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February 20, 2017

Homebrewing: A Brief History

Politics aside, homebrewing in the U.S. might not exist today if it wasn’t for Jimmy Carter. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The first beer ever brewed was likely an accident. And it happened perhaps as long as twelve thousand years ago. How lucky are we for that! Think about it: beer is really just a product of fermentation. All it took was for some ancient farmer to leave some wet grains like wheat or barley out in the sun for a while before some yeast would have landed and started to gobble up the sugars, leaving some bubbles – and alcohol – in their wake. Of course, the person who came upon that strange concoction would have also needed the courage to take a sip to realize what he or she had discovered. Little did that farmer realize that, when they did, they became the world’s first homebrewer.

The Evolution of Homebrew

While we’ll never knew who that first pioneer was, they were the start of what would become a long tradition where societies around the world began to taking a much more intentional approach to their brewing. While they might not have understood the science behind the transformative properties of yeast, they sure seemed to like the end result.

Ancient beer perhaps seven thousand years old, still preserved in clay jars, has been unearthed in the Yellow River Valley in China. A recipe dating back to 3900 B.C. has been found in Mesopotamia, which was spoken aloud as a poem to help pass it on to those who couldn’t read or write. And while we might poke fun at “beer snobs” today, ancient people also took the quality of their beer seriously – perhaps no one more than the Babylonian King Hammurabi. In one of the earliest set of written laws we are aware of, known as The Code of Hammurabi, the king decreed that anyone caught watering down their beer or using inferior ingredients would be drowned in their own concoction as punishment. Think about that the next time you pop open a skunky beer.

As new generations of brewers emerged around the world, they began to experiment using cutting-edge ingredients and techniques. Introducing hops into the brewing process, which dates back to around 800 A.D., for instance, was a breakthrough in the ability to store and ship beer thanks to the preservative properties of the fragrant flower. The inventions of the thermometer and the hydrometer in the 1700s gave homebrewers like founding fathers Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington more control over the brewing process, while the discovery of yeast in 1857 by Louis Pasteur finally solved the riddle of where alcohol came from in the first place. It was as if the secret had finally been unlocked to where great beer came from and it promised to introduce a Golden Age of beer.

By the late 1800s, there were more than four thousand breweries in the U.S. alone, many of them small family-owned microbreweries started by immigrants from their kitchens who had brought their own time-tested recipes across the oceans with them. It was as if the nation had been flooded with an entire generation of homebrewers who were intent of reshaping the kinds of beers Americans expected and loved.

Then things got political and it almost all came apart.

A Bump In The Road

The Dark Ages, at least as far as homebrewing in the U.S. is concerned, began with the ratification of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920, which kicked off the Prohibition Era. Suddenly, it was illegal to make, transport, or sell beer or alcohol of any kind. Of course, we know that didn’t stop everyone from brewing – or trying to buy homemade alcohol through the booming black market.

Fortunately, after years of violence and failed attempts to police the demand for alcohol, cooler heads eventually prevailed and the 21st Amendment repealing Prohibition was passed in 1933. But to some degree, the damage was done. Less than 500 breweries still survived because they were able to diversify into milk and yogurt; others got by thanks to bootlegging. It would take decades for the industry to recover – and the craft brewery movement to begin – which is a subject we’ll return to in another post.

But when the members of Congress drew up the law making the production of alcohol legal again, they made a mistake. While they included specific language that permitted people to begin making homemade wine, they left out the ability to make beer. Homebrewing, gasp!, was still illegal.

Jimmy Carter To The Rescue

Incredibly, that continued to be the case up until 1978 when our friend Jimmy Carter re-enters our story. Strangely, Carter has called himself a wine-drinker – unlike his brother Billy, who became a national sensation as an avid beer drinker after his brother was elected president in 1976. In fact, a regional brewery named Falls City Brewing in Louisville, KY, even came up with a beer called “Billy Beer” to try and capitalize on the presidential brand (the beer bombed because it reportedly tasted like swill; you can still find cans of it on online auction sites).

But it was older brother Jimmy who saved the art homebrewing when he helped pass legislation called H.R. 1337, which included an amendment put in by Senator Alan Cranston of California, that essentially legalized homebrewing at a federal level for personal or family use (I’ll get into the history of how states continued to regulate homebrewing in a separate post).

While Jimmy Carter may never have brewed up a batch of beer himself, a stroke of his pen essentially empowered people like Charles Papazian, the author of The Complete Joy of Homebrewing and the founder of the Home Brewer’s Association, to reinvigorate the ancient tradition of brewing beer at home. It also opened up the floodgates to what has today become a billion-dollar industry enjoyed by some 1.2 million Americans – including former president Barack Obama, who brewed up a batch of beer using honey taken from the White House grounds.

So the next time you brew up a batch of your favorite recipe, consider a toast to President Carter for making it all legal like.

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