By John Moorhead, American Homebrewers Association
October 14, 1978, is an important date for craft beer. It is the date President Jimmy Carter signed bill HR1337, which included the federal legalization of home beer making in the United States without federal taxation.
On February 1, 1979, homebrewing officially became legal, kicking off the next mission to develop laws for homebrewers at the state level. It wouldn’t be until 2013 when Alabama and Mississippi legalized homebrewing that homebrewers could legally make beer in all 50 states.
A look back to the early twentieth century helps understand homebrewing’s long legalization journey. The Prohibition experience shaped U.S. alcohol policy through its embrace of federalism and states’ rights. In the decades prior to national Prohibition, an increasing number of states enacted prohibition laws banning the sale of alcohol within their borders.
In reaction to those prohibitive laws, eager businesses took advantage of existing legal doctrine from the courts to sell to thirsty consumers in “dry” alcohol areas. At the time, legal doctrine made it easier for a company to ship alcohol across state lines so long as the beverage remained in its original packaging.
To reign in this activity, Congress passed the Wilson Act (1890) and Webb-Kenyon Act (1913) designed to give states more authority to control the flow of alcohol into their borders. This legislation eventually culminated with the federal prohibition on the manufacturing and sale of alcohol, but that created its own set of issues.
After the repeal of Prohibition, the Twenty-first Amendment incorporated the language of the Webb-Kenyon Act, giving states additional power to regulate alcoholic beverages. Since that time, despite the federal government’s role in the regulation of alcohol, the primary source of restrictions and privileges flows from state law—and as a result, regulations still vary widely from state to state.
So, while the legalization of homebrewing at the federal level was a huge win for the hobby beermaking community, it also meant effort was needed in each state to truly make homebrewing a legal activity. The American Homebrewers Association made it our mission to advocate for homebrew legality one state at a time.
Some states were quick to adopt the federal legalization as their state’s policy on home beermaking, while others developed their own language. It wasn’t until 2013–nearly 100 years after Prohibition made homebrewing illegal–that making beer at home became legal in all 50 states, with Mississippi and Alabama the last to establish homebrew legality that year.
Today, the American Homebrewers Association and other organizations continue to pursue fair and reasonable homebrew laws across the country. Even with homebrewing being legal in all 50 states, some states still have prohibitive laws on the books that makes it difficult to be a homebrewer.
Passage of favorable homebrew legislation creates a more diverse and flourishing homebrew community. Antiquated laws that restrict transporting, sharing, serving, and storing homebrew are at the forefront of homebrew legalization initiatives these days. Many alcohol codes were created after Prohibition and have been slow to change with the times. With alcohol so heavily regulated, modernizing those codes has met with resistance.
The American Homebrewers Association helps advise and educate state legislators and regulators on the responsibility of the homebrewing community, and advocates for fairer and more reasonable homebrewing rights. Many regulatory bodies and legislators are unaware of how homebrewers operate. Showcasing the homebrew community helps give decision-makers a more realistic picture beyond someone brewing beer in their bathtub.
As regulations and policies change, the American Homebrewers Association continues to monitor, advocate, and promote fairer and more reasonable homebrew legislation and policy to create a more accessible and diverse community. Here are some examples of interesting laws that apply to homebrewers:
- Although it’s legal to homebrew in every state, some states still have “dry” counties (a county where the government forbids the sale of alcohol). Dry counties exist in South Dakota, Kansas, Texas, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Florida.
- While some states allow homebrewers to freely experiment, some have restrictions on alcohol strength. In Tennessee and Mississippi, for example, it’s illegal to brew anything over 10% ABV. In West Virginia, you need to keep it under 12%. In Washington, D.C., the maximum strength is 14%, North Carolina, 15%, South Carolina, 17.5%, and Oklahoma allows for “low-point beer” for personal use (0.5-3.2% Alcohol by Weight).
- In Oklahoma, homebrewers must obtain an annual permit to homebrew. In Alabama, all organized events and judgings must be licensed with a special events retail license.
- In Maine, no provision, exception, exemption or license exists for the home production of beer. Any person not licensed by the state commission who manufactures for sale any liquor, and any person who sells any liquor manufactured without a license, is committing a crime. However, it appears that the home production of beer may not violate Maine law if the beer is not produced for sale.
- In Alabama, you may not produce more than 15 gallons per calendar quarter, and you may not possess more than 15 gallons at one time.
- Many states have restrictive transport laws. In Alabama, you may transport no more than 10 gallons at one time, and only for organized events (with the proper state-issued permit). In Tennessee, you can’t brew more than 5 gallons at a friend’s house and drive it home, as this is seen as intent to distribute. In North Carolina, an individual homebrewer may not transport more than 80 liters for an organized event.
- It’s against the law in all states to use the U.S. Postal Service to send beer. Private couriers such as UPS and FedEx allow you to send beer if you have a special permit to do so, which is limiting to homebrewers who want to enter beer competitions, or just send a bottle of suds to a friend. Currently the Brewers Association (parent company of the AHA) is focused on passing the USPS Shipping Equity Act in Congress to allow shipping of beer through the USPS. The BA has been advocating for passage of this legislation, and has also created a grassroots page that can be used by both producers and consumers to contact their elected officials in support of the USPS Shipping Equity Act.
- January 17, 1920: Prohibition begins as the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution bans the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcohol, including beer made at home.
- December 5, 1933: The 21st Amendment repeals Prohibition, however, the amendment’s legislation mistakenly leaves out the legalization of home beer making (home wine making is legalized, however).
- October 14, 1978, President Jimmy Carter signs H.R. 1337, creating an exemption from taxation of beer brewed at home for personal or family use.
- December 7, 1978: The American Homebrewers Association is formed with the publication of the first issue of Zymurgy® magazine.
- February 1, 1979: Homebrewing becomes legal on a federal level in the U.S.
- May 5, 1979: The AHA holds its first-ever National Homebrew Competition and Gala Homebrewers Ball.
- September 1984: Charlie Papazian publishes The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, widely regarded as the homebrewer’s bible.
- May 2, 1988: Representative David Skaggs of Colorado declares May 7th National Homebrew Day before Congress.
- May 31, 2005: The Great American Beer Festival® Pro-Am Competition debuts: AHA members are able team up with professional brewers to scale up and brew their award-winning recipes at a craft brewery. The AHA estimates that at least 90 percent of professional brewers began as homebrewers.
- September 1, 2012: The White House reveals its homebrewing recipes. Although many of the nation’s founding fathers were homebrewers, White House Honey Ale is the first beer known to have been brewed in the White House.
- 2013: Alabama and Mississippi legalize homebrewing, officially making homebrew legal in all 50 states.
- December 2016: AHA hosts the first-ever Hill Staff Homebrew Competition with members of Congress.
- 2018: 1.1 million homebrewers produced and estimated 1.4 million barrels of beer, or one percent of total U.S. beer production.