Beer Brawl

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Go to any state capital after a long day of work and you’ll find lawmakers mingling over drinks. But in Alabama, depending on what you drink, it could be illegal. It certainly is here, at a recent beer tasting in Montgomery. Buckets of ice cradle beer made by Trappist monks in Belgium, as well as microbrews from Georgia, Delaware and Colorado. Much of it is well above the 6% alcohol limit for beer in Alabama. Just a handful of states – including Mississippi and West Virginia – have such restrictive laws. In Alabama, violators face a thousand dollar fine and up to a year in jail.

“I don’t know… think they gonna arrest us? I would hope that nobody breaks in the door in here and arrests anyone!”

It would be pretty embarrassing, considering the man sipping a glass of illegal Dogfish Head beer is State Representative Johnny Morrow.

“One thing I notice, it’s more, uh, penetrating to my pallet! It has a real taste, a gusto, I guess.”

A bill in the Alabama legislature would more than double the allowable alcohol content in beer and open a new market to consumers like Stuart Carter, president of the advocacy group Free the Hops.

“To people in Alabama it looks like there’s a huge range of beers in the store already. They’re saying wow – there’s 300 beers. From my perspective, being someone who came into Alabama more recently, you can tell from the accent I’m originally from Scotland, I see 300 beers and think – where’s the beer?”

That’s too many for Dan Ireland. If he had his way, he’d roll back the clock to January 16th, 1920 – the day the 18th Amendment – Prohibition, went into effect.

“I’m a total abstainer. I’m 78 years old and I never tasted an alcoholic beverage. I just don’t think there’s any good quality about an alcoholic beverage.”

The former Baptist minister is honorary chaplain of the Alabama legislature and is lobbying to defeat the bill.

“My major concern is that this would be an inducement to teenagers, underage drinkers, to get their hands on it. You know, technically speaking, one beer, that much alcohol could conceivably get an average teenager drunk.”

Back at the beer tasting, Representative Patricia Todd, who’s nursing a Diet Coke, she doesn’t like beer – dismisses Ireland’s argument.

“I know when I was a teenager and we were looking for alcohol we were looking for the cheapest thing possible. Teenagers aren’t going to be drinking this.”

Gourmet beer can cost $15 or more a bottle. Last year, the craft beer market grew by double digits, with sales of more than $5.5 billion. Supporters of Alabama’s bill say it’s a matter of economic development. As the state looks to lure more foreign auto companies and manufacturers like German steel giant Thyssen Krupp, it has to offer a welcoming cultural and social climate.

The legislation narrowly passed the Alabama house, but is stalled in the Senate. Dan Ireland isn’t pinning all his tolerance hopes on Alabama. As leader of the American Council on Alcohol Problems he’s pushing anti-alcohol legislation in 37 states.