On Friday, Alabama will officially kick off its bicentennial celebration, a three-year-long party leading up to Dec. 14, 2019, the 200th anniversary of the day that Alabama officially became a state.
How better to mark this historic event than with beer?
The Alabama Brewers Guild, in cooperation with the Alabama Bicentennial Commission, has enlisted breweries from across fair Alabama to concoct a series of bicentennial beers, each honoring one of the state’s five capitals. They are being released, one a year, until 2019. This year’s beer, Mulberry Road, honors Alabama’s first permanent capital at Old Cahawba.
What a dandy idea.
I like beer.
Or at least I have since 1971.
I was not much of a beer drinker until that year when, at an Episcopal softball team pre-game chili-dog supper ("Holy Hitters" we were), I pressed a cold one to my lips, the scales fell from my eyes and I saw the light.
But that’s another story for another time.
St. Stephens: A ‘wild and savage’ town
The first beer in the State Capitals series was St. Stephens Stout, released in 2015 to pay homage to Alabama’s territorial capital, which today is a lovely state park on the Tombigbee River.
It is a pity that the beer was not available back when St. Stephens was a bustling town, for it would have likely added a bit of refinement to a place whose citizens were described as an "illiterate, wild and savage" bunch, a people "of depraved morals, unworthy of public confidence or private esteems."
Certainly not beer drinkers.
Fortunately, the town also attracted men like Harry Toulmin, an educated (at least literate) Scottish freethinker, who said he came to St. Stephens because it was "so far from civilization that he would be safe from Presbyterians."
Toulmin strikes me as the sort of fellow who would enjoy sitting with friends and discussing predestination and infant damnation over a beer, rather than consorting with "depraved" folks who drank themselves drunk on rotgut whiskey that they called, with a fine feeling for words, "busthead."
Yes, St. Stephens Stout would have been Toulmin’s drink.
At St. Stephens, however, they would have had to bring it in from somewhere else.
Huntsville, on the other hand, brewed its own beer.
Huntsville: Home of Alabama’s first brewery
A far more populous and progressive place than St. Stephens, Huntsville was where the convention met in 1819 to draw up a constitution for what was by then the "state" of Alabama, and where the first session of the state legislature was called to order. Huntsville was also the location of Alabama’s first brewery, which was opened that same year by James and William Badlun.
Although I can’t prove it, I am sure that holding the convention in a town where beer was brewed was not coincidental. Nor can I prove, but I do believe, that ready access to beer influenced the writing of what has been judged to have been one of the most "liberal" state constitutions of the time. Unlike the one under which we are currently governed, that first one actually allowed, indeed encouraged, poor folks to vote.
OK, poor "men," and white, but it was a step in the right direction.
So it is right and proper that the second State Capitals beer in 2016 was Badlun Brothers Imperial Porter, which is described as "a modern take on a traditional porter recipe."
(Some porter is so dark and thick that, as a porter-lover once told me, "you have to choose between the eating and the drinking of it.")
Cahawba: Streets lined with mulberry trees
Huntsville was not meant to be the "permanent" state capital. A committee of the territorial legislature recommended Tuscaloosa, but William Wyatt Bibb, the state’s first governor, would have none of it.
Bibb and a powerful coalition of planter interests favored a spot at the confluence of the Cahaba and Alabama rivers, where they felt they could make their fortunes in Black Belt real estate, Black Belt cotton and government largess. So Cahawba became the capital.
(Variations in spelling — Cahawba vs. Cahaba — were as common then as they are now.)
Of course, in Alabama, "permanent" is defined as the time between when permanence is declared and when it is repealed, so Cahawba’s time in the capital spotlight was short.
But for six years, Cahawba was the place to be, at least if government was your business. Unfortunately for the city, if you had other business to conduct, it was more profitable to conduct it upriver at Selma, which would eventually replace Cahawba as "The Queen City of the Black Belt" — though not as the capital.
If Selma had become the seat of government, the guild might be brewing Samuel Bogle’s Beer. Bogle was a hotel proprietor whose "assembly room" was the social center of a town whose city fathers were known to do the city’s business before they "adjourned to take a drink."
But until Selma came into its own, Cahawba flourished. So, what would be this year’s beer for this Alabama capital?
Birmingham’s Cahaba Brewing Company took inspiration from the mulberry trees that lined Cahawba’s streets and, with input from other Alabama craft brewers, created Mulberry Road. The beer is being distributed statewide. A portion of the proceeds from its sale will go to preserving the Old Cahawba historical site.
Drink up. It is for a good cause.
Tasting the bicentennial beers
The 2018 beer will honor Tuscaloosa, which launched a "fake news" campaign and snatched the capital from Cahawba. The 2019 beer will pay homage to Montgomery, where you were more likely to find "mystery whiskey" than beer in legislators’ hotel rooms.
I enlisted my son, Will Jackson, an Auburn graduate and beer aficionado (a fancy word for "snob"), to help me with a sampling of the three bicentennial beers released so far.
We concluded (drum roll please) that they are all good.
My favorite was Mulberry Road, but I tend to lean toward lighter beers.
The boy was more discriminating and drew distinctions I did not grasp. He judged the St. Stephens Stout to be among the best of the stouts. He added that Badlum Brothers Imperial Porter could hold its own at any gathering he had ever attended. (I did not ask for a list of the gatherings. There are some things a father does not need to know.)
We declared this first round of State Capitals beers a roaring success and sufficient to satisfy our beer cravings until the next round is on the shelves.
Harvey H. "Hardy" Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.