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Ingesting the Opposition - Week 2: Good People Brewing Company

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If the bearded biermeisters of Birmingham's Good People Brewing Company take the field against Mississippi State this Saturday instead of UAB's football team, State may be in trouble. To ensure against this, appease the football gods by imbibing some of Good People's artisan beer.

Courtesy of Good People Brewing

When I decided to analyze each of Mississippi State's games through the lens of the craft breweries and microdistilleries that surround opposing campuses, I hadn't thought much about the geographical peculiarities of this year's schedule. Sure, I'd likely have fewer options some weeks than others. For instance, Arkansas' alcohol industry would undoubtedly be less developed than, say, Kentucky's. But that's sort of the point, right? To find out what our southern brethren were mixing, mashing, and fermenting off the beaten path.

When I finally took a hard look at the schedule, though, something immediately struck me as potentially problematic: four games against schools from Alabama. I of course knew nothing about the state's craft brewing culture at the time, but assumed that finding suitable representatives from around Tuscaloosa, Auburn, Birmingham, and Mobile all in the same season would prove difficult.

After all, Alabama's relationship with booze was only mildly more amiable than Mississippi's. Statewide prohibition existed for a few years before and after the effect of the federal ban. Dozens of counties persist in being "dry." The ABV on beer was capped at 6% until 2009, when a grassroots campaign similar to the one Mississippi experienced a few years later—Alabama's version was called "Free the Hops"—convinced lawmakers to raise it to 13.9%. Breweries couldn't have taprooms until 2011. And even then, high-end and limited-release products were hard to find until 2012, when the state finally allowed the sale of beer in wine-size 750 ml bottles.

So how could I be expected to go back to the well four times in the span of two months? Hell, homebrewing was illegal in Alabama until about a year ago. There certainly couldn't be a booming microbrewing industry in a state where even learning the craft in private was prohibited.

As it would turn out, the Heart of Dixie had MSU covered with room to spare. Despite the long reign of the state's antiquated alcohol laws, Alabama's craft beer industry has expanded at a phenomenal rate. While there were only a few brewers in the state in the mid- to late-2000s braving the waning days of legal limbo, there are now more than 20 craft breweries in Alabama. In fact, the growth of the industry there is unparalleled nationally: from 2011 to 2012, the annual production of craft beer in Alabama increased more than in any other state in the entire country.

It was a few years before this great awakening that our protagonists' story began. Michael Sellers and Jason Malone were just a couple of dudes living in Alabama who really liked beer. They were recent college grads working in the software and finance industries, and would have been living the dream but for their state's glaringly deficient beer landscape. Without access to any local breweries—there were none in the state at the time—or high gravity beer, they did what any other red-blooded, full-bearded American men would do: they made their own.[1]

They indulged themselves in this illegal hobby for a couple of years, sharpening their craft and their palates. Michael recalls thinking at the time that brewing as a career would have been a dream, though I suppose most—if not all—weekend warriors have had similar flights of fancy. I mean, as an avid hiker and barbecuer, I'd like to spend my days smoking brisket at the base of a waterfall in an Appalachian cove forest surrounded by flying squirrels bearing bottles of single barrel whisky. But I'm not quitting my day job anytime soon to become a professional (and obviously delusional) naturalist pitmaster.

Michael and Jason, however, are of a different breed. In 2007, an opportunity fortuitously arose for these two beer vigilantes to actually take the plunge, and they seized it. The remnants of a defunct 1990s-era Birmingham brewpub called "Southside Cellar" were still intact and functional, simply waiting for someone to start using them again. So they bought the equipment and started up their own brewery. And thus, Good People Brewing Company was born.

Let's just pause for a moment and think about that. These guys had no experience in food or beverage production aside from their home brew hobby. They had never dealt with distribution deals or brand management. And there were basically no other functioning microbreweries in the entire state that they could emulate or learn from.

In other words, they grabbed hold of the flying squirrels, held on for dear life, and joyously soared toward the promised land fueled solely on a blind faith in their raw badassedness.

That's bold stuff, y'all.

Beardin' it up on the canning line.

During its first few years, Good People sold its products to bars and restaurants in the Birmingham area. They were slowly building a solid customer base, but times were tough. There was no established craft beer scene in town that they could join, they weren't in a position to package their beers for resale, and they weren't allowed to have a taproom to sell their beers directly to consumers. According to Michael, they were struggling just to break even.

Not a moment too soon, then, did the Alabama Brewery Modernization Act pass. That 2011 law changed a number of ways in which Alabama's breweries were regulated, most notably insofar as it allowed on-site sales and sales to wholesalers.

Now that Good People could have a taproom, things would be different. The brewery could invite the public into their facility to see and taste what craft beer was all about. (This also roughly coincided with the start of the brewery's decision to can its beer, which, according to Michael, made Good People the first canned southern craft beer on the market.) Further, as Michael explained, a taproom serves as a means for a brewery to bring in instant revenue for business reinvestment and product development. It is these collective qualities that make taprooms essential for small breweries like Good People: "Without taprooms," he stated matter-of-factly, "there probably wouldn't be any breweries in Alabama."

GPB's taproom is open every day. You should go to there.

After those unlikely beginnings, Michael and Jason find themselves in the odd position of being the elder statesmen of Alabama's new but booming craft beer industry. More than a dozen microbreweries have opened their doors in the past couple of years, and there seems to be almost daily chatter in the local media about new ones in the works. None have to contend with the legal hurdles Michael and Jason faced, and all can look to them for a model of how to make things work in the long term. Because even though Good People is only around six years old, it is, according to the state's Bureau of Spirits, Fireworks, and the Holy Ghost, the oldest continuously operating brewery in Alabama.

The company's longevity is probably due in large part to the owners' manufacturing ethos: clean, simple, classic beers, really well done. This is what their palates demanded, of course, but also appeared to be something that the market could bear. "Making a good, simple beer is hard," Michael explains. The use of additives or "adjuncts" in craft beer, while relatively widespread among craft breweries, can detract from a style's character. Even worse, because the overuse of adjuncts can hide deficiencies in the underlying beer, a brewer may lose sight of quality if focused too much upon novelty.

So from very early on, the goal was for the brewery to "master the basics." The first releases were a traditional Brown Ale, a reddish-brown malty brew with a mild sweetness, and a Pale Ale, the brewery's "flagship" beer that Michael recommends as an early-season tailgating companion. Both remain in the brewery's year-long lineup, where they are now accompanied by three others. Two are classic IPAs—there is a dry-hopped, unfiltered IPA (7.1% ABV), and a super-hoppy "Snake Handler" Double IPA (10% ABV). The other is the brewery's lone foray into zaniness—a Coffee Oatmeal Stout. If you were hoping for a Cantaloupe-Curry Cream Ale or Snozberry Saison, you may have to look elsewhere.

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The brewery's seasonal selections are similarly steeped in tradition, as is the current entry in its experimental "Bearded Reserve" line. The four seasonals include a "west-coast style" American IPA ("The Hitchhiker"); a sessionable (4.2% ABV) American Wheat Ale ("The Bearded Lady"); a Rye IPA ("Mubai Rye"); and a high gravity (9.3% ABV, 1.096 OG), pitch-black "Fatso Russian Imperial Stout." The current Bearded Reserve entry takes the Fatso stout to the next level—"El Gordo" appears to share the same grain bill and yeast profile as Fatso, but ups the ante to the legal limit of 13.9% ABV.

After spending an inordinate amount of time refining the styles their brews represent, Good People seems to have achieved its original goal of mastering the classics. According to Beer Advocate, five of the twenty highest-rated beers in the South—including El Gordo at number one, the Hitchhiker at two, and the Snake Handler Double IPA at six—are produced by Good People.

Well done, my bearded beer-making friends. Well done.

Being located in Birmingham, Good People is perfectly seated at the crossroads of Alabama sports mania. Auburn and Tuscaloosa are short drives away, both universities have sizable bodies of alumni in the area, and the town is, like the rest of the state, saturated with eagle-headed flying tigers and disembodied waves of a fancy shade of red. This was the city after which fans named the "Iron Bowl," and the one that hosted the very first Auburn-Alabama game in 1893 and every iteration of it from 1904 to 1988.

Stuck in the middle of the city's irrational SEC fervor is UAB football, a program whose sheer existence strikes me at first blush as a little strange. With close to 40% of its 18,500 students as post-grads, the young school—it didn't exist as an autonomous university until 1969—was not one that had competitive intercollegiate athletics on its mind as an early priority. It didn't field a varsity football team until 1991, when it began a five-year run in Divisions III and I-AA. The team became a member of Conference USA in 1999, though it has not had a great deal of successit's had three winning seasons in the past fifteen, the last one coming in 2004, the year the program earned its first and only bowl trip. Attendance has consistently been abysmal, and as of a couple of years ago, the university was losing nearly $2,000,000 a year simply by having a football team.

There are likely a host of problems that contribute to UAB football's current woes, but one major issue Michael identified was the venue: good ole Legion Field. The place has been in a state of disrepair for years now, and the neighborhood is falling further and further behind other parts of the city's redevelopment and renewal. Even if SEC fanaticism didn't rob Birmingham residents of their sentient personhood every autumn Saturday, they likely wouldn't want to spend their time meandering around Legion Field and its depressed surroundings.

And it really is too bad. Michael freely admits that his and his compatriots' attention seldom strays far from that which is of Ultimate Concern. The brewery's staff is a healthy mix of Auburn and Alabama fans who, if Michael is representative of their devotion, are probably the real deal—Michael is an Auburn grad who spent the hours before our interview discussing the team's offensive line with his parents over breakfast. But in the same breath, he acknowledges that everyone in town, regardless of their SEC affiliation, comes together to root for UAB, at least passively. But again, it came down to problem of venue. People would be much more likely to regularly show up to games if the stadium was in a better location to take advantage some of Birmingham's more recent points of pride, such as its regionally outstanding food scene.

So a casual fanbase is apparently there, ready to bond over its common love of toilet paper and the hometown Blazers. It's got access to great beer. Now it just needs a place to watch the games.


[1] There are going to be a number of beard references in this post. That's not just because Mississippi Staters are strong proponents of the beard. (Though, indeed we are.) No, the prevalence of facial hair throughout this piece is simply a reflection of the pride Michael and Jason show in their burliness. These aren't beardy-come-lately, waxed mustachioed hipsters. These are decade-long adherents, and they pay homage to the beard through their business in a number of ways—in a product name ("Bearded Lady Wheat Ale"), in their company's charity work ("Bearded Benevolence"), and in their line of experimental brews ("Bearded Reserve"). So if you don't subscribe to a beard-centric view of the world, I suggest you stop reading now. I'm afraid we don't serve your kind here.