Anybody who’s ever spent time in a bar in Birmingham, Ala., knows the name Snake Handler. As one of its most requested beers since its founding 15 years ago, Good People Brewing Company’s double IPA is frequently referred to as “dangerously drinkable.” At a hefty 10 percent ABV, it goes down more like caramel than its heavy hop (and alcohol) content would suggest, and stands bold in its traditional roots among the influx of endless hazy, juicy IPAs.
When it can be found in a can, which is rare due to its small-batch releases, its imagery is hard to miss on a shelf — a tongue-in-cheek nod to the snake handlers of Sand Mountain, a piece of Alabama’s more eclectic religious history. Good People Brewing Company itself is a loving homage to its home state, a reference to a common Southern phrase used to refer to someone who’s familiar and trusted: “He’s good people.”
Adam Klein, Good People’s head brewer, believes that trust and familiarity are a part of Good People and Snake Handler’s relative longevity. “We were basically the oldest operating brewery in Alabama, and I think it was the first double IPA on the scene when the craft beer movement kind of broke out,” he says. “So it has its own legacy in that sense. And the fact that the beer itself has been around for a while and the name has Alabama roots and this sort of religious undertone that a lot of people sort of identify with, I would say that that has been a part of the legacy-building.”
While Snake Handler can certainly claim to be Alabama’s oldest double IPA, 15 years isn’t a long time in the grand scheme of brewing — and even craft — history. But that’s because brewing most styles of craft beer wasn’t even legally possible in Alabama until 2008.
Cutting Through the Red Tape
It’s well known fact (and local joke) that Alabama has a comically large constitution — so large that it’s considered the world’s longest document of its kind, clocking in at well past the length of a Dostoevsky novel and containing over 900 amendments, ranging in topic from facial hair in church and bear wrestling to the legality of carrying ice cream cones in back pockets. Oddly enough for a state stereotypically associated with its love of guns, beer, and deregulation, Alabama has maintained incredibly tight laws on the creation, bottling, sale, and consumption of beer until rather recently.
Birmingham resident Gabe Harris observed in his travels that it seemed like other states had a lot more access to craft beers than he did back home. It wasn’t until around 2005 that he realized why: Alabama’s legal definition of beer only allowed for brews up to 6 percent ABV, which severely limited not only homegrown craft beer efforts, but the import of products from out-of-state breweries as well. “It wasn’t because those breweries didn’t want to come and sell their products in Alabama, but the laws in Alabama prohibited such,” Harris says.
Harris joined the ranks of other like-minded beer enthusiasts in 2005 to form Free the Hops, a grassroots advocacy group that hoped to expand Alabama’s palate by working to change the state’s restrictive beer laws. Despite a bevy of supporters, Free the Hops was up against an abundance of misinformation, misconceptions, and moralism as the bill battled its way to Montgomery.
Harris joked that he and the other reformists who supported the bill had to fight the perception that they were “guys who just wanted to get drunk fast,” or in more notable cases, Germans seeking to bring hoity-toity beers to take the place of American standards like Budweiser — ironically, a brand started by a German immigrant in Missouri. A now-notorious video went viral locally on Youtube in its nascent years, with an audio clip of Alabama Rep. Alvin Holmes asking with apparent fervor, “What’s wrong with the beer we got? I mean, the beer we got drinks pretty good, don’t it? I ain’t never heard nobody complain about the beer we have.”
Free the Hops found a more sympathetic legislator in Rep. Thomas Jackson, who sponsored the 2008 Gourmet Beer Bill, in addition to a variety of business owners and community leaders who were willing to vouch for the economic viability of a potential craft brewing industry, including AlaBev, the state’s foremost beverage distributor, and Terrapin Brewing based out of Athens, Ga., which had long hoped to expand sales to its neighboring state.
“We had to show we were legitimate — guys with careers and families,” Harris said. “So getting stakeholders from distributors, restaurants, bars, and grocery stores to support us, not just with their dollars to help us with our mission and what we were trying to accomplish monetarily, but also just by their visibility and them speaking on behalf of us was another big part of that.”
Good People was also an early supporter of Free the Hops — partners Michael Sellers and Jason Malone incorporated in 2006, not totally understanding the regulatory barriers they were up against. Some of Good People’s earliest beers, including Snake Handler and other staples like their Coffee Oatmeal Stout, were inherently high-ABV brews, and their operation would have been ultimately fruitless without some sort of regulatory intervention.
“It was naivete,” says Sellers. “We were the first guys to get into [craft brewing] in our state, so we didn’t really have a great idea of what we were getting into. And at the time, nobody really did, because there weren’t a lot of people doing it. It was new territory.”
Growing Alabama’s Beer Culture
The bill eventually passed to become law, raising the legal ABV limit to 13.9 percent, and breweries quickly began to sprout up like weeds across Alabama in the years that followed. That success was followed in 2011 by a bill that allowed for taprooms, and another in 2012 that opened the door for 22-ounce bombers, paving the way for wholesaling. Today, Alabama has 52 breweries, and in 2021, craft brewing had a $777 million economic impact on the state.
Harris would eventually go on to co-found Fairhope Brewing Company in 2012. Sellers and Malone branched out to buy Avondale Brewing Company in 2011, which has also become a prominent outdoor music venue post-pandemic, hosting acts in 2023 like Mt. Joy and Wilco.
For Sellers, seeing breweries become a part of the culture in Alabama cities has been one of the most gratifying facets of the state’s embrace of craft breweries. “I think somebody once put it to me that craft breweries are a kind of English pub, where it’s more of a family gathering place than it is a bar per se,” he says.
”It just doesn’t carry the stigma that alcohol typically has in the South,” Sellers continues. “I think Free the Hops, and the way it happened, probably helped with that, because it was such a broad perspective and there’s so many people from different walks of life that were in that group, that I think may have helped ease everybody’s fear of [breweries].”
That’s part of what makes beers like Snake Handler so special in a place like Birmingham — it has the capacity to change the narrative of what beer and people’s perception of it can be, while also fully honoring its roots. Klein and Sellers both affectionately refer to Snake Handler as a classic beer that, even with its adherence to traditional hop combinations, managed to challenge Alabama’s palate, accustomed to its more corporate light lagers.
As Good People has matured, so has its sensibility on what its taproom can look like, while never detracting from what everyone has always loved.
“We’ve always kind of brewed what we want to drink,” Klein says. “ We have always been a brewery that sticks to classic styles. I still enjoy the classic Snake Handler, all the old school like piney, bitter hops. But it’s fun to experiment and also produce some of the more juicy, hazy style beers, too.”
Snake Handler, as well as its high-ABV contemporaries at Good People, paved the way for the popularity of heavier pours in the state, and those beers have started to slowly make their way out past the state lines. Good People’s beers can be found through middle Tennessee and the Florida panhandle, and other brands like TrimTab and Back Forty are finding their footing in Atlanta, Arkansas, and other areas in the South.
While the local fare has yet to truly become any kind of global phenomenon, it’s undeniable that Alabama loves its beer these days. Sellers says other out-of-state brewers have referred to Alabama as a “real tough nut to crack” because of its loyalty to its hometown brewers.
“We’re all still mom-and-pop shops. Nobody’s been bought out by big conglomerates,” Sellers says. “So typically, you’re gonna be in a brewery where you’re gonna see the owner in the brewery working, doing the thing. At the very minimum, there’s a lot of heart and soul in our breweries.”