Home Brew Beer – A Quick History

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Home brewing has been in America since before its founding. It is commonly believed that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were home brewers. Recipes of the day show these revolutionaries preferred a beer containing nearly 11 percent alcohol, which is almost double the potency of most commercial ales of today. These same recipes show it takes three hours to begin the process and up to a week before the brew is ready for bottling. Perhaps their wives were the real “brewmasters” of the day.

Breweries grew larger and more plentiful through the Industrial Revolution as factory workers were thirsty for a pint after a hard hot day on the assembly line. The government enacted taxes on all alcohol manufacturing. This increased the cost of hoe brewing so much it had the effect of encouraging Americans to buy from the large breweries. Finally, Prohibition was passed in 1919. Not only was transport and distribution of any intoxicating beverage prohibited by the 18th amendment to the Constitution, manufacturing was now also illegal. This may have reduced the number of brewing companies across the country, but it did little to discourage the home brewer. Now that there was no place to legally buy the brew, there was no reason to worry about a little thing like an excise tax. Content to make their beverage of choice in their bathtubs, an underground movement of speakeasies and private clubs actually encouraged organized crime to help the average American find a way to wet his whistle.

That all changed again in 1933 when the 22nd amendment passed, repealing the 18th. Contrary to popular belief, there is no mention of beer or wine in either amendment. Both speak only of “intoxicating liquors.” There is no indication that wine was now legal to brew at home while beer was still left as part of the smoky back rooms and bathtub boilers.

Instead the tax man returned to limit the home brewer. The smallest amount of brewing was liable again to pay an excise tax. The Hollywood image of the Revenuer come to break up a home still may seem over the top, but the taxes they collected were real enough.

Then President Jimmy Carter and his pen caused another revolution. Public Law 95-458 passed both Houses of Congress and was signed into law on October 14, 1978. One provision of this law amending the Internal Revenue Code was that households were permitted to brew up to two hundred gallons of beer a year without paying excise tax. Although still subject to local and state laws, the home brewer found a way to afford his or her hobby again.

By the 1980’s Americans were able to brew in their kitchen without fear of the revenuers busting down a door. Those who traveled abroad discovered the more robust and full flavored beers of Europe and brought those flavors back. The light colored and tasting lagers of the large American breweries were still popular, but a growing number of people craved the stronger bouquet of a micro beer. A few companies saw the trend and tried to tap into the home brewer market by adding seasonal beers or making small batches similar to the home made craft beers.

Currently, anyone with a kitchen and an internet connection can find recipes and equipment online. While some states still have blue laws prohibiting sale of bottled liquor on Sundays or transporting alcoholic beverages across state lines without a license, a home brewer never has to worry about running out of his or her favorite drink just before the football game. Just step into the kitchen and see if the latest batch is cold. Then crack the bottle and raise a toast to Washington, Jefferson and all the other brewers who set the stage for this freedom. It may not be as world changing as democracy, but it sure tastes better.

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