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Just Brew It: A Brief Legislative History about Homebrewing in the United States – Part 2

The following is the second of two guest posts by Rebecca Komathy, a former intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. She is currently a graduate student in the master of library and information science program at San Jose State University. The first blog post on this topic was published on February 2, 2023.

In yesterday’s post, we discussed the temperance movement and constitutional amendments related to alcohol. In today’s post, we are continuing with this topic, focusing on illegal alcohol stills and distribution, federal legislation on homebrewing, and state alcohol laws.

Moonshiners, Rumrunners, and Bootleggers

A black and white image of two log cabins, next to a fenced-in yard that has fallen to disrepair. The words "Home of a moonshiner" are written across the top of the image.

Home of a moonshiner. Bain News Service, publisher. July, 1909. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.02037.

Some of homebrewing’s most famous, albeit criminal, trailblazers were moonshiners or illicit distillers that made a clear, high-proof whiskey, often at night. Moonshiners were often at odds with law enforcement, resulting in violence between government officers and moonshiners. Moonshiners operated in more rural areas, and would often depend on bootleggers and rumrunners to distribute their liquor. Bootleggers often smuggled on land with automobiles, while rumrunners smuggled primarily through waterways by boat.

A bootlegger was also known as a person who makes and distributes alcoholic beverages in small quantities and often distributes those drinks in out-of-sight operational bars called speakeasies, a borrowed term that has been around since the late 1800s. An 1888 article in the Pittsburg Dispatch described a speakeasy as:

[A] place where people speak easy while they are taking a glass of beer or a drink of some other liquor. Not that it is an offense against the laws of the Commonwealth or of the United States to take a drink of liquor in that or any other way, but that it is an offense against both to sell without permission of the law. It is the man who sells it who is in danger and it is the man who sells who says to his customers: “Whisper! Speak easy! The police are watching!”

One of the cheapest and most distributed of the homemade liquors seen in speakeasies was bathtub gin. Bathtub gin was made from high-proof alcohol, glycerin, water, juniper, and, in some cases, the deadly additive of wood alcohol. This poisonous additive contributed to hundreds of deaths during the prohibition era, and the general public was becoming agitated at what appeared to be a lack of proper policing of bootleggers. On September 22, 1933, a Pensacola Journal article remarked, “We Americans prefer to spare the bootlegger and kill the victim.”

Jimmy Carter Era

Although homebrewing was technically in a legal gray area due to its omission from prohibition era legislation, homebrew recipes continued circulating over several decades. The growing interest in homebrewing sprouted from hobbyists forming homebrewing clubs due to their interest in flavors not offered by commercial producers. This interest was spearheaded by Charlie Papazian and Charlie Matzen, who created the American Homebrewers Association (AHA) in 1978. In 1979, after homebrewing was formally legalized, Papazian and Matzen began publishing Zymurgy, AHA’s official homebrewing magazine.

A color photo of Jimmy Carter (right) and his brother Billy (left), standing side-by-side outdoors in a flat, green field.

Jimmy and Billy Carter, Plains, Georgia. Gotfryd, Bernard, photographer. Ca. 1977. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/gtfy.05407.

Meanwhile, Papazian was not the only person interested in brewing his own beer. Jimmy Carter’s brother, Billy Carter, launched Billy Beer in 1977. The can reads, “I had this beer brewed up just for me. I think it’s the best I ever tasted. And I’ve tasted a lot. I think you’ll like it too.” The beer was manufactured by Falls City Brewing, but the brew ultimately failed.

A color photograph of an aluminum can of Billy Beer, in front of a dark blue background.

Can of Billy Beer signed by Billy Carter. Gotfryd, B., photographer. Ca. 1977. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/gtfy.05559.

The legalization of homebrewing began in 1976 when homebrewers in California reached out to Senator Alan Cranston, who lobbied for its passage and incorporated key provisions into H.R. 1337, which otherwise dealt with several tax measures. On January 4, 1977, Rep. William Steiger introduced H.R. 1337 in the House. While the bill worked its way through committees in the House and Senate, language related to homebrewing was added by the Senate Finance Committee in S. Rep. No. 95-1127. President Carter signed the act into law on October 14, 1978.

Homebrewing Today

Although the 1978 act removed some restrictions on homebrewing, the 21st Amendment still allowed states to regulate alcohol within their jurisdiction. The last states to legalize homebrewing were Mississippi and Alabama in 2013; however, each state’s laws and regulations on alcohol and homebrewing differ. The Mississippi code at § 67-3-11 permits homebrewers to craft “One hundred (100) gallons if there is only one (1) person over the age of twenty-one (21) years of age residing in the household; and Two hundred (200) gallons if there are two (2) or more persons over the age of twenty-one (21) years residing in the household,” per calendar year.

On the other hand, 2013 amendments to the Alabama code permit Alabama residents to produce only “15 gallons for each quarter of a calendar year… and there shall not be in any legal residence at any one time more than an aggregate amount of 15 gallons of beer.”  This bill also lowered criminal charges related to illegal homebrewing from a felony to a misdemeanor.

Although homebrewing is now legal at the federal level and in all 50 states, homebrewer rights vary by jurisdiction. Some states have strict alcohol strength regulations and permitting requirements, and others have counties that implement “dry” regulations.

According to AHA’s website, it was estimated that 1.1 million people practiced homebrewing in the United States as of 2017. In addition, museum collections like the Smithsonian’s American Brewing History Initiative are focused on telling the story of beer in American with a spotlight on homebrewing. Let’s raise a glass to those who came before us and what brew is on the horizon. Cheers!

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