Beer + Books + Birmingham: Drinking and Writing (& Facing Critics) in the Magic City

I don’t like being criticized, but I guess you could argue that, by publishing a blog and a book and speaking in public, I’m asking for it. (I’d probably argue back that I fight pretty hard for an issue that I believe is important to our communities and to our country, and that I do it even though attention — positive or negative — is personally very uncomfortable for me … but, you know, tomato/tomahto.) One thing I’m criticized for? Talking so much about beer.


I do Instagram a lot of beer, and I use beer as an example pretty often when I’m writing about shopping locally in Birmingham. This has caught the attention of everyone from my Southern Baptist grandparents to the Amazon reviewer who said I “[talk] often of how much beer she drank with friends while writing the book.” (I’m assuming by “talks often” she means “mentioned a couple of times in the forward and the acknowledgments.”)


Well, get ready to have your mind blown, Internet — I don’t actually drink a lot of beer. I definitely spend a lot of time in Birmingham bars, where about half the time I drink a glass of beer or a cocktail with a meal, and half the time I order water. But it’d be tough to find people who’ve seen me have more than two drinks in an evening, let alone get drunk. I don’t act irresponsible, I don’t drive that way, and I certainly don’t write that way. (I wish I could write while drinking, but come on — I’m not Hemingway.)


So why do I talk so much about beer? For one thing, I do like it. It’s possible to enjoy beer without getting drunk, obviously. (Well, I would’ve thought that was obvious.) But the main reason I write about beer is that it’s something made locally in Birmingham. It’s fun, it feels accessible to people, and it’s a cost-effective way for me to continually buy locally-made products from locally-owned places and promote them — on a blog, in a book, or on social media. More and more, Birmingham is becoming known for our beer scene. We’re also known for our history of metal production, I guess, but I just don’t have that many opportunities to buy steel on a daily basis.


Another writer who works hard, enjoys her beer, and (I imagine) gets her share of criticism (because that’s what happens when you try hard and work for something you care about) is Carla Jean Whitley. She’s a fellow Birmingham beer fan and she’s just published a new book about it: Birmingham Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in the Magic City.


Carla Jean’s one of the best reporters in Birmingham. She works tirelessly (this might be due in part to coffee) to chase down her stories, and her research is so thorough that just hearing about her process is exhausting. Lucky for us, we can sit back and enjoy her research without working hard for it, because she’s packaged all those quirky facts and incredible histories and personal stories into a paperback book.


It doesn’t take much to see that Birmingham breweries are full of drama and backstories and kind of crazy situations (you only have to have been reading The Birmingham News for the past month or so to know that much), but Carla Jean promises to give us the past as well as the present, heading back all the way to saloons at the birth of Birmingham, following through prohibition, and culminating in the last few years when the Free the Hops movement finally brought breweries back to our Magic City.


Carla Jean is a friend of mine, but that’s not why I think this book is worth buying. It’s worth buying because she fights hard for Birmingham (and for its small businesses, including breweries) every single day. It’s worth buying because she’s an honest reporter and you can trust her information (that’s, sadly, not the case with every journalist). And it’s worth buying because the Birmingham brewery scene is one that’s worth supporting: It’s a great story of a campaign (Free the Hops) that changed state law to make room for more creative businesses, it’s a thriving part of our local economy, and — yeah — it’s making a lot of really good beer that tastes great (and makes an ideal Instagram subject).


Oh, and Birmingham Beer is especially worth buying if you get it from a locally owned shop, where your money will go into building our local economy: You can meet Carla Jean, buy a book and get it signed this Thursday at TrimTab from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., next week at Neighborhood Hops & Vine (Homewood on Wednesday and Crestline Park on Thursday), or next Friday at Little Professor.


Carrie Rollwagen is author of The Localist: Think Independent, Buy Local and Reclaim the American Dream, creator of 30 Days of Local Praise and co-founder of Church Street Coffee & Books. Find her on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @crollwagen.

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