Today’s selection, however, has beer lovers and their taste buds going around in circles.
From walls of taps that pour from amber to opaque, to shelves and catalogs filled with various suds, today’s choices are the fruits of laborers like Free the Hops, a grassroots lobbying organization based in Birmingham.
In May 2009, Gov. Bob Riley signed off on HB373, also known as the Gourmet Beer Bill, which upped the ABV (alcohol by volume) of beer from 6 percent to 13.9 percent, opening the door not only for high-gravity beers, but everything in between.
Brewers who before wouldn’t bother with Alabama, because only a portion of their product was legal here, are now trickling into the state.
“Alabama is a little untapped craft brew market,” said Anna Shanks, director of operations for Pinnacle Imports, a statewide beer and wine distributor in Birmingham. “When I’m talking to brewers, they almost don’t believe it. And they really don’t believe it until they let us start introducing their beers to the state of Alabama.”
But there’s no difficulty in convincing local merchants and restaurant owners.
On separate ends of the county, a pair of restaurateurs have moved to the forefront of that dining market. Both Mellow Mushroom in Oxford and Heroes: An American Grille in Jacksonville boast more than 30 taps of beer, with recipes that hail from craft brewers in Colorado to Trappist Monks in Belgium.
Mark Spaulding opened Heroes after the gourmet beer law was passed. A self-proclaimed beer drinker from way back, he knew the vast selection was something he wanted for his new endeavor.
“I’ve been to Canada and to Germany,” Spaulding said. “Even when I would go to Taco Mac, I’d see that type of selection and wanted that.”
Spaulding balances the staples — Miller, Budweiser and Coors products — with craft brewers and imports to best serve his audience.
Terry Phillis Sr., general manager of Mellow Mushroom, could care less. Of his 30-plus taps, none are the staples.
“(Regular bars) don’t have the same demographic as I have,” Phillis said. “My customers don’t mind spending $4 or $5 for a good beer. … They come here expecting to spend a reasonable amount for a beer they can’t get anywhere else.”
Heroes is currently offering a beer sampler, which comes with five 3-ounce glasses. Starting near the end of the March, Mellow Mushroom will host beer tastings.
While tastings are more common to the wine crowd, they’re just as critical to their alcoholic cousins. “It’s as important with beer as it is with wine,” Shanks said. “Beer pairs so well with food and cheeses, and it should be paired with food.
“And in general terms, you don’t know what you like unless you taste it.”
As owner of the Wine Cellar store in Anniston, there’s no need to explain that to Terry Paschal. He’s already tapped into the market. He’s had beer tastings going since just after the law was passed.
Paschal offers “a pretty good cross section” of high-gravity and craft beers, numbering around 30.
“It’s just a matter of tasting the beers and letting the people decide,” he said. “It’s the pure quality of it. The alcohol is just a by-product.
“It cost a little more, but you’re not sitting down drinking a six-pack of these. They’re excellent with food, more so than a regular beer.”
Just as the taste for higher ABV beers or hoppy craft brews must grow on an individual, the Alabama market must grow, too.
Approaching the one-year anniversary of the bill’s passage, Alabama’s beer scene is still growing.
According to Free the Hops president Stuart Carter, a perusing of Beer Advocate’s top 100 brews — a constantly moving target like the Billboard music charts— shows that before the bill’s passage, as few as four of those beers were available inside the state. Now, that number exceeds 20.
Distributors say the market is beginning to regulate, and, as it continues to settle, should grow.
“There’s still a huge room for growth,” said Don Hill, a district sales manager with Alabama Crown. “That’s evident when I’ve got convenience stores adding cooler space and bars adding tap handles just to get that stuff in here.”
In downtown Anniston, the Peerless and its partner restaurant, the Peerless Grille, offer more than 40 beers. They just recently added Atlanta-based Sweetwater Blue, a popular ale with overtones of blueberry, to go along with its sister brew, 420.
“We do it all on customer requests,” said Kristy Farmer, co-owner of the Peerless.
With everything, the novelty of the new law caused a stir. While many breweries rushed in on the wave, just as many held back, so as not to get lost in the hustle and bustle.
Breweries like Dogfish Head, New Belgium and Avery Brewing have yet to name distributing partners. But even with those that have named distributors, the hurdle is not completely cleared.
But it’s better than it was.
“Now we have history,” Shanks said.
Bran Strickland is one of The Star’s many responsible beer drinkers. He can be reached at 235-3570.
TWO SIDERS FOR JUMP
Where to sip
-- Heroes: An American Grille restaurant offers 34 beers on tap, from Miller and Coors to craft beers and imports. As of last week, Sweetwater Blue and 420 are on tap. Beer samplers available, with five 3-ounce glasses for $5. Complete beer list available online at www.heroesgrille.com. 8896 McClellan Blvd., Jacksonville, 256-405-4366
-- Mellow Mushroom has more than 30 beers on tap (lineup available at www.mellowmushroom.com). The restaurant will have beer tastings starting March 29. 33 Industrial Drive Extension, Oxford, 256-835-1444.
-- The Wine Cellar retail store offers about 30 high-gravity and craft beers. Owner Terry Paschal offers beer tastings at 5 p.m. Thursdays. 309-A Quintard Ave., Anniston, 256-237-5996.
A sampling of beer styles
Ale - Beer fermented more quickly and at warmer temperatures than lager, with top-fermenting yeast.
Altbier - A copper-colored German ale that originated in Dusseldorf. It is a style that historically preceded lager. Literally, “old beer” in German.
Barleywine - A British-style, very strong ale ranging from 8-10 percent alcohol by volume.
Biere de Garde - A malty, strong French-style ale.
Bitter - A British-style ale with a high hop content.
Bock - A strong, dark German lager, usually brewed for the spring season.
Brown ale - A mild, brown beer, usually low in alcohol.
Cream ale - A sweet, golden American-style beer with a high level of carbonation. Some are fermented with both ale and lager yeasts.
Doppelbock: Literally, “doublebock” in German, this beer is an extra strong version of bock. Traditionally, the names of all doppelbocks end in -ator as in Celebrator (brewed by Ayinger) or Optimator (brewed by Paulaner).
Dunkel - Literally, “dark” in German. Dark beer.
Framboise -A Belgian-style beer made with raspberries.
Hard cider - A fermented beverage made from apples.
Imperial stout - A very strong, hoppy black ale, which originated in Britain as an export to Czarist Russia.
India Pale Ale (IPA) - A very strong, hoppy pale ale, which originated in Britain for export to soldiers in India.
Kriek - A Belgian-style beer made with cherries.
Lager - Beer fermented more slowly and at cooler temperatures than ale, with bottom-fermenting yeast, and which is then aged for a smooth, clean flavor and aroma.
Lambic - A Belgian ale that spontaneously ferments with wild yeast in the air in the brewery. It is distinctive for its sour taste and aroma.
Mead - A fermented beverage made from honey.
Munchener - Literally, “Munich” in German. A dark, spicy lager.
Old Ale - A British-style ale that is medium strong and dark.
Pale Ale - A fruity, milder version of England’s India Pale Ale.
Pilsener/Pilsner/Pils - The most imitated style of lager in the world, it was perfected in 1842 in Pilsen, Bohemia. It is pale in color with an assertive hop aroma and is highly carbonated.
Porter - An English-style dark ale that was stout’s predecessor. It was first brewed for London laborers like porters.
Rauchbier - Literally, “smoke beer” in German. A lager with a strong smoky character popularized in Bamburg. It is brewed with wood-smoked malt.
Saison - A Belgian-style ale that is mildly sour with spices or herbs and which usually is brewed for spring.
Steam Beer - A uniquely American beer that was first introduced in California during the Gold Rush. It is brewed using bottom-fermenting lager yeast at top-fermenting ale temperatures. Anchor Steam beer is the most famous example of this style.
Steinbier - Literally, “stone beer” in German. A lager brewed with hot rocks plunged into the boiling wort to impart a caramelized flavor.
Stout - An English- and Irish-style ale that is opaque black, smooth and creamy. It may be dry or sweet.
Trappist Ale - A strong ale made at one of the last five brewing Trappist monasteries in Belgium and The Netherlands. They are widely regarded as the finest beers in the world.
Weizenbier/Wheat Beer - Literally, “wheat beer” in German. An ale brewed with between 20 and 60 percent wheat that is often served in the summer.
Wit Beer - The Belgian version of wheat beer brewed with coriander and curacao orange peel.