If you’ve savored one of Alabama’s craft beers, you have, in part, Free the Hops to thank. After nearly a decade of successful legislation to remove the state’s strict beer laws, Free the Hops (FTH) is transitioning to an educational outreach organization.
FTH has been behind efforts to allow such changes as increasing in alcohol by volume (from 6 percent to 13.9 percent) in beer, allowing Alabamians to buy beer more than 16.9 fluid ounces, and enabling breweries to have tap rooms, among other changes. As a result of FTH’s advocacy, a flood of beers from outside the state are now being sold in Alabama, and local craft beer enthusiasts can enjoy their brew in the comfort of their local brewery.
Now that the hops are indeed free, the statewide grassroots organization plans a shift in direction — more focus on festivals that celebrate craft beer and educational outreach.
“We’re focusing on how to make Alabamians appreciate craft beer like they appreciate wine,” said Gabe Harris, President of FTH.
Part of the reason for FTH’s shift in focus is the autonomy that the breweries have gained from the beer restrictions being lifted.
“This started as a consumer-driver revolution, but now the breweries, through the Alabama Brewers Guild, are taking the lead on legislative gains,” explained Harris. “We understand the need to transition to the Brewers Guild because those in the guild are the ones investing money into these breweries, and they need to take control of their own futures.”
But that doesn’t mean that FTH is going away. FTH, which Harris described as “just a bunch of guys who love craft beer,” will work primarily in keeping the public interested and engaged in the craft brew scene.
FTH is responsible for bringing the highly anticipated Magic City Brewfest and Fall FestivAle to Birmingham every year, and they plan to expand similar festivals to Montgomery and Mobile. Additionally, there will be beer dinners, where FTH chooses the restaurant and complementary beer choices.
“We like to get people in front of a lot of different beers at once so they can try new things. For some people, Brewfest and FestivAle are their first exposure to craft beer, so having options lets them figure out which ones they really like,” Harris said.
Furthermore, the group will begin offering their expertise to restaurants, where FTH members teach staff the ins and outs of serving craft beer.
“Some places are into craft beer, but may not know the intricacies, like knowing that you don’t serve beer in a frozen mug or understanding how certain glassware shapes affect the taste of the beer,” Harris explained.
Most importantly, FTH will be around to ensure that the progress they have worked nearly a decade to achieve can’t be repealed. “If someone tries to undo what we’ve done or do something that’s not beneficial to Alabama breweries, we’ll step in,” said Harris.
It only takes a walk down the beer aisle at your local grocery store or a visit to bars like Hop City, World of Beer and the J. Clyde, which sell a wide variety of brews, to get an idea about how far Alabama has come in beer legislation.
“Every month there’s a new out-of-state brewery that wants to sell its beer in Alabama. That’s a big deal to us, because breweries can only brew so much, and they’re choosing to sell in Alabama over some other places,” Harris said.
The economic impact that beer sales and craft breweries have had on Birmingham and other areas in the state where craft beer has a presence is unmistakable. Birmingham’s craft breweries are a force in revitalization efforts in downtown — whether it be Good People Brewing Company alongside Railroad Park and Regions Field or the blossoming Avondale business district with several locally owned outfits, including Saw’s Soul Kitchen, Freshfully and 41st Street Pub & Aircraft Sales alongside Avondale Brewing Company.
“Alabama has one of the three highest beer taxes in the country, so more beer brewed means more revenue. The bills FTH proposed started with an appeal to the economic and tourism side of Montgomery,” Harris said. “Craft beer draws people. They come for the beer and stay for the businesses that opened around the brewery.”
The next FTH event will be the third annual Fall FestivAle, which will feature 50 to 60 beers from 25 different breweries. Fall FestivAle differs from Brewfest in that it’s a smaller event (only 750 tickets available) and the sample glass is 6 ounces, which allows for heftier pours than those at Brewfest. Since Fall FestivAle is a themed event, there is emphasis on fall seasonal brews.
All the Birmingham breweries will be represented at Fall FestivAle, and there will be a number of non-Birmingham breweries that will debut beers in the city. In addition to the beloved favorites, Alabama’s Rocket Republic, Fairhope Brewing and Brew Stooges will premiere in the Magic City. Additionally, the Right to Brew series, which celebrates the freer beer legislation in Alabama, will be available in the form of a pumpkin cream stout by Cahaba Brewing Company.