For connoisseurs of Budweiser, the 1970s were a pale golden age. In every supermarket across the land, the King of Beers maintained its status as the grocery world’s most superfluous monarch, reigning over just a handful of domestic taste-alikes and one or two upstart imports. The American public had decided it liked its beer cheap, bland, and less filling, and the industry—which, after decades of consolidation, consisted of a mere 44 breweries in 1979—was happy to oblige. Consumers with a thirst for something tastier, or at least different, had few options. Things were so bad, in fact, that Coors, distributed in just 11 Western states, was considered such a rare delicacy in other parts of the country that bootlegged cases went for three times their retail price in New Jersey and Tennessee. Was it any wonder that the nation was feeling weak and watered down?
Then Jimmy Carter took pity on our wretched souls. In 1978 he signed Senate Amendment 3534, a portion of which gave each household permission to produce up to 200 gallons of tax-exempt beer each year.
Three decades later, the U.S. boasts 1,463 breweries, including 975 brewpubs. Bud Light and its analogs still dominate the market, but even your corner market may have at least a few selections to tempt the palate of Joe Microbrew: summer ales, double bocks, black lagers, maybe even a honey orange wheat ale. If you’re looking for a textbook example of how government can stifle innovation and discourage productive activity, even when operating in Regulatory Lite mode, the story of home brewing in America should hit the spot.
In colonial times, home-brew was as much a part of American life as burning witches or shooting Redcoats. George Washington had a brew house in his backyard. Thomas Jefferson gave beer-making seminars to friends at Monticello. By 1872, however, there were 3,421 commercial breweries in America, or roughly 17 times as many per capita as there are now, and home brewing was a less necessary endeavor.
Prohibition changed that. For the first time, federal lawmakers made home brewing a crime, carrying potential penalties of one year in prison or a $1,000 fine. Yet apparently chronic sobriety was an even worse fate. With commercial beer no longer available, thousands of shops began carrying the ingredients and equipment that small-scale brewing required. By 1929 thirsty scofflaws were producing approximately 700 million gallons of home-brewed beer per year.
After Prohibition ended, the Federal Alcohol Administration Act of 1935 laid out a new set of liquor laws. Home winemaking for family use was granted a tax exemption; home brewing was not. If you were making any amount of beer, you had to obtain a permit and comply with a long list of regulations. And while federal authorities showed little interest in actually cracking down on such indiscretions, states had liquor laws too, and they could be more aggressive. Home brewers mostly attracted police attention if they tried to sell their stock, but in some areas even a small amount of homemade beer destined for personal consumption could land you in hot water. In 1962, for example, an unlucky couple in Middlesboro, Kentucky, was caught with three gallons of home-brew and charged with “illegal possession of alcoholic beverage” and with “living in adultery.”
Because of the potential legal complications, and because home brewing generally resulted in a product that was far inferior to what commercial breweries were turning out in the 1940s and ’50s, it was an unpopular and moribund art during these years. But as the number of commercial breweries began to decline, a portion of the beer-drinking market began to grow disenchanted with those long supermarket aisles filled with nothing but Bud. Drinkers began to envision a new role for home-brew: Instead of functioning as a cheap do-it-yourself alternative to well-made commercial beers, why couldn’t it function as a well-made do-it-yourself alternative to cheap commercial beers?
In places with a somewhat more permissive culture than Middlesboro, Kentucky, a semi-public home-brew movement began to emerge. The Oregon author Fred Eckhardt was spreading the gospel via his influential 1969 book A Treatise on Lager Beers. Charlie Papazian was teaching home-brew classes to aspiring beer makers in Colorado. Clubs with names like the San Andreas Malts were meeting in the San Francisco Bay Area to share tricks of the trade and taste each other’s brews.
But home brewing could still get you five years in prison or a $10,000 fine. When pressed to articulate the feds’ position on the practice, Treasury officials were not shy about reminding the public of the possible penalties. Not surprisingly, their attitude tended to have a chilling effect on the developing home-brew community. “If you looked in the yellow pages back in those days, you’d see wine-making supplies but you’d never see beer-making supplies,” Papazian remembers. “The shops didn’t want to advertise that part of their business.” Byron Burch, another early home brewer, says, “We weren’t conceding that it was illegal, but we recognized that the government felt it was, and nobody wanted to be the test case.”
For decades, the Treasury Department maintained that unregulated home brewing could not be permitted because it might provide cover to moonshiners, since the mash that remains after brewing beer can be distilled into liquor. In 1978, however, a supplier of beer-making equipment in Rochester, New York, asked his congressman, Barber Conable (R–N.Y.), to sponsor a bill that would extend the home winemakers’ exemption to DIY beer makers.
According to James Fleming, author of a 2004 biography of Conable called Window on Congress, the congressman had no great interest in home brewing. He wasn’t even a beer drinker. In 2002, when two reporters contacted Conable to discuss his role in helping jump-start the “American beer renaissance,” he didn’t even recall the bill. But when he introduced it to his colleagues in 1978 Conable apparently felt more passionately, insisting that independent Americans shouldn’t have to “rely on the beer barons” for their daily libations. According to an Associated Press article written at the time, the bill “sailed through the House on a voice vote with no audible objection.”
Under the guidance of Sen. Alan Cranston (D–Calif.), it fared much the same in the Senate. Then Carter signed it into law, and just like that, after 43 years of government inertia, indifference, and undue concern about the ways home brewers might abuse the privilege of mixing hops and malt extract in their unsupervised kitchens, home brewing was suddenly legal again.
At least on the federal level. While many states continued to maintain laws against the practice, enough followed the federal government’s lead to help dramatically accelerate home brewing’s growth. Ultimately, home brewing began to influence the beer industry at large.
“I’d say over 90 percent of small brewers I talk to today have roots in home brewing,” says Papazian, who now serves as president of the Brewers Association, a trade group. “The creativity and innovation they’ve brought to the business has been amazing. The American wheat beers. The fruit beers, the honey beers, the chocolate beers. They were all homebrews first.” Anyone whose thirst for finely crafted beer exceeds their thirst for finely crafted beer commercials should be grateful.
Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer in San Francisco.