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Sunday, February 12, 2012

The War on Homebrewing

A random homebrew set up
(Original here)
These Goliaths are scared to death of the little guy.
(Original here)


Killing beer creativity at the roots.

There is a battle going on in Wisconsin that could have serious consequences for the craft beer industry across the country. It should surprise no one that the large brewing corporations are lashing out in different ways as they slowly start to lose market share to a rising craft beer industry and a resurgent spirits scene.

This latest fight is about homebrewing, first a little background. On the federal level, homebrewing was legalized when President Jimmy Carter signed it into law in 1978. The basics were such; any individual above legal drinking age could brew up to 100 gallons a year, 200 gallons per household if it had two or more occupants of legal age. You could not sell it, but you could transport it. It was the sweeping away of another Prohibition relic. While it was legal on the federal level, the states still had the right to restrict as they saw fit.

This was never really an issue in Wisconsin until this last year when the Wisconsin Department of Revenue took a look at the state law and declared that homebrewers could not transport any alcohol from where it was brewed. That effectively killed any homebrew tasting events or other gatherings. What hadn’t been an issue for years was now illegal. Keep in mind that transportation is legal at the federal level.

To remedy that issue, Rep. Dean Kaufert, R-Neenah, introduceda bit of common sense legislation to adjust that. It made it through Senate committee without even a peep. Now though it has been blown out of proportion in the Assembly with the Wisconsin Beer Distributors Association and the Wisconsin Wine and Spirit Institute throwing a fit about how this will be outside of state regulation on distribution. 

But what is really going on here? I believe this is a bit more nefarious and here is why. This latest salvo from the macro beer industry is just a ruse; they are using the regulation / safety issue to mask their real intent which is to dismantle the training ground of their biggest threat, the craft beer movement. Allow me to explain.

How many times have we heard from craft brewers that they got their start as a homebrewer? I’d argue that a majority of the successful crafts today did exactly that. It even matches up with the timeline since legalization. You need to master your skills before you can go pro. If you were a good homebrewer you were able to grow a grassroots audience through friends, and word of mouth. Tasting events allowed for greater exposure to a larger audience. Like most things the cream rose to the top and some of the best homebrewers or ones who had cultivated a loyal following did turn pro. Homebrewing is the breeding ground to great beer and serves as the minor leagues for craft beer industry.

For the macros this was just an annoyance at first, they had grown complacent and were only willing to spar against the other heavyweights. Now though they are seeing market share drain away and that is causing a panic. For a bit more detail on the specifics go check out these links for how much, how fast, for how long, and to whom.

Instead of meeting the craft beer movement on a “fair” playing field by brewing better beer, the Bigs are taking the path of least resistance, in this case through legislation and regulation. They are already playing the distribution card (see below); this is just another angle of attack for them. What better way to curtail your competition than to hamstring their training ground.

If they win here I guarantee they will start doing similar things in other states through the legislative process. Even more worrisome is that they have the money and the lobbying expertise to do this. The craft beer industry is not prepared for this fight and homebrewers weren’t even  expecting it. The irony is that the craft beer industry and homebrewing's greatest strength, its diversity and lack of centralization, is also one of it's biggest weaknesses when it comes time to politically organize. 

Following on the heels of the beer distribution law passed last year this shouldn’t surprise anyone, particularly with Gov. Scott Walker running the show. He has already shown his cards as a corporate stooge. It is a damn shame this is happening in a state that had such a vibrant beer culture.

Want to take a stand? Get smart on the homebrew laws in your state and get involved. If you are in Wisconsin, call up your state representative or state senator and let them know your side of the story. Folks, this is only the start of long, hard fight between giant corporations who have lost their way and individuals who want to make something better and different. 


  1. You had me until the "corporate stooge" comment. This issue crosses party lines, and if you were seriously paying attention, you would have noticed that. My WI Senator, who voted in favor of the beer distribution law, is a co-sponsor of the Homebrewing legislation. Gov. Walker has not even commented on it yet, and defers to the legislature. Wait to see what Walker does before you scorn him, on this issue.

    WI Homebrewer, Beer Baron and AHA member.

    1. Patrick, thanks for stopping by and commenting, I appreciate it. You are correct, this issue does cross party lines and I believe it as common sense legislation.

      But, I will stand by my comment about Gov. Walker, no he has not weighed in yet which is unfortunate because here is an issue that he could have gotten some easy positive press.

      I will argue that the passage of the beer distribution law shows that the current administration in the mansion is not looking out for the small brewer and that it will have negative long term ramifications for the craft brewing industry in Wisconsin.

      I really hope I'm wrong but we will see. Once again thanks for stopping by.