Brewing it for Ourselves
A short guide to the long history of American homebrew
By Brian Haney
America has a long history with home brewing beer. The pilgrims did it in Plymouth because it was considered safer than the questionable water of their adopted home. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson made beer at Mount Vernon and Monticello respectively.
Home brewing fits with the American sensibility: It's an improvised, self-sufficient, penny-wise activity that was carried westward with the pioneers. Brewing remained an important part of American society right up until 1920, when the 18th Amendment, more commonly known as Prohibition, outlawed “the manufacture, sale, or transportation” of alcohol for “beverage purposes.”
Now, true, Prohibition couldn’t stop home brewing, but it certainly forced it underground. And even the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 couldn’t bring it back. When the hangovers lifted, it must have come as a surprise to find that while the new statutes allowed for home winemaking, they neglected to include beer brewing, an activity that continued to be illegal for the next 46 years.
Home brewing fits with the American sensibility: It's an improvised, self-sufficient, penny-wise activity that was carried westward with the pioneers.
Finally, in 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed H.R. 1337, which allowed for up to 200 gallons of beer for personal use per calendar year to be produced per household. Even before the law went into effect in February 1979, some former underground brewers in Colorado formed the American Homebrewers Association (AHA).
America's restrictive laws on home brewing prior to H.R. 1337 seemed to enforce some narrow tastes when it came to beer. In 1978, the year President Carter brought home brewers out of the closet, there were only 89 breweries in the U.S. Plenty of people across the country had continued making beer clandestinely since Prohibition, but few were able to pass along their experience to other would-be brewers. With the door opened and national organizations like the AHA in place, hobbyists were able to communicate with each other, repeating successes and avoiding mistakes. Odd and interesting experiments yielded both good and bad results, and the narrow range of tastes offered by Budweiser, Miller and Coors began to seem increasingly less satisfying.
In 1982 the annual Great American Beer Festival began in Colorado. In the ’80s and ’90s, driven in large part by the increasing ambitions of hobbyists, microbreweries began budding up across the country making innovative, traditional, and forgotten styles of beer that further stretched the American palate. Today there are well north of 2,000 small, medium and large-scale breweries in the U.S. According to the Brewers Association, the trade organization representing the majority of American breweries; you'd have to go back to 1887 to find a time when there were more. Though craft sales remain a small percentage of total beer sales (something like 5 percent), they command enough attention that large national brands have generated lines to appeal to the craft beer consumer—I'm looking at you, Rolling Rock and Black Rock.
As testament to how far home brewing has come, even the current President has gotten in the game, recently making a honey ale with honey from the White House beehives. Considering the number of founding fathers that have brewed, it's amazing that the Obamas are apparently the only First Family to enjoy home brewed beer in the Oval Office.
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