<Back to News & Events

Legal Homebrewing Nationally, Alcohol Laws Locally and All Points Between

By DCBeer Contributor Josh Perry. Find more of his stylings on Twitter at @justjptweet.

As of last night, the beer community has hit a landmark position where in all 50 states home brewing is now legal. Mississippi and Alabama have passed legislation that allows for the legal brewing of beer for personal consumption in one’s residence, which catches these states up with the other 48 states. My southern brethren are no longer to be jealous of those fancy northerners and their fancy IPAs and tripels.  Freedom for all is not just about beer. This issue of homebrew legalization may seem like it’s just beer, but as DC residents, it should be more than just beer. States’ rights and their decisions, which are the main issue here, should be carefully watched as this plays out. There is still time for the homebrew bill to be vetoed and prohibition to be continued.

The evolution of this issue begins with the 18th Amendment, which heralded the start of Prohibition, the great failed experiment. On December 5, 1933, President Roosevelt signed the proclamation ending Prohibition, which added the 21st Amendment to the United States Constitution. Section I of this amendment made legal the production and consumption of intoxicating beverages on a federal level. Section II, however, did something a bit different; this gave each state the right to determine its own alcohol laws. After the 21st Amendment was passed, some states continued to be “dry.” In DC, for example, it wasn’t until almost a year later that the city allowed for legal consumption within its borders. This day, as we now call it, is Repeal Day.  Mississippi on the other hand, didn’t follow suit until 1966, and even today, nearly half of Mississippi counties remain “dry” to some degree.

Back to the 21st Amendment, even after its passage it was still illegal to brew any alcoholic beverages at home. Alcohol is taxed based on federal excise taxes, regulated by the Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) and enforced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). On October 14, 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed H.R. 1337, which contained an amendment sponsored by Senator Alan Cranston creating an exemption from taxation for beer brewed at home for personal or family use. This exemption went into effect February 1, 1979. This exemption carried two caveats; first, while federally legal, states had power of adoption and could choose not to legalize home brewing; second, home brewing was capped to allow for 100 gallons of beer per adult per year and up to a maximum of 200 gallons per household annually when there are two or more adults residing in the household (source). Home brewers could reach this limit without paying a penal bond of $1,000, which is used to dissuade individuals from going pro.

The Brewers Association was recently in DC for their annual Craft Brewers Conference, and reported that as of March 2013, there are 2,416 breweries currently operating in the United States. To put this in perspective, at the time President Carter signed this bill into law, there were only 89 breweries. Why the significant rise in production facilities and craft brewers? The need for a better and locally sourced beer is indeed a factor. However consider the fact that many, if not most, of the individuals so key to the beer industry, especially craft beer, began at home. By being free to experiment and test out and perfect new recipes at home, individuals were able to create quality products and scale up to a production scale. Without home brewing, the craft beer industry would not be able to post earnings of $8 billion in 2012; in fact, our “new” or burgeoning movement would not even exist. 

But why should DC residents be concerned about southern states with a track record of being behind the times? Honestly, they are not the only ones that are still dragging their heels with regard to more progressive alcohol laws. In DC, “blue laws,” laws designed to enforce religious standards, existed up until December 2012. Less than six months ago, DC residents had to plan out their weekend beverage supply because no one except for bars could sell on Sundays. Additionally, 64 ounce growler fills were limited to DC’s three production breweries. This all changed because of the Omnibus Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Emergency Amendment Act of 2012.

However, there are still other on-going limitations. For example, today, if you go to one of the three production facilities, you cannot buy a pint or glass of beer for consumption on premises. There are also restrictions on how much you may sample as well, which most people do not realize.

In my native Florida, arcane laws exist when it comes to vessel size. If you were to go to Funky Buddha, Swamp Head, or Cigar City sure you can get a pint. But if you want their beer to go, you’d better bring your 32 or 128 oz. growler with you, because they cannot by law fill a 64oz industry standard growler. This list of limitations could go on for a while.

My question about why we should care about and continue to monitor brewing laws in DC, Alabama and Mississippi and across the country still stands. When it comes right down to it, the topic at hand is freedom in ‘Merica! Being able to have the same rights as your fellow man is a critical idea in this nation. By being free and equal, we as a nation have been and are able to spawn new thinking, new industries, and innovation in sectors that may or may not even yet exist. As both the discussion of disparate alcohol laws across jurisdictions illustrates and general American history both illustrate, people’s perspectives and desires for change are not always synchronous with policies and the law, which vary greatly between and even within states.

Maybe a seemingly small act by one state or county can help to build momentum to positively influence the next. As a brewer, I would like to personally thank the SEC states of Mississippi and Alabama for allowing my brothers and sisters of the mash the same opportunity to create, belong, and compete in this community. Is this policy change as solemn and serious as I make it out to be? Maybe, maybe not. This is just beer, after all, or is it? 

News Categories: