HOMEBREWERS HAVE SIPPED beer and claimed ribbons for the finest brews at every Oregon State Fair since 1988. Until this year.
On June 30, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) learned from the Oregon Department of Justice (DOJ) that they're required to crack down on homebrewers under a state law that went largely unenforced for decades. So the state fair nixed its 22-year-old homebrew competition.
The dust-up highlights the convoluted role of the OLCC in the state. The sprawling bureaucratic remnant of the post-Prohibition temperance movement is in charge of both distributing liquor and regulating its consumption. In the past, it's had a hands-off approach to homebrewers.
Under state law, people who brew beer at home don't need a license as long as they don't serve the beer outside their homes. But lax enforcement of the rule has given rise to brewing competitions, public tasting events, and homebrew parties across the state. The new crackdown could have a wide impact on the homebrew industry beyond the fairgrounds.
"There are lots of homebrew competitions in Oregon," says Chris Hummert, a member of homebrewing association the Oregon Brew Crew. "I'm aware of 14 that will be affected by this."
The OLCC collects the taxes for the sale of Oregon craft brews, many of which come from breweries that got their start as homebrewing operations.
"The OLCC always left us [homebrewers] alone," says Fred Eckhardt, author of the 1989 homebrewing bible The Essentials of Beer Style. "And that's what they should do now."
In fact, the OLCC feels the same way. "We're not going to advocate for a bigger role [in regulating homebrewing]," says OLCC spokeswoman Christie Scott. "We recognize that homebrewers have an economic impact."
But they do have to follow state law, now that the DOJ has defined it to exclude even contest judges from drinking homebrew outside private homes.
While the statute is new to the public, Katy Boyce, an OLCC regional manager in Bend, interpreted it strictly as early as September 2009. An organizer of the Little Woody, a Bend craft beer festival, emailed Boyce to ask if homebrewers could give away samples to the public.
"I don't think that is okay," wrote Boyce in a reply. She cited the statute (ORS 471.403), saying "it looks like they are limited to home consumption of the beer they make."
Nobody applied the law to larger events until May 6, 2010, when Deschutes Brewery asked Boyce if it could invite homebrewers to serve their beer at an event. The OLCC asked the justice department to weigh in for clarification.
When word got out about the Deschutes refusal, homebrewers started to worry. Ted Hausotter, a member of the Oregon Homebrewers Alliance, decided to rally for a change to the statute, sending out emails to about 100 people.
Now homebrewers across the state are gearing up to work with state legislators to change the law. And while they have the chance, they're going to try to eliminate restrictions on more than just competitions and tastings.
"There needs to be a much broader exemption," says Oregon State Senator Floyd Prozanski from Eugene, whose Captain Nimrod Nut Brown Ale homebrew has won awards. "Currently, if you bring a homebrewed six pack to your friend's house for dinner, that's illegal."
Prozanski says that the law could be revised in 2011.