The United States of Beer: Alabama

The United States of Beer: Alabama

Greetings! Welcome to a new continuing feature of Poor Taste Magazine. There is a lot of fine beer across our fine states and plenty of stories about that beer that have yet to be discovered. That said, we’ll travel from state to state to learn of their beer culture and beer history. First up, since we’ll be traveling alphabetically, the Yellowhammer state, Alabama…

On April 9, 1885 beer arrived in downtown Birmingham. The aptly named Birmingham Brewery, between Avenues D and E and 21st and 22nd streets, began producing lager. The beer was made by a German. His name was Philipp Schillinger. Having organized the Phoenix Brewery in Louisville some years before, he decided to strike out on his own to the boom town of Birmingham. Why not? The city was thriving. That first year he made 8,000 barrels of beer. Birmingham residents had their thirsts quenched, and they wanted more.

And so Schillinger met the demand, expanding his enterprise, making more barrels of beer, changing the name of the brewery to his own name, and supplying local watering holes with his alcohol. He died just as his business was peaking. He had sons. They kept up brewing operations.

Worked long hours, they did. Their pale beers were popular. Their “hofbrau” brand was exceedingly popular. Mugs filled with it would soon be drained. Birmingham residents thirsted for more. Incorporated in Spring 1889 as the Birmingham Brewing Company the market continued to expand. Birmingham’s saloons sold it. Brothels supplied it. Thousands of barrels were wheeled out yearly.

All good things, however, come to an end. Economies rise and fall. Coal miner strikes wreak havoc. Saloon owners try to succeed but if there are no beer drinkers darkening their doors, they close them. The brewery went dormant. But like all good things, there are evolutions, changes, and ways to become better.

By 1905 the newly minted Alabama Brewing Company was pouring out the beer for thirsty residents and pouring in the profits. 40,000 barrels of brew were being made their yearly. They had a staff of over 100 men. Delivers throughout the city were done by two dozen teams of proud men.

Then the government ruined it all for them. The Alabama Legislature, on February 26, 1907, allowed counties to vote on whether or not to go dry. Jefferson County, home of the Alabama Brewing Company, voted to go dry. The company, unable to get rid of their stock before the dry deadline, poured it out into the streets, ruined. Beer loving Birmingham residents lamented it, the elixir draining down dirty culverts.

And then the government made it even more difficult. State Prohibition put a nail in the beer making coffin. The other nail came with a final swift blow with the 21st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in 1933. Decades went by. Several decades went by with no beer in Alabama. Sad, to be sure. Depressing, yes. Unfortunate, an understatement.

It wasn’t until 1992, with the passage of the Brewpub Act, that brewing in Alabama began to take hold again. And it wasn’t until 1995, with a brewpub located in an old rubber warehouse, that Birmingham saw its first brewery again.

That said, Alabama has had to play some catch-up with the U.S. in regards to brew created in the state by state residents. Luckily, they’ve made some in-roads though the laws certainly don’t help their cause. It wasn’t until 2009 that beer with alcohol content greater than 6% was allowed in the state. Home brewing, though allowed federally, is still prohibited in Alabama. Beer can’t be dispensed in containers greater than one pint (except draft and keg beers). Brewpubs must be located in historical buildings. Beer brewed by a brewpub cannot be possessed, sold, or dispensed except on the grounds in which it is brewed. Alabama — strict with how beer can be made, sold, and enjoyed.

That hasn’t stopped everyone from trying, though, to make, sell, and enjoy beer. Alabama is now home to a handful of brewers who take the craft very seriously and seriously enjoy it. Back Forty Beer Company, founded by Jason Wilson and Zach Folmar, with brewmaster Jamie Ray, produced their first beer, Naked Pig Pale Ale, in 2008. The next year, working with Alabama Budweiser, they became Alabama’s only craft brewery with statewide distribution. Now, based in Gadsden, they produce their pale ale as well as a brown ale brewed with honey.

Good People Brewing Company, with humble beginnings in a garage, tinkering with poor equipment, days on their feet, now brewing top-of-the-line beers like Coffee Oatmeal Stout, a Mumbia Rye, an India Pale Ale, and the Love Child, a Begiwiezen, amongst other beers, at their home base in Birmingham.

The Old Towne Brewing Company, in Huntsville, was founded in 2004, the first brewery in that city. Beers like amber ales, pale ales, and hefeweizen is distributed there across northern Alabama.

There are other brewers in the Cotton State. Straight to Ale, in Lincoln Mills, creates English brown ales and Imperial IPAs. Yellowhammer Brewing Company makes Belgian white ales. Blue Pants Brewery, after the founders visited Seattle in 2007 and imbibing in that city’s rich beer culture, decided to take a stab at craft brewing. Since, they’ve developed a “Knickerbocker Red” and a stout as well.

Despite severe restrictions and generations of Alabama being dry, it’s starting to get wet again. Alabamans are discovering that beers are being made by their neighbors, their fellow Alabamans. Beer productivity in the state is small, sure. But within the craft brewing circles of Alabama, there’s a buzz. They’re crafting beers and creating identities for themselves through their products and through their state pride. It’ll be a challenge for them, to be sure, to crack into the business and succeed. Then again, that’s just what Philipp Schillinger had to do over a hundred years ago.