illegal homebrewing

Over the past several months I’ve been reading Travels With Barley by Ken Wells (I’m a slow reader). Published in 2004, it is slightly out of date, especially with the recent InBev/Anheiser-Busch merger, but it is quite an entertaining read about Wells’ search for the “perfect beer joint.” Along the way, he explores beers’ place in American culture and also gets into topics such as homebrewing, the craft brewing phenomenon, “big” beer, the politics surrounding beer, and beer goddesses. I highly recommend it.

In one of the later chapters, Wells discusses homebrewing and makes the point that homebrewing is still illegal in several states, including Alabama, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Oklahoma. That’s when a lightbulb went off.

As some of you may know, since October I have been putting together an e-newsletter for the Southern Brew News called Hop Tips, which is a beer event calendar for the Southeast. Well, in those three months, I have come across exactly two beer-realted events in Alabama and Mississippi. Maybe they don’t publicize for fear of their beer tasting getting raided by the Untouchables, but that is by far the fewest of any other states in the region.

Upon further examination, there are also very few breweries in those two states. Alabama has five and Mississippi has one (you read that right, one). Compare that with 31 in Florida and 33 in North Carolina (six in Asheville alone). Even in states that have recently had restrictive beer laws loosened, like Georgia and South Carolina, there are 15 and 13 breweries, respectively.

Since taking over Hop Tips, I’ve been wondering if there was something up with the people in Alabama and Mississippi. Were they just Bud and MGD slingin’ good ole boys? Well, after putting it all together, it finally made sense. I can’t really blame them. Seems to me there’s a pretty strong connection between homebrewing and wide-spread craft beer appreciation.

A little beer history

Before I start making crazy inflammatory statements that get me locked-up in some top-secret ATF gulag, I thought I’d take a step back and explain how we got here and why some states don’t allow homebrewing.

It all goes back to Prohibition which began in the U.S. in 1920. Before that time, there were dozens, if not several hundred, local and regional breweries. Prohibition effectively put most of these breweries out of business. The ones that survived were able to do so by converting their equipment to some other use, such as making root beer or something like that.

With the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, there were only a couple dozen major beer makers left. That began the mad dash for market share and the beginning of the “Lager Wars.” In order sell the most beer, they focused on producing light lager, since that would appeal to the most people, especially women.

To make matters worse for beer, when the lawmakers repealed Prohibition, they allowed for home wine making, but purposely left beer out of the new law. Since homebrewing was not legal and the few surving breweries only made lager, over the next four decades, most other beer styles, namely ales, were reduced to myth and legend.

Things began to change in the late 1960s. In 1969, Fred Eckhard wrote his book, A Treatise on Lager Beers: How to Make Good Beer at Home and homebrew slowly began to make a comeback. In 1978, Charlie Papazian founded the American Homebrewers Association. Shortly after that, in 1979, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill that once again made it legal to homebrew in the United States. However, the new federal law still gave the final decision to the individual states. Even today it is still illegal to homebrew in Alabama, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Oklahoma.

Homebrewer persecution

As I did a little more poking around, I came across the curious case in Alabama of Scott Oberman. In March 2008, an the LA Times published an article about the underground (and illegal) homebrewing circle in Alabama. Oberman and several others were specifically sited in the article. It seems this caught the attention of the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board (ABC). An ABC agent made a visit to Oberman’s home to make sure he was “aware” of the laws in the state pertaining to brewing beer in your home.

Oberman wrote a post about his experience on a message board at Free the Hops, a group lobbying for the legalization of homebrewing and high gravity beer in Alabama. He said that while no one was ever hostile or bullying, it was clear that this should be taken seriously and there was a chance he could lose the security clearance necessary for his job, and even custody of his daughter, if he didn’t stop homebrewing. Last I could find, Scott quit homebrewing and nothing more has come of the case.

While this seems to be an isolated case, most states will look the other way so long as you don’t make a fuss or too much news. In fact, there are even homebrew supply shops in Alabama and Utah, even though it’s illegal to brew at home in those states. It seems to me that this “identity crisis” is another example of archaic laws and the lobbyists of big business causing completely unnecessary situations that just leave you shaking your head.

What’s the connection?

While the fact that homebrewing is illegal in some states has not stopped everyone from doing it, it’s pretty obvious that it has had the effect in creating a depressed state of craft beer in those states. On the other side of it, the homebrew revolution that began in the 1970s helped bring about a renaissance of beer. You can now find dozens of styles being brewed by hundreds of breweries that have cropped up in the United States over the past 30 years.

Of the commercial craft brewers I’ve met, only one did not have their roots in homebrewing. Because no one is paying you for your beer and wasting five gallons isn’t that big of a deal, homebrewers can experiement and be more adventurous than many commercial craft brewers (who still need to make money). Many of the styles and variations we enjoy are the result of something that a homebrewer came up with.

Homebrewers also tend to be the most passionate beer advocates out there. If they are going to take the time to buy the equipment, learn the process, brew, and sanitize everything, when it is so much easier to just go out and buy a good beer, they have to love beer. Those people then spread that enthusiasm and excitement to others, who in turn are willing to experiment and try new beers.

That passion and excitement is good for the industry as a whole. You rarely find craft brewers dogging each other like the big brewers do. While profits are vital for survival, most craft brewers are successful because of their the love of beer. Bob Hiller at Blue Ridge Brewing Co. once said he would love it if another successful brewpub opened in Greenville. More competition would help keep them from becoming complacent and would increase the overall awareness of craft beer in the public eye. What’s good for another is good for them too.

So to all the homebrewers out there, keep brewing and keep the hope alive. And for all you at Free the Hops or anywhere with silly old laws holding you down, keep up the good fight and I hope to try your beer one day.

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About Brian

I like beer.
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11 Responses to illegal homebrewing

  1. Nathaniel says:

    Awesome post man . . . it is shocking that some states still make home brewing illegal. Having grown up in Vermont, a state with a very developed brewing and beer culture (probably almost as many breweries or brew pubs in the Burlington metro as in all of SC), it was shocking enough when I moved to Greenville and all there was was Blue Ridge and Thomas Creek for local beers, but to think that a state in the union only has one brewery . . . well that is just tragic my friend. I hope some lobbying gets these illegal home brewing states to change their laws so every one in the good ol’ US of A can enjoy the pleasures of either home made beer or at least some quality craft brew.

  2. Butch says:

    Greetings from the Magnolia state. Yes we have a pretty dismal beer culture down here but we are actively working on it. Aside from vigorous craft beer clubs and homebrewing clubs across the state we also have a political action group working to reform our beer laws, most notably by raising the 5% alcohol by weight restriction.

    Luckily the one brewery we have is a pretty darn good one. If you’ve not tried Lazy Magnolia’s Southern Pecan brown ale you need to.

  3. Brian says:

    Thanks for writing, Butch. I was hoping someone from Alabama or Mississippi would comment so I could get the perspective of someone from there. I know that some very dedicated folks in South Carolina had to work very hard to get our laws changed to increase the ABV limit, bringing great craft beer to our state. If it can happen here, I’m sure there’s hope for you, too. I wish you luck.

    I’ve not had anything from Lazy Magnolia. I love the tag line on their site, “We don’t tell people what to like, we just give them great choices!” How true. I’m hoping over the next year or two to take a blues pilgrimage, which would obviously need to include Mississippi, so I’ll keep my eyes open for it if I can make it down there.

  4. MD says:

    Great read! Thanks B!

  5. Linn says:

    fantastic post.. thanks for sharing

  6. Scott Oberman says:

    That’s a very well-written article. Here’s a very quick update on how things here in AL are going. I was basically forced to stop brewing at home, but I am brewing pilot batches for a local craft brewery. I am still forced to follow the same rules as the commercial guys in this state (6% max abv) and i can’t take it home to ferment, serve, etc…, but at least I can keep my mash paddle hand from getting too rusty. The Free the Hops group has gotten their abv bill favorably thru the House floor vote. As for the homebrewers, we are working overtime to land a House sponsor to introduce our “Right to Brew” bill this session. We have already hosted one legislative reception in Montgomery (serving only homebrew) and have another one planned for Mar 10. Keep your fingers crossed!

    I love beer.

  7. Brian says:

    Hey Scott, thanks for the update. Great to hear from you! I’m glad that you’ve been able to find an outlet for your brewing. Just think, this might be the “in” into commercial brewing that you need, if you ever want to go that route.

    It is amazing to me how state and local governments still have such a hostile attitude toward beer. When you see what you’re going through in Alabama, what we struggle with here in South Carolina, then the crazy tax increases they are trying to pass in Oregon and Arizona, it really makes you wonder.

    I mean, we tried prohibition and it obviously didn’t work. The people still demanded beer. The government just needs to get out of the way and let the market dictate what people can buy and who is successful. Then again, you could say that about a lot of industries, not just beer. Oops, there I go being all capitalist again…

  8. Chris says:

    Hi all! I know that this post is a little old but it really got to me. I’m originally from Mississippi. I’ve recently been stationed in Maine. It really opened my eyes to different types of beers up here. Enough so to start brewing my own (with the help of a buddy from here, lol). I want to bring it back to my home when i’m done with the military. I agree with Butch, Lazy Magnolia’s Southern Pecan is a great beer. I’ll wager it would rival a lot of great craft brews i’ve had up here in New England. However on the issue at hand, I come from a family of ‘shiner’s for as long as i can remember so i’m really not too worried about laws. I will, however, be among the lobbyist to get the laws updated when i come back home. That is if it hasn’t been amemded by then. Below is the current MS law as well as a good contact number. As far as the ” I’ve been wondering if there was something up with the people in Alabama and Mississippi. Were they just Bud and MGD slingin’ good ole boys?”, comment. I believe that it is because most of the “good ole boys” (I’m one, lol) have never been exposed to a fine craft beer to expand their options. The market is pretty dominated by Anheiser Busch or Miller down there.

    Statute:
    Mississippi statute §67-3-11 provides for the home production of wine. Currently no such provision exists for the home manufacture of beer.

    Discussion:
    Individuals interested in having beer statutorily recognized in Mississippi should seek to have §67-3-11 amended to include the term “beer” or “malt beverage”. Two recent attempts to allow the home production of beer have failed. See 1995 MS S.B. 2097 & 1995 MS H.B. 398.

    Special Provisions:
    N/A

    State Alcohol Beverage Control Agency:
    Alcoholic Beverage Commission
    P.O. Box 540
    Madison, MS 39130-0540
    (601) 856-1301
    FAX (314) 856-1300

    Applicable Statutory Material:
    § 67-3-11. Homemade wine.

    Every person shall have the right to make homemade wine for domestic or household uses only, free of all restraint by this chapter or otherwise, and no such election as provided for in sections 67-3-7, 67-3-9 and 67-3-13, shall deprive any person of the right to make homemade wine for domestic or household uses only.

    • Brian says:

      Thanks for sharing the info, Chris. As more and more people become exposed to “good” beer, I think we’re going to see a lot of changes in the laws over the next few years. I’m sure it’s going to be a long, slow process, but the demand will win out in the end. We’ve just got to keep up the good fight and continue to speak with our dollars, in addition to our voices.

  9. Burnie Berrey says:

    Your artical was outstanding sir. I agree we should have the home brewing laws repealed in the 5 holdout states. I would bet my next paycheck against a good brew there holding out because of the almighty dollar. I have lived here in Mississippi for 11 years now. I grew up in Alabama but have lived all over the southeast during my 21 years in the Navy. I think it probably has not happened here because these backwoods bunch of hicks running this state have not figured a way to line there pockets by repealing the law. I am sure some state bean counter figured up how much tax revenue they would loose with good ole boys making there own instead of going to the country store. Not to mention that we still have dry counties and its almost 2010. Local big money people have a lot of influence as well as to what the legislature does here as well as other states, some own these stores that sell beer. A good example when I lived in Alabama, Anheiser-Busch wanted to open up a plant outside of Oxford Alabama and it was all but a done deal until the local big money folks found out they were going to pay there employees about $16.00 an hour. Well, no sir we can’t have that. We would have to pay our employees more an hour to keep them. Pehaps some day we will have elected enough people with some common sense to get rid of some of the Draconian laws, but watching the bunch we have in Washington right now, I won’t be holding my breath. I am going to hit the send button now and go look out my window. There will probably be a black helicopter full of ATF Agents and Mississippi Storm Troopers converging on my place after they read the truth in this. Take care.
    Burnie

    • Brian says:

      Thanks for sharing your comments, Burnie. I’m similarly frustrated with a lot of the laws in South Carolina. I think it’s silly that special interests get in the way of good business and common sense.

      These days it’s trendy to bash private industry for being greedy, but laws and regulations that govern the beer industry are a great example that greed is just as bad in government. That’s why I don’t understand why we are agreeing to give our government more and more regulatory power seemingly across the board.

      Anyway, I digress…

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