Homebrew bill back for another round
by Tim Lockette
Jan 28, 2013 | 7555 views |  0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MONTGOMERY — One Alabama lawmaker wants to make it legal to get beer the hard way.

Rep. Mac McCutcheon, R-Huntsville, has pre-filed a bill that would legalize home brewing of beer, wine and cider for non-commercial use.

"This is a hobby that's been practiced by a lot of responsible people," McCutcheon said. "It has nothing to do with commercial sales of alcohol."

In most states -- 48 of them, in fact -- home-brewing of beer and wine is a widely practiced hobby. In Alabama and Mississippi, the last states to remove Prohibition-era bans on making alcohol at home, that hobby is still illegal.

Beer and wine are available for sale in stores in most Alabama counties, and in some cities within the state's 25 dry counties. But making those beverages at home is a felony.

Not everyone in the state seems to know that. Huntsville resident Brant Warren, one of the homebrew bill's advocates, said that accoording to some, as many as 5,000 of the nation's 750,000 home-brewing hobbyists live in Alabama.

"I often hear of someone's aunt or uncle who makes muscadine wine," said Warren, an organizer of the pro-brewing group Right to Brew. "People are shocked when I tell them it's illegal."

Warren said that in addition to rural, traditional home-brewers, the hobby seems to appeal to people in professional or technical fields, particularly those with a background in science.

Huntsville, home to defense contractors and aerospace industries, attracts a lot of people who fit that description.

"I've heard from hobby brewers who came here from other states," McCutcheon said. "They're surprised that they can't brew at home here. And they don't want to break the law because if they're caught, they could lose their security clearance."

McCutcheon's bill would allow people of drinking age to brew up to 15 gallons of beer, cider, wine or mead for personal use every three months. Fifteen gallons is equivalent to about 150 12-ounce bottles, roughly the same capacity as a commercially available keg.

Under the provisions of the bill, home brewers couldn't sell their product, but they could transport it to competitions. Distilling whiskey would still be illegal, and people in dry counties still wouldn't be allowed to brew.

McCutcheon has introduced the homebrew bill in previous legislative sessions. It cleared the House once, and an earlier bill cleared the Senate, but no homebrewing bill has made it through both houses. In 2011, the bill won the Shroud Award, a humorous distinction lawmakers confer on the session's deadest bill.

One of the bill's strongest opponents was the Alabama Citizens' Action Program, or ALCAP, an interdenominational religious group based in Birmingham. Founded in 1937 as the Alabama Temperance Alliance, the group lobbies on Goat Hill two days per week, said executive director Joe Godfrey, and holds a weekly prayer breakfast for lawmakers.

Godfrey said the group spends much of its time lobbying against efforts of big alcohol companies to loosen the state's alcohol laws. But even small-scale brewing is bad for society, he said.

"People fail to understand that alcohol is a mind-altering, addictive drug," Godfrey said. He said even home brewing will cost the taxpayers in terms of health effects and crime that arise from alcohol abuse.

"This is just another way of expanding it," he said.

Warren, of Right to Brew, said homebrewers are usually among the most reponsible drinkers. A batch of beer takes at least three weeks to produce, he said.

"Homebrewing costs more, and it's a ton of work," he said. "If you just wanted to get drunk, you could go to the store and buy a beer."

For most brewers, he said, the hobby is like cooking -- a pasttime that's as much about the process as it is about the product.

"It's like smoking a pig for a barbecue," he said. "You're going to sit up all night doing that."

Still, Warren doesn't deny that the legalization of homebrewing would help at least one sector of the commercial beer market. In the last few years, Alabama has seen a rise in the number of locally-owned craft beer companies -- businesses like Gadsden's Back Forty or Birmingham's Good People Brewing. Warren said that nationwide, most craft beer makers start out as homebrewers.

But with homebrewing still a felony in Alabama, local beer-makers are reluctant to talk about whether they, or others, started out as home brewers.

"Legally brewed since 2008" is one of the slogans of Good People Brewing. Asked whether that implied homebrewing before 2008, brewery co-founder Michael Sellers declined comment.

But Sellers, whose business employs eight people, said there's plenty of room for growth in the local craft beer industry.

"Yeah, I think there's room for more good beer," he said.

To get the bill passed, though, advocates of homebrewing will have to convince skeptical lawmakers.

Rep. Richard Laird, D-Roaonoke, was one of the leading opponents of McCutcheon's earlier bills. He said he opposed that bill because it would have allowed home brewers to make as much as 300 gallons per year.

"That's a lot for personal consumption," he said.

Warren said the notion of a 300-gallon limit in that bill was a misconception that emerged in discussion on the floor of the House. He said under federal law, homebrewers can make only 100 gallons per brewer per year, with limit of 200 gallons per household.

Even so, the 15-gallon-per quarter limit, or 60 gallons per year, could make this year's bill more palatable to some legislators.

Laird said he remains skeptical of the homebrew bill, but could support a bill "with the proper safeguards."

McCutcheon got his bill in early this year — the ninth bill prefiled for the coming legislative session. He said he thinks that gives the legislation a better chance of making it through both houses.

The Legislature convenes on Feb. 5.

Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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