The American Homebrewing Tradition

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As a relative newcomer to homebrewing (I've been brewing for a little over a year), I find the topic of American homebrewing history particularly fascinating. Considering that less than a century ago, homebrewers' sacred undertaking was a violation of federal law, it's fair to say that we and our craft have come a long way. And with the availability of literature, tips, how-to videos, and other information, the neophyte need only access their favorite search engine, web browser, or social media app (e.g., FaceBook, YouTube, etc.) to get a front-row seat to one-on-one homebrewing instruction.

What that same neophyte may not know (or even appreciate) is where the American homebrewing tradition started (before it was a tradition, and merely a hobby), and the evolutionary journey it took from its humble basement beginnings to a bona fide facet of American popular culture. If you've made the decision to try your hand at homebrewing, you've probably come across or heard of books like Charlie Papazian's The Complete Joy of Homebrewing or John Palmer's How to Brew. These two books, in my opinion, are an invaluable resource to the homebrewer, but more than that, they pay appropriate homage to our homebrewing tradition by examining the history behind it.

1978 was the year it all happened for us. Jimmy Carter was the President of the United States, and in that capacity he signed HR 1337, which contained an amendment creating an exemption from the taxation of beer produced at home for personal or family use. The exemption went into effect in February, 1979. This effectively legalized the limited production of beer by private citizens; something that had been illegal (by way of a tragic oversight) since the Volstead Act ushered in that noble experiment (read: Dark Ages) called Prohibition in 1919 by creating legislation to enforce the intent of the Eighteenth Amendment. Due to massive public outcry and the fact that Prohibition was effectively unenforceable, Prohibition was finally repealed by the Twenty-first Amendment in December of 1933.

Unfortunately, the legislation dealing with the repeal of Prohibition did not include a provision for home beer-making. However home wine-making was legalized at that time.
Notwithstanding the Dark Ages of Prohibition and the continued illegality of homebrewing until 1978/1979, humanity's tradition of brewing beer is implacable. From the early Egyptians to the various European styles, brewing beer has been one of the cornerstones of civilization for centuries. Likewise, once America snapped out of its tee-totaling stupor, we once again undertook that sacred duty that is converting perfectly good food into perfectly good beer.
Where America is concerned, before Prohibition there were thousands of breweries all across the country, largely servicing their particular niche of the country. Likewise, there were also homebrewers. Once the blight of Prohibition blew over, only large breweries who had weathered the storm by producing malt products for the food industry. Smaller, local breweries were forced to abandon their business, and thus what emerged was an environment where only the largest, mass-producing breweries survived. And in order to cautiously take advantage of a newly opened (and arguably skittish) market, they strove to develop and produce beers that would appeal to the largest number of people. Thus we entered the age of pale, weak, thin beer devoid of the moxy extant in the cornucopia of modern craft brews.
The beauty of the American homebrewing tradition is in its spirit of variety. Homebrewers are everyone you see: they're teachers and laborers; electricians and plumbers; soldiers and sailors; hipsters and yuppies. Homebrewers are you and me, and we are everywhere. What this lends to the craft is a limitless variety and sense of creativity in the beers we create. There is no corporate structure or employee handbook for the homebrewer. We brew because we love it, and just as oxygen keeps our body alive, so too does innovation, creativity, and intrepid spirit keep the homebrewing tradition alive and vivacious. One could almost say that variety and innovation are solemn obligations of the homebrewer. Big Brother does not limit our vision. Homebrewing is something that anyone can do, and moreover, it's something that anyone can do any way they want. Bill Lumberg won't be asking you to work on Saturday if you get it wrong, either. Trial and error are built in.
As Charlie Papazian tells us in The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, during this period of large breweries flooding the market with what they thought was the beer we all wanted, the one thing that we were missing and the homebrewing revival brought back to us was choice. The beauty of choice is the primary luxury we have in the world of beer today. From the perspective of the homebrewer, choice means that we have the ability (most would say the obligation) to brew any style, strength, flavor, or color of beer that flips our collective skirts up. Likewise, from the perspective of the beer consumer, no longer are we limited to the litany of straw-colored, barely-more-than-water offerings given to us by production giants. We have the ability now to explore the pantheon of beer styles, and in so doing support nano and craft brewers trying to make it in this ever-expanding world of choice. Furthermore, as homebrewers effectively developed and grew the craft beer market, so too has the craft beer market been able to influence the tack of production giants like Coors in their entry to craft-style brews. Look no further than the Blue Moon line of beers.

The American homebrewing tradition is on the rise. In the 1980 and even through the 1990s, knowledge on the topic, not to mention the equipment and experience with the same, were not nearly as prolific as they are today. Many of today's most popular craft breweries started as nothing more than a garage operation producing a whopping 5.5 gallons every other month or so, and now for a modest investment, any motivated soul can begin producing respectable, drinkable homebrew. Of course that's a bit of an over-simplification, but you get the point. Were it not for flag-bearing pioneers such as New Belgium, Sierra Nevada, and Dogfish Head (just the first three that popped into my head), I doubt very much that we would be seeing the rise in market share and popularity of craft beers in the United States today, nearly 20-ish years after the inception of the aforementioned brewers. That success further bolsters the confidence of nascent homebrewers and experienced nano-brewers alike, paving the way forward for even more expansion of our craft and the furtherance of the homebrewing tradition in America.
Yes, Jimmy Carter signed the bill to legalize homebrewing, but let us also give a nod to the source of legislation that led to this bill. After much lobbying by early Maltose Falcons members, then US senator Alan Cranston (D-Calif, 1969-1993) had the bill, unopposed by both houses, land on Carter's desk in 1978 who signed it and gave homebrewers the right to brew up to 100 gallons per person or 200 gallons per household a year. Thank you Sen. Cranston and all other players to ensure our right to produce our beverage of choice!
It's also interesting that it seems we're the only country on Earth to face a prohibition of alcohol. Too bad it led to many smaller breweries going extinct. How many good beers will never be seen again because of such failed experiments? That's where we come in. As homebrewers, we can resurrect the past in order to keep some memories alive.
True, but those are muslim countries that don't consume alcohol to begin with from a legal standpoint.
We still have a long way to go in this country! Many relics of the prohibition era remain alive and well, even to this day. Off the top of my head are distilling spirits (still illegal in most states), 3 Tier System of alcohol distribution, Pennsylvania's antiquated state run system of separating beer from liquor shops and requiring consumers to buy beer only by the case, etc, etc.
@Seven And don't forget that other remnant of Prohibition, the most inept (and possibly most corrupt) federal "law enforcement" (actually tax enforcement) agency around, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2013/12/08/249610501/report-details-atfs-use-of-mentally-disabled-in-gun-stings
@ hunter-I looked at the present ones, not the past ones. Interesting some other countries had it starting about the same time it did here. Some a short time, others a lil longer. I stand corrected...sitting here waiting for my starter wort to cool! I do think the 3-tier system could use a little tweaking. I just think it was a colossal waste of some older breweries enacting such laws to shut up a small group of folks that wanted the rest to live their way.
Nice Post / Article.
I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to drink a few with Bert Grant. I remember him saying that he never imagined the micro-explosion, which he was clearly one of the catalyst to. That conversation was in 1994, today we are so fortunate, craft beer is found everywhere, ingredients are fresh and plentiful, knowledge is a click away, calculating IBU's on a phone. I toast to the early brewers that blazed the trail for all of us! Thanks, Bert, thanks Charlie, thanks Palmer, thanks Grossman, thanks Carol Stoudt, thanks Finkel,......................
I think that the popularity of home-brewing here can be traced back to England in the 1970s when the landmark books of Dave Line (e.g., "The Big Book of Brewing") showed how it was possible to do all-grain mashes at home. This was translated to the US by Dave Miller, for example with "Home Brewing for Americans"