“I’ve interviewed over a hundred craft brewers in America. I can count on one hand how many of their stories don’t start with, ‘So, one time, I got a gift of a homebrewing kit. Next thing I knew, I was hooked’,” says Drew Beechum, who co-hosts the podcast, Experimental Brewing.
Homebrewing is widespread and wildly popular in the U.S. today. But, for many years, it was illegal.
During Prohibition (1919-1933), commercial acts of brewing, distilling and winemaking were banned. However, when the 18th Amendment was repealed in 1933, winemaking for at-home use was permitted. But the law did not include homebrewing, leaving it in a governmental oversight limbo.
It wasn’t until 1978 that President Jimmy Carter signed bill H.R. 1337, which contained an amendment that created an exemption from taxation of beer brewed at home for personal or family use. It went into effect on February 1, 1979. At last, homebrewing was legal.
Many believe this was a largely symbolic development. Scores of homebrewers, both committed and casual, had made their own ales for years. They’d just done so quietly. Still, the bill into law brought the hobby into the general consciousness, and it helped spur on the beer industry as we know it today.
Before Prohibition, there were more than 4,000 breweries in the United States. Brewing, along with whiskey, wine and cider production, was decimated when the 18th Amendment was enacted in 1919.
Homebrewing suffered a similar fate. The landscape was dramatically changed by the time Prohibition was repealed by the 21st Amendment in 1933. It took decades to regain momentum.
By the 1970s, only a handful of breweries were open, and most produced relatively bland American lagers. Imports were available and offered a little more oomph of taste or specialty ingredients. But for something truly special or flavorful, America’s homebrewers had to do it themselves.
“Speaking to the older brewers I know, they picked homebrewing defensively,” says Beechum, who with Denny Conn is the co-author of Experimental Homebrewing and HomeBrew All-Stars. “Many had been overseas and tried those odd European beers and craved them when they came back home.
“Since back home was bereft of beers that saw taste as a good thing, and not a thing to be ruthlessly scrubbed in the name of approachability, what else could they do?”
The federal legalization of homebrewing was followed by similar adoption by most states. Alabama and Mississippi were two longstanding holdouts. The states didn’t legalize homebrewing until 2013. A proliferation of homebrewing supply shops opened around the country, along with better access to ingredients and agricultural advancements that benefited beer.
Newsletters and magazines were created that focused on homebrewing recipes and practical tips. Around the country, clubs dedicated to homebrewing popped up, many still in existence today.
The AHA also raises awareness for the hobby.
“Brewing beer does not need to be intimidating, and the hobby can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be for yourself,” says Brad Ring, publisher of Brew Your Own Magazine, which just celebrated its 25th anniversary. “Some homebrewers really enjoy the science behind making beer, while others are happy to just follow a recipe.
“There is no wrong way to approach this hobby, making it attractive to anyone who enjoys beer and wants to really learn more about it by looking under the hood and making it themselves.”
Even with more than 8,000 breweries operating in the U.S., homebrewing remains popular. The AHA estimates that there are more than 1.1 million active homebrewers in the country.
Since the novel coronavirus has upended life, Beechum says he’s seen an uptick in first-time homebrewers as well as what he calls “the lapsed zymurgist [a person who studies or practices fermentation]” coming back to the hobby.
“For folks new to brewing, they’re incorporating it into a world of fermentation,” he says. “We’re seeing sourdoughs and krauts and meads and beers all lumped together in a ‘fermentationist’ approach. Fermentation is a vital human skill, and we need more practice.”
Ring says that homebrewing has become easier over the last 25 years, thanks to better access to ingredients and information.
“When I started in 1991, you often had to make your own brewing equipment, and the selection of beer ingredients was very limited and often not that fresh,” he says. “There has never been a better time to start homebrewing.
So much of the success of today’s professional brewers were built on the foundation of homebrewing. Some experiments done in garages, driveways and backyard sheds eventually make their way to pro systems and wind up at local taprooms.
“Trying to extricate homebrewing from the rise of craft brewing is a fool’s errand and would give you a poor understanding of beer history,” says Beechum.