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 Published in 2004, it is slightly out of date, especially with the recent InBev/Anheiser-Busch merger, but it is quite an entertaining read about Wells’ search for the “perfect beer joint.”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.
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.