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The ancient art of homebrewing and the law have had an interesting relationship over the years, especially here in the U.S. While homebrewing is legal in all 50 states today, that wasn’t always the case. Yet, as with most things in life, nothing is ever simple and easy – which means that there are some important wrinkles in the laws regarding homebrewing it’s worth wrapping your head around.
Homebrewing Legal Limits
Despite homebrewing's long history, brewing beer of any kind was illegal everywhere in the United States from 1920 until 1933, when Prohibition was appealed. But even as they tried to undo those rules, someone made a mistake: they somehow omitted specific language that made homebrewing beer legal again (though some oenophile did remember to include such language permitting the making of wine).
Fortunately for us, that oversight was corrected some 45 years later when President Jimmy Carter signed a law that amended the internal revenue code in a way that made homebrewing legal again (but not home distilling) – at least at a federal level – but with a few catches. One is that every adult member of a family is limited to brewing 100 gallons of beer a year with a total limit of 200 gallons per household. For what it’s worth, that’s the equivalent of about 2,133 twelve ounce bottles or around 355 six-packs annually.
Which, of course, begs the question of: what in the heck can you do with all that beer? That bring us to another catch in the law, which is that we can’t sell any homebrew we make – no matter how much our adoring public may beg us to. The only way you can remedy that is by obtaining a professional brewery license and, of course, paying taxes on anything you do sell. Short of that, the only other leeway the federal law allows us is that we can share our homebrew for, “organized affairs, exhibitions or competitions such as homemaker's contests, tastings or judging.” And while the more entrepreneurial among us might be tempted to consider charging something like an entrance fee or some such as a way to make some extra coin, beware: that, too, is against the rules.
One potential option you can consider if you want to cash in on the killer recipe you developed at home is to find what’s called a “contract brewer,” which is essentially an existing brew house that can use it excess capacity to brew up your beer and then sell it to the public. Of course, the tradeoff will be the potential loss of craftsmanship and timing of when your beer might actually get brewed.
When It Comes To Homebrewing Laws, Every State Is Different
Since nothing is ever easy, we also need to consider what state we live in when it comes to understand the legal limits on our homebrews. The language in that law that President Carter passed in 1978 also gave individual states to regulate homebrewing as they saw fit, which is why just about every state has a different attitude toward it. In the case of Alabama and Mississippi, it wasn’t legal to homebrew until 2013 (though apparently Mississippi still has cities and counties that are considered “dry” where no alcoholic beverages are allowed). (Here is a rundown of state-by-state alcohol production guidelines from 2013).
One of the aspects of the laws governing homebrewing relates to age. According to federal regulations, anyone who is 18 or older is officially an adult, which then gives them permission to make homebrew. Of course, federal law also says that you need to be 21 to actually drink your brew. Some states have followed suit by setting the age at which you can produce or possess homebrew at 21 – so it pays to find out what applies in your hometown.
Other laws that differ by state include restrictions on the alcohol by volume (ABV) or alcohol by weight (ABW) of your homebrew. In other words, what constitutes a high-gravity, or high alcohol content, in a beer depends on where you live. You’re limited to brewing 10 percent ABV in Tennessee and Mississippi, for instance, while North Carolina tops out at 15 percent. In Oklahoma, you need a state-issued permit to make beer above 3.2 ABW.
While it’s highly unlikely your state has the kind of manpower to be scouring the kitchens of homebrewers, it’s probably worth knowing what the rules are before you start showing off your new high-gravity beers on social media.
Other deviations from the norm include Connecticut, where households are limited to making just 100 gallons of beer a year. Idaho has a similar limit, with the added stipulation that homebrewers can only use “native-grown” products in their recipes. In Iowa, you’d better watch out if you’re planning on transporting more than five gallons of beer to that tasting competition, because that’s your limit.
Don’t Put The Homebrew In The Mail!
While you can obtain special permit to send your beer to a competition via UPS or FedEx, by no means should you attempt to send any of your beer to your friends via the United States Mail, no matter what state you live in. That could cause you all kinds of trouble.
And it’s worth saying here that we aren’t lawyers, so it’s best to talk to one versed in the laws of your state if you have any question about any of these rules – or even new ones that might be on the books.