Craft’s Trending Eastward

Written by Peter Teske for lagniappemobile.com

Could they make Fat Tire in Alabama?
As I write this the Brewery Modernization Act has been placed on the post-redistricting break legislative calendar in Montgomery for the Tuesday before our publication.

Everyone I’ve spoken with in the craft beer industry seems optimistic about its passage. Needless to say — knock on wood, throw some salt over your shoulder, say your prayers, etc. — it will be, and may already have been, a great day for Alabama when it passes!

But an emerging trend on the national beer scene could put select privileged and underdeveloped (beer-wise) Southeastern states in quite a fortunate position. And in order for Alabama to have a seat at this table of opportunity — instead of only a looking-on spot in the corner of the room with binoculars — it would require further relaxation of our state’s beer laws.

The following isn’t meant to be a criticism of Free The Hops’ efforts thus far in changing beer laws in our state. They’ve done an excellent job — absolutely fan-freaking-tastic, to say the least, really. The point of this column is only to say we can’t be caught celebrating our victories for too long! I’m sure they already know that.

Here it goes: Two of the bigger craft beer companies in the U.S. — California’s Sierra Nevada and Colorado’s New Belgium Brewing Company — are in pursuit of eastern branch breweries/offices.

Sierra Nevada has reportedly looked into spots in Pennsylvannia, Tennessee and a couple other states. New Belgium, makers of Fat Tire, a beer with a serious cult following here, even though it’s not offered in this state, has merely said they’re looking and plan to have a decision made about expansion before the end of 2011.

There are reasons aplenty for the expansions. Both breweries are very well known for being highly environmentally conscious and establishing eastern headquarters would allow for less fuel consumption in the puzzle that is brewer-to-distributor transport.

Secondly, if you haven’t noticed, the craft beer industry is booming. But that doesn’t mean they have anything more than a miniscule market share at this point. The ultimate goal set by The Brewer’s Association is to reach 10 percent of overall beer sales in the U.S. These expansions would be a major step toward that achieving that goal.

Sierra Nevada’s future eastern location may add up to as much as a $70-$75 million investment. It’s too early to get an idea for New Belgium, but judging by stories of other craft brewing outfits slinging serious amounts of money, we’re missing out, my Bama brethren.

Even with the enormous strides being made in legislative matters, Alabama struggles to be part of the conversation when companies grossing millions are considering a foray eastward.

Here’s a simple rundown of the remaining major issues that stand in our way — and might for another year, at least.

A few remaining issues

Bottle size restrictions are really an easy one to beat like a dead horse. Both Sierra Nevada and New Belgium — and most other breweries large enough to expand with an auxiliary brewing facility — are putting some of their specialty products in 22 oz. or 24 oz. bombers. In case you’re as good at math as I am, that’s 6 or 8 oz. more than currently allowable for sale here in the Yellowhammer state. Theses outfits likely won’t consider a relocation in a state where they can’t sell their full product line.

FTH already has the Gourmet Bottle Bill put together. Although it remained quiet this year, expect a little added emphasis on passage next year.

An alcohol-by-volume limitation also still exists, keeping the sale of only beers under 13.9 percent allowable for legal sale.

This isn’t the biggest deal in the world, but would certainly help to have out of the way for those wishing to do their “thang.”

The good news

 
That’s right, folks. It’s not all bad.

If and when the BMA passes, breweries like the ones we’re discussing currently will be able to look at big plots of land, hire architects to render drawings of what their brand new facility could look like and build, baby build! No more historic building requirements for breweries!

Although we won’t be able to say the same for brewpubs — they still have to find old buildings to brew in — this is a major breakthrough for the business side of things.
Also, pending BMA passage, prospective Bama breweries will be able to have on-site tasting rooms, which opens the door to the world of brewery tours. More money-making capability has got to be considered more of an incentive!

The verdict

 
There’s still time. And there are also other issues. But these specific companies are just now announcing plans to move eastward. And they’re the first in what could be a long line! There are actually far more mid-sized breweries that could be in this spot five years from now. We’d be smart to prepare ourselves legislatively.

Hell, we — by we, I mean contact your legislators — might even think about putting together some thoughts on beer production related incentives to herd a company or two in to our wonderfully backwards state!

Of course, the best and most organized way to accomplish this is to get involved with FTH.

A good model to look at would be that of North Carolina, for those who are interested. Asheville is a community smaller than Mobile and over the past three years has earned the title of “Beer City USA” in a poll put together by one of the most respected names in craft and home brewing, Mr. Charlie Papazian.

At last count, the town of roughly 80,000 sported roughly 11 breweries — 11!
If we could have 11 in the entire state of Alabama within five years, that’d be a major accomplishment.