By Kathryn Tuggle
— BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — This weekend Birmingham played host to a sold-out Magic City Brewfest at Sloss Furnace, featuring more than 200 different beers from more than 70 craft breweries around the nation. Although 2013 marked the seventh annual Brewfest, it was the first since homebrew became legal in Alabama, thanks to legislation passed in May.
Because home-brewers in Alabama can now share recipes and bond over their successes and struggles, Brewfest has a renewed "electricity" in the air, said Gabe Harris, president of Free the Hops, the grassroots nonprofit that worked to help pass the homebrew bill.
"It feels great to have home-brew legal in Alabama," Harris said. "Every craft brewer at Brewfest started out as a home-brewer, and everyone is really excited to be here this year."
Because craft brewers across the state feel passionately about spreading the homebrew "gospel," the Home-brew Association set up a tent at Brewfest specifically to educate people about the brewing process.
"We've had tons of people at the tent asking some really intelligent questions," Harris said.
Spencer Overton, homebrew manager at Birmingham brewery and bar Hop City, said Birmingham is now on the "cutting edge" of craft beer.
"As breweries around the state begin to grow, Birmingham is going to become known as a place where beer is part of the culture, like Asheville, North Carolina or Boulder, Colorado."
Overton is the first to admit that his optimism is very new: In September of last year, Hop City was raided by the Alcoholic Beverage Control board shortly after opening its doors. All home-brew equipment was confiscated.
"It wasn't the best way to start out," Overton said. "I was worried the bill would not pass, and I was really worried about my job. I came to Hop City to be the home-brew manager. If home-brew didn't pass, I wasn't sure what I was going to do."
The home-brew bill, sponsored by Rep. Mac McCutcheon, R-Huntsville, allows those 21 or older to make up to 15 gallons of beer, wine, mead or cider every three months for personal use. Until May 9, Alabama was the only state in the U.S. that did not allow home-brew.
Since then, Hop City has seen a 15 percent increase in business thanks to sales of home-brew kits and supplies.
"Trying to operate without that 15 percent for the last 10 months has been a challenge," Overton said. "But now we're teaching home-brew classes on Saturday, and things are booming-- and the sky's the limit for our students."
People learning the ins and outs of home-brew today may well be opening their own breweries in Alabama one day soon, Overton said.
"The beer industry really creates a lot of jobs for this state," he said. "This industry is growing at a time when not many industries are growing."
Overton cited Below the Radar, Blue Pants and Good People as local beer brands that may branch out to become regional -- or even national -- beer brands within a few years thanks to the attention and support Alabama's beer industry has gained in recent months.
Eric Meyer, managing partner at Cahaba Brewing Company, said this is his brewery's second year to attend Brewfest, and he's thrilled that the aspiring home-brewers he meets today won't have to worry about breaking the law to enjoy their craft.
"My business partners and I, we were just three guys who were home-brewers, and yes, we learned our craft illegally," Meyer said. "But we were able to find the equipment and grow. It's wonderful that home-brewers in the state today can be open and honest about their passion."
However, there are still some laws that prevent a complete home-brew educational experience from happening, Overton said.
"We can teach home-brew classes, but we can't have the finished product in the store. We can't put the yeast in and have people taste what they've made."
This prevents home-brew competitions from taking place, as anything homebrewed cannot be sold or distributed for public consumption.
There are also still stringent laws controlling "brewpubs" in Alabama, which are breweries that brew beer on site and also serve food and drink. Brewpubs must be located in a historic or "economically distressed" district in a county that's been wet since before Prohibition, according to the Free the Hops website.
Although the Free the Hops organization hopes both of those restrictions will be removed next year, Overton said he's not complaining right now.
"It's amazing that the home-brew bill was passed and we've already got more people involved than I thought we would," he said.
Today, Overton says when people come to Hop City, he hears a much different tune than he did just one month ago.
"It's great to hear people come in from Georgia or Tennessee and look around the store and say, 'Wow. We don't have anything like this where we're from.'" He says. "For the longest time, it was the other way around."