Homebrew and the Law

clear mug with light beer and a lot of head

I had the opportunity to review homebrewing laws across the country for a Women in Homebrew event this weekend.  The differences are pretty interesting.

Maryland Homebrew, one of my local shops, sponsored a Women in Homebrew event today.  We raised $335 for the Women’s Law Center and showcased maybe eight quite different, quite good beers, all brewed by women (Baltimore Beer Babes were well represented).  Despite the day’s theme, several men asked me who’d brewed the beer I was serving….

In the process I decorated my half-table in a homebrewing law theme.  I built a mobile nearly as tall as I am with the  laws of all fifty states, the District of Columbia and the Federal statute that sets precedent.  The gist of each law (copied from the AHA homebrewer rights site) was printed in type big enough to read on blue-sky-and-clouds paper, cut out in the shape of clouds, and strung in five long strands.  But that’s not all…to the apron of my table cover, hanging down in front, I pinned outlines of the three states that do not statutorily permit homebrewing with their damning laws printed across them, and a list of the states where it is questionable – meaning, if I understand correctly, that as long as the judges in that state don’t change their minds about what their law means, residents can brew at home.

I am probably the last homebrewer in the country to compute this, but our current President likes beer and has homebrewed, and his challenger is a Mormon who doesn’t drink.  I only heard one pro-Romney joke at the event yesterday.

I took the White House honey porter, the original recipe (not the all-grain version, I wanted to see what our President is actually drinking), and  a few miscellaneous bottles of other stuff.  The woman who shared my table brought “Beery Obama”, a coffee porter.  She’s been brewing less than a year, and her beer was good; I was impressed.  Her labels were funny, too, especially the President-with-a-baby themed ones.   Her name is Rochelle, and she says she cold-brews her coffee to avoid bitterness.  I believe she said she added it in the final racking.  I’d brought a bottle of a spiced braggot, and got the dregs mixed in with her porter; the result was delicious!  It was happy coincidence that the two politically-themed brewers were assigned to share a table; it’s not like Chris at Md Homebrew knew what we were planning.

Can you name the three where homebrewing is not statutorily recognized?  Those are Mississippi, Alabama, and Ohio. Ohio!  I think of Ohio as a state of stiff-necked rednecks who wouldn’t stand for the government telling them they can’t make their own beer.  That one surprised me.  Alabama is where a beer and wine store was raided just last month; despite having all his licenses and permits, the state agents confiscated all his new homebrewing equipment.

Can you name the states where the status of homebrewing is questionable?  It’s “possibly permitted” in Iowa, Maine, New York,  and West Virginia (I could swear there was one more) – see my above description about judges interpreting laws.

The whole process was a very interesting civics lesson.  You figure nothing in the U.S. would be as complicated if there weren’t so many of us – so many states and jurisdictions, so many different considerations.  There are two themes I’d expect to see: state revenues, in the form of excise tax and licenses, and protection of the populace, which means distilling. States have to earn money for public services somehow, and alcohol sales are an easy source.  It’s easy to distill alcohol incorrectly and poison people; that’s why home distillation is so closely regulated in most states.  Fair enough.   I suppose “vice” considerations might show up as well, if the state decides it is appropriate to protect its people from themselves – but homebrewing as a hobby isn’t where that concern should lie, in my opinion.  Nonetheless. you see traces of it in some state laws. These days the trend is for state-level legislation to avoid telling people what to do in their personal lives, for which I am grateful. Some states – not as many as I’d expect – default to the federal statute.

There are all these other specific stipulations that made me grateful we have an association with a website where I can go check the status of my hobby in whatever state I happen to reside in.

Oregon law is not the only state that says you can help another person home brew as long as you don’t receive financial consideration for it.

Excise tax clearly factored in a lot of these legal considerations.  Minnesota‘s law says “fruit juices naturally fermented or beer naturally brewed in the home for family use” is free from state excise tax – where does that leave mead?  Only a few states mention mead and cider specifically; some give an excise tax exception for individuals to brew beer but not wine, or vice versa.  Definitely read the fine print.

Age:  New Jersey, Florida and California require you  be over 21 to make beer.  I think that’s a pity, ’cause understanding homebrew might make a good Eagle Scout project.

Fermentation vs. distillationNebraska limits to “simple fermentation”.  Quite a few states exclude distillation specifically from home production.  OK, we have a history of home stills poisoning people, so I can live with that.

QuantityGeorgia only allows 50 gallons a year free from state excise tax, as opposed to the Federal law permitting 100 gallons for a single person and 200 gallons per family.

Transport:  Several states have legislated whether you can take homebrew out of your home to share (say, at a club meeting or local competition).  Vermont goes to some length to discuss where you can transport your home-fermented beverages (organized event, exhibition, or competition for same) as long as the sponsor provides written notice (obtains a permit), no fees are charged for tastings, there is a delineated area for the event, and any unused beverage is disposed of by the permit holder.  Several state statutes specifically mention where you can transport your homebrew; clearly homebrew clubs had a hand in helping to craft those (Indiana‘s a good example).

Who can make it:  In Hawaii the head of any family may produce for family use…I wonder how many couples use this statute to decide who they declare as head of household?

Native GrownIdaho allows the “privilege of manufacturing” wine or beer from native grown products.  Let me guess – everyone’s got a hops trellis in their yard?  The local barley growers are really popular?

ABV:  Get your hydrometers ready…Oklahoma requires a personal use permit and allows the fermentation of “low-point beer” (0.5% – 3.2% ABV) for personal use.  In South Carolina home brew must be under 5% ABV; in West Virginia, 6%.

Generally speaking, the laws I looked over stipulate that the product of home brewing must be for personal use, available to family and guests only.  It must not be for sale or other financial gain, protecting state tax revenues.  That part seems pretty sensible.  But the rest can be dizzying.  This has got to shape the homebrewing culture in each state – I’m going to try to stay aware of that when I travel to homebrew events in the future.



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