“My only frame of reference was how they said they did it on ‘The Drew Carey Show,’” he said. “I found out it wasn’t quite as easy as they made it look on the TV.”
Donahue brewed his own creations at home for years, a hobby he shares with about 1 million other Americans, according to the American Homebrewers Association.
He’s been hoping to open a brewpub for years, and jumped at the chance when the new law made it easier. He knew he couldn’t afford to start both a restaurant and brewery from scratch, as most brewpub owners do, so he talked to existing restaurateurs.
He found perhaps the perfect partners in the Spauldings. Marc spent much of his life in Colorado, known for its many craft breweries, and once looked into opening a brewpub of his own here; he scrapped that idea when he learned of the old restrictions. Heroes, which he and Sharon opened in 2009, already had a commitment to quality beer, with 34 tap handles, most devoted to craft labels.
Donahue approached the Spauldings in November.
“I said, ‘Yeah, I like that,’” Marc says he told Donahue.
The restaurant building had some unused space, and before long Donahue set out to transform it into a brewery. The change wasn’t cheap. Donahue said he poured about $50,000 into equipment, licensing requirements and initial operating costs. He worked for months to satisfy the requirements of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, the Weaver City Council, fire marshals and the Health Department. As soon as he got the final OK in late July, he tapped the first kegs.
Patriot Joe’s Huey Hefeweizen, a traditional German style of beer made with wheat in addition to the usual malted barley, has been the top seller at Heroes so far, Donahue says, closely followed by the Hop Brigade India Pale, a bracingly bitter style favored by many craft beer fans.
Not everything has gone according to plan. Donahue said a variety he dubbed Independence Ale, expected to be a smooth-drinking session ale, didn’t turn out as well as he’d hoped, and it’s not on the menu. But Donahue hopes that as customers become more aware that locally brewed beer is available in Weaver, they’ll drop in to check it out.
Having other Alabama-brewed beers for sale alongside his and available for retail sale in grocery stores can only help, he said.
“It’s made people realize that hey, there are breweries in Alabama, and they’re more likely to go out and look at something that’s brewed locally,” he said.
Metro Editor Ben Cunningham: 256-235-3541. On Twitter @Cunningham_Star.
• Avondale Brewing — Birmingham
• Back Forty Beer — Gadsden
• Beer Engineers — Birmingham
• Blue Pants Brewery — Huntsville
• Cahaba Brewing — Birmingham
• Good People Brewing — Birmingham
• Old Black Bear Brewing — Huntsville
• Patriot Joe’s/Heroes — Weaver
• Straight to Ale — Huntsville
• Yellowhammer Brewing — Huntsville
— Source: Alabama Brewers Guild, Free the Hops