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In Bible Belt, brewing is a battle

Alabama beer lovers want to end curbs on making and drinking their beverage of choice. But Southern Baptists are having their say.

March 10, 2008|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

HARVEST, ALA. — Two dozen guys are crowded into a basement, talking loudly over Triscuits, when Scott Oberman breaks the law.

In defiance of Alabama Criminal Code 28-4-20, he pours his buddy a beer.

"John Tipton's Chocolate Porter," he announces. It's a dark brown beer, almost black, with a taste that starts out astringent, like cheap red wine, then mellows into a silky chocolate flavor, with fleeting notes of coffee and cinnamon.

Tipton, a big-bellied mechanical engineer, brewed it at home, for fun. That's illegal in Alabama. He estimates the beer is about 8% alcohol by volume. That's illegal, too.

But it won't be for long, if the guys in the basement get their way.

Seventy-five years after Prohibition, beer aficionados in Alabama are fighting for the right to brew and chug as they please. That's raised the ire of Southern Baptists, who frown on alcohol in any form. As they jockey for advantage in the Legislature, one side quotes Scripture. The other cites One talks morality. The other, malt.

Though this may seem like an only-in-the-Bible-Belt brawl, booze-related debates have flared recently in a number of states.

In Virginia, for instance, sangria was the talk of the statehouse after a Spanish restaurant was cited for illegally mixing brandy with wine, in violation of a 1930s-era statute. Idaho lawmakers may soon amend the criminal code to permit vodka sales on election days. And in Colorado, lawmakers have considered rescinding a law that bans supermarkets (but not liquor stores) from selling wine with more than 3.2% alcohol content.

Here in Alabama, home-brewing beer has long been a Class A misdemeanor, with a penalty of up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine. It's another Class A misdemeanor to sell or distribute any beer with more than 6% alcohol content. That puts off-limits 85 of the 100 top-rated beers in the world, as ranked by "They think everyone down here is a bunch of damn rednecks and all we drink is Budweiser," grumbles Tipton, 48.

Whole categories of beer can't be sold in Alabama (except on federal military bases, where the state law doesn't apply). Among the forbidden brews: thick, dark Russian stouts, smoky Scottish ales, bittersweet barleywines and the legendary beers made by Belgium's Trappist monks.

What's left?

Not much that Oberman and his friends would want to drink.

So as they wait for their legislative lobbying to bear fruit, they gather monthly for illicit tasting sessions, where they pass around up to a dozen home brews to critique. At the moment, they're sampling a murky-looking concoction billed as an Imperial Stout and served from a 2-liter bottle that once contained Diet Mountain Dew.

"It's clean, it's nice, but it's not big or bold enough," says Todd Swearingen, 41.

Adam Arnett, 42, takes a small sip from a shot glass, savoring the flavors before swallowing. "Doesn't punch you in the face," he says. They pour the rest of the stout into a large plastic garbage can and move on to the next offering.

Oberman's basement, lit by a bare bulb dangling from the ceiling insulation, is loud and warm; not surprisingly, it smells like a brewery. Jim Trollinger, 46, a big man with a wild beard, takes in the scene with a grin. "This is all an exercise in civil disobedience," he says proudly.

In fact, Alabama authorities rarely prosecute anyone for home-brewing, or for possessing beer with more than 6% alcohol content.

By law, residents may enjoy such beers only if they order them shipped from an out-of-state vendor to a government warehouse, run by the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. They can pick up the shipment after paying taxes and certifying that the beers are exclusively for their personal use.

Few drinkers trouble with that bureaucracy.

Brew crusaders, banded together in a group called Free the Hops, admit to driving up to four hours each way on beer runs to Tennessee or Georgia. Some bring back as much as $500 worth of booze every few months. On this evening, Oberman plans to raffle a dozen smuggled beers, including a Sierra Nevada Bigfoot ale, a Belgian Lambic infused with raspberries and a microbrew, Nugget Nectar.

"What's done in a private home often goes undiscovered," says John Richardson, assistant administrator of the alcohol control board. "You can imagine how confusing it is trying to enforce this."

California does not impose special restrictions on beer sales. But across the South, many states have long tried to keep out high-alcohol beer. Those laws were overturned in South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia in recent years. This year, campaigns are underway here and in West Virginia and Mississippi.

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