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Hardy Jackson’s Alabama: Bicentennial Beer, a capital idea

In case you haven’t noticed, Alabama is in the midst of its Bicentennial Celebration.

And to mark this historic event, the Alabama Brewers Guild, in cooperation with the Alabama Bicentennial Commission, has enlisted breweries from across Alabama to collaborate in concocting a series of beers, each honoring one of the state’s five capitals.

The first beer in the State Capital Series was St. Stephens Stout which pays homage to Alabama’s territorial capital. Had the beer been available back then it would have sold well in a  town whose citizens were described as an “illiterate, wild and savage” bunch, a people “of depraved morals, unworthy of public confidence or private esteems.”

Fortunately, the town also attracted men like Harry Toulmin, an educated (at least literate) Scottish freethinker, who said he came to St. Stephens because it was “so far from civilization that he would be safe from Presbyterians.”  Toulmin strikes me as the sort of fellow who would enjoy sitting with friends and discussing predestination and infant damnation over a nice Chardonnay instead of the “wild and savage” beer drinkers who roamed the streets.

But St. Stephens did not have a brewery, so the thirsty had to content themselves with the rot-gut whiskey they called, with a fine feeling for words, “busthead,” or go to Huntsville.

Huntsville had one.

A far more populous and progressive place than St. Stephens, Huntsville was where the convention met in 1819 to draw up a constitution for what was by then the “state” of Alabama and where the first session of the state legislature was called to order. Huntsville was also the location of Alabama’s first brewery, which James and William Badlun opened that same year.

Although I can’t prove it, I am sure that holding the convention in a town where beer was brewed was not coincidental.  Nor can I prove, but I do believe, that ready access to beer influenced the writing of what has been judged to have been one of the most “liberal” state constitutions of the time.

So it is right and proper that the second beer brewed by Guild members is Badlun Brothers Imperial Porter, which is described as “a modern take on a traditional porter recipe.”

However, Huntsville was not meant to be the “permanent” state capital.  A committee of the territorial legislature recommended Tuscaloosa, but William Wyatt Bibb, the state’s first governor, would have none of it.  Bibb and a powerful coalition of planter interests favored a spot at the confluence of the Cahaba and Alabama Rivers, where they felt they could make their fortunes in Black Belt real estate and Black Belt cotton. So Cahawba became the capital.

For six years Cahawba was the place to be, at least if government was your business.  Unfortunately for the city, if you had other business to conduct, it was more profitable to conduct it upriver, at Selma, which would eventually replace Cahawba as “The Queen City of the Black Belt,” though not as the capital.  If Selma had become the seat of government the Guild might be brewing Samuel Bogle’s Beer.  Bogle was a hotel proprietor whose “assembly room” was the social center of the town.  It was there that the city council, after doing the city’s business, reportedly “adjourned to take a drink.”

But until Selma came into its own, Cahawba flourished.  So, what would be the beer for that capital?

Birmingham’s Cahaba Brewing Company is one of the breweries collaborating on the Bicentennial project.  Taking inspiration from the mulberry trees that lined Cahawba’s streets, Cahaba brewed “Mulberry Road.”  A portion of the proceeds from its sale will go to preserving the Old Cahawba historical site.

The next beer will honor Tuscaloosa, which launched a “fake news” campaign and snatched the capital from Cahawba.  A Montgomery beer will follow and finish the series.

Now I have friends who feel that it is inappropriate to brew beer to celebrate Alabama’s Bicentennial.

I also have friends who feel that brewing beer is the perfect way to celebrate Alabama’s Bicentennial.

And as for me, I stand firmly with my friends.

Harvey H. (Hardy) Jackson is Professor Emeritus at Jacksonville State University and a regular contributor to Alabama Living. He can be reached at hjackson@cableone.net.