Wisconsin Craft Brewers See Light at the End of the Tunnel despite Roadblocks

The world of craft brewing has grown enormously throughout the United States, though Wisconsin is one of the most heavily involved states in the Union. Wisconsin has always had a strong position in the brewing industry, and home brewers in the state have a tradition of creating unique, quality brews that can’t be found elsewhere. Those home brewers were dealt a serious blow back in 2011 when the state government slapped a ban on transporting beer outside the home.

2011 – The Regulators Clamp Down

All seemed well with the home brewing and craft beer scenes in Wisconsin for several years. Beer festivals and home brew tastings were common enough throughout the state. However, as with all good things, it was not to last. The state government (some say spurred on by Big Beer lobbyists) decided that it was illegal for home brewers to transport their beer outside the boundaries of their own homes. This was a decision made by the Wisconsin Department of Revenue and was a reinterpretation of a current law that had been on the books for quite some time (during which no one made a fuss about home brewers doing what they loved).

The immediate impact of this reinterpretation was that all beer tastings and festivals that featured home brewers (those who did not have state-provided distributor licenses) were made illegal. Any home brewer taking his or her beer off their own property was suddenly a criminal – just for doing the same things they had been doing for years before under the same law.

A Ray of Hope Shines

Home brewers and craft brewers rallied against this change in legislation and a legal battle ensued. The result was a new bill that would make it legal for home brewers to take their beer off their own property once more and share it with others. The legislation was presented to the state senate where it was unanimously passed. The new law offered several key benefits specifically for home brewers, including:

  • Giving home brewers the legal ability to make and serve their brews outside their own homes
  • Not require home brewers to buy distributor licenses or any permits (or worry about taxes)
  • Forbids home brewers from selling any of their brews (thus making the lack of taxes logical)
  • Brew up and distribute up to 100 gallons per adult in a household (up to 2 adults)

It all sounds pretty nice, right? Home brewers get to keep doing what they love and the government gets to stay out of their business. While you might have thought that would be the end to the legal wrangling and brewers could get back to doing their thing, you would be mistaken.

Darkness and Greed Descend on Wisconsin

Just days after the bill was voted on, a massive outcry erupted from citizens and agencies alike. The most vocal denigrators of the bill came from the Wisconsin Beer Distributors Alliance and the Wisconsin Wine and Spirit Institute. Both of these agencies are accused of being in the pocket of Big Beer. The general complaint from these agencies was that it made it possible for home brewers to skirt the law. Spokespeople also decried the possibility that home brewers could receive compensation for their beer through “creative ticket sales” at tastings and other events throughout the state. It seems that their major complaint is that home brewers might be able to make a profit on their brews without being held to the same regulations as Big Beer.

The problem is that most home brewers have no desire to make money off their brewing, at least not immediately. The vast majority of home brewers in the state engage in brewing as a hobby and as a personal passion. Sharing their brews is a means to obtain feedback, comments on the quality and style and validation of their skills, as well as being just plain fun. However, greed never rests and the license/permit lobbyists and Big Beer see the potential for dollars slipping out of their grasp.

The Bill’s Bottom Line

For those still unsure of the legislation’s actual intent, the entire purpose of the bill is to let the little guy do what he loves with friends, according to Dean Kaufert, one of the bill’s sponsors and a representative in Wisconsin’s senate. The bill is not about “skirting the law” or allowing private citizens to “get away with” doing things outside the bounds of current legislation. The bill’s bottom line is common sense. There is no point in forcing home brewers to keep their brews on their own property as long as they are not selling their product.

The Outcome Is Still Uncertain

While the bill might have received unanimous support from the senate committee, things are certainly not going well. Lobbyists throughout the state are stirring up trouble for home brewers by inciting other citizens and lobbying government officials to stop this legislation from passing. The ultimate outcome is not clear and no firm decision is likely to be reached for many more months thanks to the ongoing legal wrangling. In the meantime, Wisconsin home brewers have few options other than sitting put at home and doing what they do in limited batches.

It seems strange that in an age where enlightened brewing laws are being enacted all across the nation, one of the states best known for its brewing heritage should try to enforce such stifling and ill-conceived regulations. Suspicions about the “big guys” trying to hold on to or even boost their own profits are rife and the hand of Big Beer pundits certainly seems in evidence. Whether Wisconsin will actually adopt a benign attitude toward its home brewers remains to be seen, though it has certainly to be hoped that the government will not bow to the might of big business, upholding the rights of the little guy and letting home brewers keep doing what they’ve been doing for years.