Note: Originally appeared in Issue #40 of BeerAdvocate Magazine. Good People founder and brewer Jason Malone also features prominently in my book.
Only a year and a half ago, craft beer in Alabama was little more than a suggestion of what it was around the rest of the country. Homebrewing was (and still is) illegal, and any beer over 6% ABV was banned from store shelves. Breweries from around the country resisted sending only a small portion of their portfolios to the state, and locals like Good People Brewing Co. were forced to operate under restrictive circumstances.
However, thanks to the grass roots efforts of the citizens of Alabama, the advocacy group Free The Hops, and the passage of the Gourmet Beer Bill in 2009, the ABV limit was raised to 13% and Good People was there to reap the benefits.
“People knew that something was going on and that there were a bunch of guys and gals trying to get something going on in the beer world,” Good People brewmaster Jason Malone explained. “That really worked well for us when we came down because we had a large group of folks who were interested in drinking good beer. The fact that they couldn’t get a lot of good beer made them even more interested.”
Anyone who spends enough time in Alabama is going to hear the expression, “They’re good people,” or even “He’s good people,” when they start discussing their friends and neighbors. It is a part of the state’s sense of Southern hospitality, and in downtown Birmingham there’s at least one company that tries to embody that folksy saying.
Good People Brewing began brewing in June of 2008, and has since been an increasingly active member of the Birmingham community. Whether it’s donating beer to not-for-profit organizations for fundraisers, or working with local companies and farms on solutions for renewable and organic sources of fertilizer, Good People takes their responsibilities seriously.
“We just thought (the name) was a really good representation of what we were trying to do and the folks we were serving,” Malone said. “It’s less about us and more about our customers and community – the folks who support us and the retailers out here.”
Malone, who owns the company along with partners Michael Sellers and Eric Schultenover, struggled to find farmers willing to drive into downtown Birmingham to take the spent grain, so the group found an alternative solution. The brewery ships its grain to J 3 organics, also in downtown Birmingham, which makes organic compost for places like Jones Valley Urban farm – a local farm that grows organic crops on a downtown city block.
Malone is also quick to acknowledge Southern brewers who paved the way for craft beer in Alabama.
“We’re really fortunate to kind of get involved in brewing in Alabama when we did. There were breweries that came before us in the ’90s that, given the market, were ahead of the time. They had to do two things and do (them) really well. They had to make good beer, but just as important they had to educate folks that it was good beer… I really think those guys were ahead of their time, and because of that they weren’t successful.”
Only a Matter of Time
“We were basically just homebrewers that made beer for a long time without any inclination to start a business, and the business just started to find us,” Malone said. “You take beer to so many places, so many times, and you can only hear someone say ‘This is really good beer, you should start selling this,’ before you take them seriously.”
Once the trio of Sellers, Malone, and Schultenover started to take enough of their friends seriously, Good People Brewing Company was born. They found a space located at the site of a former brewpub called The Mills. However, the company recently moved about a mile away near Railroad Park to a bigger and better building.
“We had about 1800 square feet and half of that was the brewery. We were operating in a very small space where everything that came in out of the place when through a standard-sized door,” Malone said.
“That definitely cut into our efficiency and how much product we could get out. We outgrew that space the day we moved into it. It was a good way to stick our toe in the water to see if we had something that was going to work, but we knew we had to get out and find a bigger space. We’re pretty much moving down the street.”
The move to a bigger space means several things for Good People, such as bigger fermentation vessels (three 20-bbl fermentors instead of eight seven-bbl fermentors) and the introduction of a canning line.
“The biggest thing (about) the new space is workflow will be night-and-day,” Malone said. “Me and a hand truck will be replaced with items on palates and large-sized doors and loading docks.”
With a new building and room to grow, Good People will be spend less time wondering where to store supplies, and more time focusing on the beer.
Craft Beer in Alabama
When Free The Hops saw its hard work pay off with the passing of the Gourmet Beer Bill last may, Malone and his partners knew that they had a lot to be thankful for. The first order of business was to reward its members with a brew dedicated to them and their efforts.
“We were just the lucky benefactor of the law change. Although we were involved, we didn’t do the heavy lifting; that was done by the volunteers at Free The Hops,” Malone said. “We were the fortunate benefactors of that, and when it came time to brewing high gravity beers, we left the choice up to them what we should brew first. Of course it was a Double IPA – shocker.”
That’s how Good People’s DIPA, Snake Handler, came into existence. It joined a lineup that included their pale ale, brown ale, and IPA. Malone also brews a Russian Imperial Stout called Fatso, and a coffee oatmeal stout per another request from the FTH members.
Along with paying back those who helped them succeed, Malone takes a simple approach to his beers.
“We just try to make full-flavored big-bodies beer. We’re really not too wrapped up in making things ‘to the style,’” Malone said. “A lot of our beers do fit to the style, but when we’re developing beers we don’t pull out the old manual and say ‘Oh we’ve got to be between here and here,’ we just tweak things until they’re right.
“We tried to find the pattern of other companies, maybe not always brewers, but we tried to make things for the technical folks – so-to-speak – by making really good beer and then having the mainstream people gravitate toward that; rather than making mainstream beers.”
The result is a lineup of solid craft beer in a region that is emerging as the newest player in America’s beer scene. But don’t expect to see Good People far from the source, as Malone and his partners are dedicated to taking care of their local community first before they even consider expanding. It’s all part of the brewery’s commitment to their friends and neighbors; it’s also what makes them, well, good people.
Sean Lewis is a Boston-based beer writer, homebrewer and his friends and family consider him to be “alright people.”