Commission tightens rules for homebrewers

Written by Scott Hammers for The Democrat Herald

The Oregon Liquor Control Commission’s new interpretation of an old law has put homemade beer and wine in the spotlight, effectively banning judged competitions, home-brewing club tasting nights, and even the taking of a six-pack of home-brewed beer to a neighbor’s barbecue.

At issue is ORS 471.403, a statute that forbids the production of alcoholic beverages by anyone not licensed by the OLCC. But it “does not apply to the making or keeping of naturally fermented wines and fruit juices or beer in the home, for home consumption and not for sale.”

Citing the new interpretation of the phrase “home consumption,” the Oregon State Fair has canceled this year’s beer and wine competitions. The wine competition has been a fixture at the fair for 31 years, the beer contest for 22 years.

Rachel McIntosh, director of open class exhibits for the Deschutes County Fair, said that unless she’s explicitly notified by the OLCC that beer and wine contests are out, the county fair will be accepting entries for the fair later this month.

“Somebody’s opened a can of worms,” McIntosh said. “We’ve done this for a long time, and it’s probably been a law forever, but somebody opened the can and stirred the pot.”

Representatives of the OLCC did not return calls for comment. On the agency’s official blog, a July 2 posting states that the OLCC’s current interpretation of the law came through a recent analysis of the statute by the Oregon Department of Justice.

“The Department of Justice’s guidance certainly requires us to look at the competitions in a different way than we have before,” the posting read. “It’s completely understandable that home beer and wine makers would be disappointed.”

Brett Thomas, past president of the Central Oregon Homebrewers Organization, or COHO, said clubs and competitions have played a big part in helping him hone his skills in the 13 years since he began home-brewing. Now a professional brewer for Silver Moon in Bend, Thomas said COHO has about 75 registered members. He said there may be as many as 900 home-brewers in Central Oregon.

Thomas said he was surprised to learn that the law appears to forbid what he and others have been doing for years.

“As a home-brewer _ participating at club meetings, club campouts, competitions _ really, the last thing on your mind is, ‘Hmm, is this OK with the OLCC?'” he said. “Most of us view the OLCC as a state agency to enforce alcohol laws related to businesses, not what home-brewers are making in their garages and stovetops.”

Saturday morning, Thomas and other COHO members gathered at the Bend home of Jeremy Holbrook for a group brewing project. As club members inventoried ingredients for a Belgian-style saison and repaired the valves on a keg filled with dark wheat beer waiting on ice, Holbrook said he’s not too concerned the OLCC will crack down on the club’s activities. Still, he said, it seems “ridiculous” that the law should distinguish between his drinking a beer brewed down the street at his friend’s home and one brewed in his own backyard.

“The way the law reads, it’s ‘in the home,’ but it doesn’t say whose home,” Thomas said. “I guess you could brew in a church, since that’s the house of God.”

Tom Gilles, owner of The Brew Shop in Bend, said enforcement of the law could present a problem for him and for COHO, which customarily gathers at his shop on Division Street for its monthly meetings.

Because Gilles has a liquor license that allows him to serve a few beers on tap, home-brew tastings and bottle exchanges at club meetings could jeopardize his license.

Gilles said the club has held its annual home-brewing contest every spring but that future contests could be put on hold. Brewers and clubs are reluctant to ask the OLCC for clarification, he said, out of concern that doing so could draw attention to their no-longer-legal activities.

“I’m not sure how that’s going to affect us next year,” Gilles said. “It’s almost one of those things where you’re afraid to ask questions.”

A handful of home-brewers from around the state have formed the Oregon Homebrewers Alliance to lobby the OLCC and legislators to change the law. Denny Conn, of Noti, one of the founding members, said the growing popularity of home-brewing has led to the discovery and repeal of antiquated liquor laws in other states in recent years. Conn said legislators and OLCC representatives he’s talked to seem largely supportive of changing the law.

“At this point, writing angry letters to the OLCC might be understandable, but it’s probably not helpful,” he said.

State Rep. Judy Stiegler, D-Bend, and her Republican challenger, Jason Conger, both said they would support rewriting the law when the Legislature meets next January.

“I, for one, would certainly be in favor of coming up with a fix for that, absolutely,” Stiegler said. “That probably goes back to the days of bootlegging, for goodness’ sakes.”

Stiegler said it may be possible for the Oregon Attorney General’s Office to figure out how to create a “short-term administrative fix” for the OLCC, allowing home-brewing contests and clubs to carry on until the law is changed.

Conger agreed.

“That should be a simple, non-controversial thing to fix, and it certainly would be appropriate for the Legislature to clarify it for the agency and the home-brewers so they can continue to enjoy their activity,” Conger said.