Friday, December 16, 2011

Homebrew permit closer to being scrapped

New Jersey's homebrewers are a step closer to doing legally what they have done under state regulators' noses with impunity for a couple of decades now – make beer without signing up for a $15 permit.

Lawmakers this week approved a bill that would do away with the oft-ignored homebrewing permit requirement, sending the measure to Gov. Chris Christie for his consideration. Based on the support he has shown so far for the state's craft beer interests – specifically his declaration of American Craft Beer Week in New Jersey last May – there's a fair chance Christie could sign the measure.

The practice of making beer at home for personal consumption was legal even back during Prohibition, when the production and sale of commercially brewed beer, wine and spirits were outlawed. Homebrewing has enjoyed the federal government's expressed blessing since the late 1970s, when President Jimmy Carter signed legislation to that effect.

New Jersey lawmakers officially sanctioned the hobby in the early 1990s. Back then, homebrewing enthusiasts who championed the practice accepted Trenton's imposing a permit requirement as a trade-off for getting it set down in writing that making up to 200 gallons of homebrew per year was legal. In short, it was the best deal to be had, as far as getting state lawmakers to say what the federal government had been saying, and thereby fending off any local code enforcement officers who wanted to act like a revenuers.

Despite the requirement, however, state regulators were never exactly heavy-handed about enforcing the permit obligation, nor the restriction that the beer homebrewers made be served only at the locations where it was made. No one has ever been busted by the Division Alcoholic Beverage Control for not having a permit. And in fact, the number of homebrewing permits issued annually over the past six years by ABC, for example, has barely approached 400, while the Colorado-based American Homebrewers Association says the ranks of Garden State homebrewers on its membership rolls dwarfs that figure.

But it's hardly suckers and scaredy-cat homebrewers who chose not to be scofflaws with regard to the state permit requirement.

Historically, most of the people who apply for the permit are those who make use of brew-on-premises businesses, like Brewers Apprentice in Freehold, or Brew Your Own Bottle, in Westmont. And with good reason: Brew-on-premises operations are sitting ducks for enforcement, and the owners risk their businesses by not having patrons sign up for the permit before making beer at their sites.

Nevertheless, despite the apparent history of non-existent enforcement, a sponsor of the measure still struck a dramatic and populist tone about the need to dispatch the permit requirement. (And for the record, it's a good thing Trenton has stuck up for homebrewers, even if there is a hint of naiveté to it.)

"Homebrewers should not be viewed in the same light as the bathtub gin makers, moonshiners and swill brewers from Prohibition, nor are they running speakeasies out of their homes," says state Sen. Joseph Vitale of Middlesex County, home of the WHALES homebrew club. "Today's homebrewers and winemakers take up the hobby to produce a product for their own enjoyment and which they can share with their families. Getting rid of this permit requirement is the right thing to do."

Vitale goes on to say: "For the person who wants to simply try to reproduce their favorite beer at home, or the enthusiast who wants to make a high-quality beer of their own, the state shouldn't treat them as it would a commercial brewery. It's about time we clear out this unnecessary and unenforced permit requirement from the books, and lift the scofflaw status from thousands of residents who simply want to lift a pint of their own creation without fear that the state's peering over their shoulder."

In fairness to the ABC, the agency had the authority to peer over homebrewers' shoulders but chose to keep its distance. The bigger sin has been the $15 fee the law demanded (though never actively pursued), which you could interpret as a tax on homebrew.

And for the record, the American Homebrewers Association has said Trenton lawmakers have the right idea about scrapping the permit, but the wrong notion about striking homebrewing from the state's books. The AHA prefers language declaring homebrewing legal and exempt from taxation be put on the state's books, just forget the permit.

Also what's lost on Trenton, apparently, is the close tie homebrewing does in fact enjoy with commercial brewing, the former being a feeder system to the latter. As is the case across the country, there is a large number of commercially licensed craft brewers in New Jersey who jumped into business based on their homebrewing prowess. And many more are considering following suit.

Nonetheless, Trenton has given beer enthusiasts in New Jersey something to toast.


The Professor said...

This makes sense, especially with the lack of enforcement of the permit 'requirement'.

I started homebrewing in 1971 during my college years . The permit system wasn't put into place until quite a few years later, but when it went into effect I decided to apply for a permit.
It was downright comical, because when I contacted Trenton, I couldn't find a single person in _any_ state agency (including the ABC) that knew anything about the 'permit' let alone provide an application and take my $15. I tried a few times over the course of that first year, with the same result.
Suffice it to say, I never bothered after that.

michigan breweries said...

I think it is one of the laws on the books that is never enforced, i don't know of one person that has ever payed for a 'permit' nor would they when they are just brewing for personal use. When your brewing in your basement and drinking the beer yourself its abit hard regulate the law.

michigan breweries