The ABC’s of Homebrew

abcstarHomebrew Legalities

It’s widely known that homebrewing can be incredibly rewarding, entertaining, and a creative outlet for self-expression.  The same goes for sharing that home brewed beer with friends.  But did you know that it’s actually not technically legal to do this?  Homebrewing laws allow for individuals to create beer, wines, and meads for personal consumption only.  The law dictates that you can create 100 gallons for personal consumption and 200 gallons per household annually.  The key phrase here is “personal consumption.”  There are some exceptions made for homebrew competitions that judge beers, but the word of the law is pretty strict.  There’s a great synopsis of the law on the American Homebrewers Association website.

AHAThe American Homebrewers Association does a great job of fighting for our rights as homebrewers.  Because of this and other organizations like homebrew clubs that actively promote the positive sides to home brewing, we now have the ability to brew in all 50 states, which is a recent occurrence–the last two states being Alabama and Mississippi.  Laws will likely continue to change as time goes on, and–who knows?–maybe we’ll be able to legally give our beer to friends and family without fear of the Gestapo raining judgement down upon us.  This is obviously an exaggeration.  People share homebrew with each other all the time.  And just like people that don’t own medical marijuana cards smoke Mary Jane on their back patios undisturbed, nobody is going to come knocking on your door, but technically, they could.  You are generally not under the eye of the law until you want to take your hobby to the next level.  That all being said, we as homebrewers have to the responsibility to play by the rules until the rules change.

Shadow Beer Sampling

Kickstarter is an incredible tool for start-ups looking to raise money.  Having run one myself, I can tell you that it’s not an easy task.  It requires constant attention, in-person campaigning as well as electronic, and diligence as well as follow through.  For breweries, Kickstarter is a great way to raise money, but there is one draw back.  Your main product, beer, cannot be sold, given away, or rewarded to those who back your project.  This is the exact opposite of most Kickstarter projects, which offer the product they are trying to Kickstart at some mid-level reward tier.  Alcohol Kickstarters need to be more creative with their reward tiers and inspire backers to contribute without the promise of free alcohol.  But what about offering free tastings of my homebrew? Unfortunately this is not a legal option.

ABCPoliceABCDenied

When John and I first started taking about going pro we set up tasting events where we gave our homebrew away for free.  One of those events was at the annual USC Bosco’s BBQ.  Great times were had, people loved our beer, we snagged business cards, acquired emails, and generally felt like we were on to something.  It wasn’t until we applied for our Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) license that we learned about background checks and how deep the ABC goes into your personal history.   When they came across the “tasting” events we held, we were faced with a possible misdemeanor charge, a serious fine, and an extended refusal of our ABC license.  What does that mean? It means we couldn’t sell beer.  Luckily for us, we were able to explain our situation well enough and our glowing resumes saved us from the axe.

Flash forward to the Kickstarter campaign.  We strategically timed our Kickstarter to coincide with our very real and very legal contract brewing beer launch.  This allowed us to legally sell beer and legally have people taste our beer without the worry of breaking the law.  Not everyone has this option, and not everyone has access to an amazing contract brewery, so sometimes you need to be patient.

WhatchdogThe Watchdog

If you are going pro, if you are utilizing Kickstarter to raise funds, or if you are or will be in any ABC application process, be careful how you conduct yourself.  The ABC has been charged with keeping the alcohol peace and enforcing the blue laws that they probably don’t even agree with.  Until those laws change, they have to do their job.  The minute you publicize that you’re having a free tasting event for your future brewery on your facebook, twitter, blog instagram, pinterest, tumblr, reddit, etc., you incriminate yourself with lasting evidence that will be scrutinized during your application process.  You, as an unlicensed brewer cannot give your alcohol away to charity; you cannot sell your alcohol to raise funds; you cannot serve your beer at a beer festival; you can’t even legally give it away to friends.  You create a virtual domino effect when people share your posts: media outlets pick it up, and before you know it, the biggest newspaper in the city is publicizing that your illegal beer’s on tap.  Don’t do this.

The fact of the matter is that everyone–you, me, friends, beer drinkers alike–wants you, the brewer, to succeed.  Anything that prevents you from getting that license, slows you down.  It will not only hurt you, but the people you intend to serve your brews to.  In the event you serve illegally at a bar, you could even unknowingly jeopardize their ABC license.

The world, not just the United States, not just California, and not just Los Angeles, is seeing record growth in craft beer and homebrewing.  More breweries will open, more beer Kickstarters will launch, and more thirsty customers will show up to openings.  It’s exciting times, and big changes are definitely on the horizon.  Whether it’s the revision of blue laws, the commercial brewery bubble popping, or a neighborhood bar converting to craft, beer is coming.  Prepare yourself.  Let’s all work to facilitate that growth collectively.

Also #FollowTheLAAW ;)

About Kristofor Barnes

Kip is the founder of Bierkast and co-founder of Los Angeles Ale Works. Kip picked up home brewing after college and has since become an accomplished award winning home brewer. He enjoys drinking and brewing all types of beers. He is graduate of the University of Southern California's School of Cinema Television. Kip lives in Culver City, CA with his sciency wife Katie. Follow him @bierkast or #FollowTheLAAW @laaleworks

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7 Comments

  1. Al:

    Not true!! Here is an excerpt from the AHA website in regards to CA law…California represents one of the most comprehensive state statutes. §23356.2 also provides for the removal of beer manufactured in the home for use in competitions, tastings, or judgings. Hombrewed beer can be removed for “tastings”!! Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to have the Southern California Homebrewers Festival every year.
    As an avid homebrewer I have done most of those “illegal” activites. Given away beer to a charity event?Yep. Serve beer at a beer festival? Check. Fill growlers for friends? On a pretty regular basis. Hundreds of people know I do this….. I am not trying to hide anything. I laugh because numerous people think I am a “real” brewery since I sell brewery t-shirts!!
    I actually DON”T feel the responsibility to play by the rules until the rules change. The rules/laws are vague. It says that homebrew can be removed/shared for tastings and that is exactly what I am doing.

    • Kip:

      Hi Phun,

      I agree that the rules/laws are vague, but the Southern California Homebrewer’s Festival is a special example that falls under a special type of festival license. They apply for this license, it’s approved by the ABC, which allows you to do the tastings. I definitely understand what you are saying and agree with you on certain points, but it’s important to note that with Alcohol laws, if it doesn’t expressly say you can do something, it’s considered illegal, which is contrary to other laws where if it doesn’t say you can’t you can.

      This piece is mainly directed at people that are looking to go pro. The fine, the ABC Background check, the live-scan, the ABC license refusal for someone applying for a Type 14,17,23, etc is a very real thing, and as someone who has experienced the threat of fine, community service, and license revocation, it’s more of a helpful warning.

      I mentioned that Competitions and Judging were an exception. The tasting portion is different. Where the law comes into effect is if you are tasting people on your beer and calling it your Brewery in Planning. For example, if my home brew name is “Barnacle Brewery” I can taste people on my beer, but I cannot sell or give this away to charity organizations in an event where money changes hands even at the door. If I am also opening a brewery called “Los Angeles Ale Works” and I’m applying for an ABC license or intend to, I cannot give away, taste, or sell beer under that label.

      • Al:

        I have plans to go pro someday. It might be next year, it might be 10 years from now. Does that make my homebrew operation a “brewery in planning” and I can’t give away my beer? Doesn’t make much sense…
        If you are interested in my “noncommercial nanobrewery” you can check out my FB page. https://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Two-Trees-Brewing-Co/102323289804018
        Cheers.

        • Kip:

          Hi Al,

          I’m definitely not trying to argue with you here, I’m just laying out what the California ABC law is. I’m a home brewer and I also contract brew. I’m fundraising for our own brick and mortar location. When we applied for our ABC license, the ABC went over our resumes, our backgrounds, then our website, facebook, blog, social media. Because of events that we had held our ABC license was in jeopardy of being denied and we were faced with a very real fine. I definitely don’t want to discourage you from doing what you are doing, it’s your choice and you can do what you want to do. The reality is that not everything home brewers, my self included, are doing now is technically legal. If you are seriously considering going pro, there will be a point where you are under the scrutiny of the ABC law and you’ll have to adhere to it or you wont get a permit. That’s all I’m trying to say here. We’ve been covering our brewery in planning here for a while now and this was something we ran in to that we felt would be valuable to talk about to people that are also going down the same road.

          • Al:

            Thanks for the heads up!! I had no idea that the ABC checked social media, websites,e tc. for content. You would think that the ABC would realize that more breweries equal more tax revenue for the state. Instead it sounds like they want to discourage or at least maximize the amount of red tape that a brewery has to go through.

  2. Al:

    Gov. Brown signed AB-1425 on 10/1!! It allows non profits to sell donated homebrew at licensed events.http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201320140AB1425&search_keywords=
    This is going to be HUGE for breweries in planning. What a great way to showcase your beer, market your brand, and support your favorite charity!! It goes into effect 1/1/14.

    • Josh Jensen:

      Law AB-1425 is actually going to prevent the Southern California Homebrew Festival from happening this May unless changes can happen quick! The ABC has told the CHA (California Homebrewers Association) that they will not issue the permit necessary to hold the festival at Lake Casitas campground. The only hope is reaching out to our Senate and Assembly District Representatives, and the Governmental Organizational Committee to influence the ABC’s interpretation of this law. There isn’t enough time to get it amended before May 3rd.
      The CHA and AHA had a recent conference call with Assemblyman Nestande’s (Vice Chair of the GO Committee) Chief of Staff, and there is some real hope that they can convince the ABC to change their interpretation of the law, since it was never intended to outlaw events where homebrew is shared.

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