Chances are, you have a friend (or a friend of a friend) who brews beer. That person is passionate about their craft, correct? Limitless knowledge, creativity, ambition and liver function? Imagine having to say, “Look, I realize you have a gift you’ve turned into a hobby that you could even spin into a profession, creating jobs and beer for the masses, but you’re going to have to keep it under 6 percent, 5.9 percent if you want to play it safe.” As in ABV, or alcohol by volume. “And if you don’t, we’ll have to shut you down.”
The dedicated beerists behind Birmingham, Alabama’s Good People Brewing Company once faced this and other (more fiery) setbacks but now serve proudly as the Heart of Dixie’s largest craft brewery. Owners Jason Malone and Michael Sellers were part of the push for state legislation to increase the ABV limit to a highly respectable 13.9 percent, unleashing a hoppy, carbonated wave of craft brewing never before seen in Alabama.
How do I know? I live in New York, 900 miles from their furthest distributor — they should be totally off my radar. I could have gone my whole life never knowing the crisp, hoppy glory of Good People Pale Ale (that’s the name of their pale ale, by the way), but instead I had the chance to camp with a few members of the Good People family at Bonnaroo. Imagine a football field housing 25 craft breweries’ campsites, all trading cans and complimenting each other’s work.
The whole thing began with Birmingham native Malone’s homebrewing operation.
“I started brewing as a hobby with friends in 1997 with no intention whatsoever of pursuing a business,” he says. “Not liking the job I had, I started taking it more seriously, then my friend and future business partner Michael Sellers began entertaining the thought of doing it professionally. In 2007, we made a run to acquire some equipment from a defunct local brewery.”
Unfortunately, the equipment they were after was under lien, so Malone and Sellers decided to go the contract brewing route, in which a brewery making beer for themselves also brews for other companies. The test batch, brewed in Huntsville, Alabama, turned out so well that they planned another shortly after.
“I was driving to Huntsville early one morning to make our second pilot batch and got a phone call from the brewery owner. He said, ‘If you’re on your way, you might as well turn around, cause the brewery’s on fire.’ We’d joke around a lot, so I kept going and then saw that he was not pulling my leg. That brewery could not have been more on fire than it was, which…changed our plans. We lost whatever assets we had.”
Back to square one, or in their case to the brewery whose equipment was under questionable ownership. “Maybe we were a little more seasoned or prepared, or desperate, but we were successful on the second attempt.” After four months of rehabbing the space, they started in their little 1,800-square-foot facility and “outgrew it on day two.”
When Good People opened its doors, it was still illegal to sell any beer over 6 percent, which closed the door on about 70 percent of brewing styles. A couple of years before, some Birmingham beer enthusiasts (Malone and Sellers among them) had banded together with a local distributor to create Free the Hops, a grassroots consumer lobby with the mission to educate beer drinkers about craft brewing. Their main goal: get a bill passed that would amend the definition of beer on the state books and increase the ABV cap.
“You don’t just go down to the state capitol and say, ‘Hey, this makes sense,’ and then there’s a new law — there was shaking hands and kissing babies, educational events. We sat there making phone calls,” says Malone.
Thanks to their awareness campaign and subsequent exposure in the local news, people who hadn’t really cared about craft beer came to know something was out there beyond what they stocked in their fridges. And since Good People was the only local craft brewery in Birmingham at the time, it became the de facto craft beer of choice.
“We really benefited from all those efforts. Even though we were the only craft brewery, we weren’t the first by a long shot — there were others 10 years before us that had to close down. If you were a brewery in Birmingham in the mid-’90s, you had way more responsibility if you wanted your company to succeed than just making good beer,” says Malone. If you’ve ever offered an IPA to a Bud drinker, you know what he means.
“Those of us that came of drinking age around this time only had Sweetwater in Atlanta and Lazy Magnolia out of Mississippi,” says Lauren McCurdy, Good People Brewing’s director of communications. “When we heard there was a local brewery starting up, we all had a rejuvenated sense of local culture and wanted to cultivate and support it.”
Free the Hops was eventually successful in getting the ABV limit raised, and Good People was a direct beneficiary. With the stroke of a pen, a wide new world of beer styles was available for them to create, produce and distribute, simply because three bills were signed. The first, in the spring of 2009, was dubbed the Gourmet Beer Bill, which raised the ABV cap. A bill allowing breweries to house tasting rooms followed in 2011, then in 2012 the Gourmet Bottle Bill increased packaging limits from 16 ounces to 25.4 (slightly more than a traditional “bomber.”) The floodgates opened, and there are now more than 30 breweries in the state. If that’s not a clear signal that Alabama has fully backed the craft brew movement, have another Snakehandler Double IPA, because this new wave of craft brewing shows no signs of stopping, all thanks to the power of the people.
Sales director Ben Lewellyn came on in 2011 as one of many volunteers who spent off days manually snapping plastic lids on six-packs in exchange for a couple of cases — a true labor of love.
“Free the Hops built the world that I’m now able to live in. Without it, I’m sure Good People wouldn’t look like we do currently, and the state of the industry would be very different,” says Lewellyn. “It also gave me my first Good People job because tasting rooms became legal just when I became the tasting manager.” An avid homebrewer and self-professed “beer nerd,” Lewellyn was not alone in his tireless quest to work for a brewery.
“I applied to a job at another brewery in Texas that was basically sweeping the floor — or brewer’s assistant — for $7 an hour. I thought I was a shoo-in, but there were 60 applicants, at least one of whom was better. So I moved back to Birmingham and took the first job in the industry I could, at the Whole Foods beer and wine department. Learning beer from the retail side attracted me to Good People, and I joined in the fall of 2011, running our tasting room.”
The guy who would have been happy sweeping up loose hops helped expand Good People’s outreach substantially, spearheading the outreach to bars and festivals that would lead to a brewery-wide expansion. From a sales perspective, Good People is the number-one craft-beer brewery in the state. “Alabama consumers have always supported us. We frequently outsell even the largest national craft brands in grocery stores throughout the state,” says Lewellyn. The expansion landed them squarely at the top of the heap, broadening their distribution northward, up to the Nashville area. That’s when Nashville sales rep Weston Hill stepped in to make sure the beer was getting where it needed to be.
“I was working in retail for craft beer, and I’d always pick up six-packs of Good People’s IPA. Then I got a job with their distributor delivering kegs. I got to know Ben [Lewellyn] and Michael [Sellers] from festivals,” Hill says.
Though Hill has only been with a brewery a few months, he’s already spreading Good People’s charms through two mediums that Nashville loves: music and food. Every Monday he hosts a songwriter night at a local bar (“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t slip in a few plugs for the brand when I’ve got the mic”), and in his first few weeks on the job, he came up with a dozen recipes that use Good People beers as ingredients. “I thought it might give me something to talk about at a grocery store tasting.”
Back at the brewers’ campsite at Bonnaroo, where over the course of the weekend they sold 20 kegs to thirsty craft beer fans, Hill is dishing out his slow-cooked Good People Oatmeal Coffee Stout chili, made from venison he hunted with his father and brought to the festival in the double-insulated beer growlers they sell at the brewery, plus cornbread (“no flour, the real stuff.”) Then he picks up his guitar and sings The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” a six-pack of pale ale at his side. Lewellyn is asking everyone in the group to say something about themselves we’d never know if they didn’t tell us. You know, good people stuff.