Just three companies control approximately 80 percent of the beer industry in the US. Brewing beer at home is one way to counter this corporate monopoly. However, Mississippi, Kentucky, Alabama and Oklahoma still outlaw the craft. Recently, a victory for homebrewers was scored in Utah, when on February 19th the State Senate legalized homebrewing, bringing the state out of the shadows of prohibition.
Three Republican Senators voted against the bill, including Senate Majority Assistant Whip Gregory Bell. “I’m not comfortable with home brewing,” Bell said to the Deseret News. “It seems fraught with mischief to me. Maybe I don’t understand it.”
Why doesn’t Bell understand this delicious and empowering craft? Perhaps because corporations have taken over an industry that used to be rooted in the kitchens of the world.
It was in Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq, where first emerged the trade of beer and barley, according to Fermenting Revolution: How To Drink Beer and Save the World by Christopher O’Brien. The need to cultivate crops for this important product may have been the initial reason for the settlement of the world’s first large-scale community. In Babylonia, where beer was safer to drink than the canal water, barley and beer were used as a form of currency. The foundations of modern society appear to be built on, well, beer.
At the time of the American Revolution, rebels encouraged boycotts against English beer, chanting the phrase, “Homebrewed Is Best.” George Washington brewed his own beer in a house designated for the craft in his backyard. At Monticello, Thomas Jefferson gave his friends beer-brewing lessons. In 1872, there were 3,421 breweries in the US. According to the New Yorker, during the Civil War, a member of the United States Sanitary Commission said beer was a “valuable substitute for vegetables.” Now there are more than 1,400 breweries, and over one million homebrewers in the US.
Yet during Prohibition, home brewers naturally took a hit. After Prohibition was lifted, wine was allowed to be produced legally at home, but beer was not. In 1978, NY Congressman Barbar Conable sponsored a bill that would legalize homebrewing. When introducing the bill to Congress, Conable said that Americans should not have to “rely on the beer barons” for their brew. It wasn’t until 1979, when President Jimmy Carter signed the Cranston Act, that home brewing was legalized in many states. At the time of the law’s passage, only forty-four breweries were in operation in the US.
However, the Cranston Act still allowed individual states to prohibit the production. Before the Utah Senate legalized homebrewing a few days ago, those who brewed at home had to get a license and post a $10,000 bond. Utah Senator Steve Urquhart said of the new law’s passage, “We’re dealing with adults and this simply isn’t a big deal. That’s the argument that persuades me.” Utah Governor Jon Huntsman now needs to sign the bill into law for it to be applied. Pending this passage, homebrewers will be able to brew legally starting on May 12.
This homebrewers’ victory in Utah is in part thanks to two years of grassroots activism and lobbying on the part of the American Homebrewers Association and Gary Glass, the Association’s director. Glass spoke to the Beer Examiner about the process. “Much thanks to all of the Utah craft brewers who have helped us in the effort to legalize homebrewing over the past couple of years . . . The huge response we’ve had from Utah homebrewers and beer enthusiasts contacting their legislators had a major impact. I was present and testified at the legislative committee hearings and was encouraged to hear from many legislators that they were surprised at the number of contacts from voters urging them to support the measure.”
Homebrewing is a wonderful pastime that can also help build community. In Burlington, Vermont my friends and I recently pooled our money together to buy brewing equipment, and started a collective that shares the equipment, recipes and the beer with other locals around town. In this way, homebrewing has built community and allows us to cut out the corporate middleman.
Similarly, the homebrewers’ victory in Utah is one step close to enabling the beer drinkers of the world to take back their brew from the corporations of the world.