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Alabama Beer Drinkers Fight for Stronger Brews

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Alabama Beer Drinkers Fight for Stronger Brews

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Alabama Beer Drinkers Fight for Stronger Brews

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Seventy five years after Congress repealed prohibition, lawmakers are still arguing over the sale of alcohol. In Colorado, they have been talking about limiting the alcohol content of wine. Virginia legislators have spent a lot of time debating the state's sangria ban. And in Alabama, the buckle of the Bible Belt, the fight is over beer.

As Tanya Ott reports from member station WBHM.

TANYA OTT: Go to any state capital after a long day of work and you will 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.

(Soundbite of beer bottles put in ice)

OTT: 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 percent 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 $1,000 fine and up to a year in jail.

State Representative JOHNNY MORROW (Democrat, Alabama): I don't know that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

State Rep. MORROW: Do you think they're going to arrest us? I would hope that nobody breaks in the door in there and arrest anyone.

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

State Rep. MORROW: One thing I noticed, it's more - it's like penetrating to my palate.

(Soundbite of laughter)

State Rep. MORROW: If isn't real taste - a gusto, I guess.

OTT: 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.

Mr. STUART CARTER (President, Free the Hops): To people in Alabama, it looks like there's a huge range of beers in the stores already. They're saying, wow, there's 300 beers. You can tell from the accent that I'm originally from Scotland. I see 300 beers and think, Where's the beer?

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

Mr. DAN IRELAND (Honorary Chaplain, Alabama Legislature; Executive Director, American Council on Alcohol Problems): 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.

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

Mr. IRELAND: My major concern is that this would be an inducement to teenagers and underage drinkers, to get their hands on it. One beer, with that much alcohol, could conceivably get an average teenager drunk.

Unidentified Man: Okay, well, we've got to brew it now. That's a really, really old-style beer. It's actually…

OTT: Back at the beer tasting, Representative Patricia Todd, who is nursing a Diet Coke - she doesn't like beer - dismisses Ireland's argument.

State Representative PATRICIA TODD (Democrat, Alabama): 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.

OTT: Gourmet beer can cost $15 or more a bottle. Last year, the craft beer market grew by double digits with sales of more than $5.56/ 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, ThyssenKrupp, it has to offer a welcoming cultural and social climate.

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

From NPR News, I'm Tanya Ott in Birmingham, Alabama.

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