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How Jimmy Carter started the craft-beer revolution — with a transportation bill

The former president played an unlikely role in legalizing homebrewing.

It turns out the former president played an unlikely role in legalizing homebrewing — the start of the craft beer industry that has only risen in popularity since Carter’s White House days. There are an estimated 1.1 million homebrewers in the U.S. and 9,118 craft beer breweries, according to the American Homebrewers Association and the Brewers Association.

When Carter signed H.R. 1337 in 1978, a transportation-focused bill amending the internal revenue code of 1954, he folded in a request from a California senator who had been lobbying for a tax exemption for homebrewing. Lifting the federal taxation on homebrewing made it officially legal and free for anyone to participate in. Although homebrewing was totally unrelated to what the bill was doing for transportation, it was what Sean Diament, politics professor at Pomona College, called a classic Christmas tree bill — a bill that has several, often unrelated, floor amendments attached to it.

Why did this happen on Carter’s watch?

When Prohibition ended, homebrewing remained illegal. But a ban on homebrewing had always been difficult to enforce — even during prohibition. By the 1960s, even with alcohol available in stores and restaurants, homebrewing as a hobby or side hustle was on the rise.

Why then? It was part of the rise of the countercultural movement, said Malcolm Purinton, food and wine historian and professor at Northeastern University. It was about the rejection of commercialization of society.

A lot of people who were embracing this movement, said Purinton, wanted to grow their own food, and part of that was figuring out how to brew your own wine and beer.

“After the enactment of H.R. 1337, homebrewing experienced steady growth as more people discovered the joy and satisfaction of making beer at home and set the stage for the first generation of modern small brewery owners,” a spokesperson for the American Homebrewers Association told Grid in an email.

While Carter supported the transportation part of H.R. 1337 — amending a 1954 IRS code for transportation, specifically with regards to excises taxes on certain trucks, buses, tractors, among others — there is no evidence that he was invested either way in the homebrew add-on.

The exemption on homebrewing (of wine and beer) was folded into H.R. 1337 thanks to the efforts of Democratic California Sen. Alan Cranston. This exemption, Purinton said, was originally introduced to the Senate by Cranston as S. 3191 — “a bill to authorize the home production of beer and wine.”

Cranston had been lobbying for a growing number of vocal homebrewers in California advocating for the legalization of homebrewing. It took Cranston two years to pass the legislation, which was eventually folded into the transportation bill that Carter signed.

Those already brewing at home happily carried on — now without worry. But it also signaled to more law-abiding, beer loving citizens and entrepreneurs that a new era of homebrewing was possible.

But Carter signing the bill into law was only one part of a larger landscape that helped usher in the era of homebrewing deregulation.

Purinton notes it was more accurately a confluence of forces that led to the deregulation of homebrewing.

“Jimmy Carter didn’t really do much except sign a bill that was a finance transportation bill that happened to have folded into it the deregulation of homebrewing, specifically,” Purinton said.

A matter of time

Homebrewing also took off around the same time because people were looking for an alternative to the most popular beer at the time: light golden lager, added Purinton.

Homebrewers were looking for an entirely different style of beer than what was being produced by large companies. Nor could they even replicate light golden lager beers, which required temperature-controlled storage areas. “One of the things that people like about these homebrew clubs, it’s really like the late-1960s, into the 1970s,” he said, “is just basically trying to figure out what they can produce on their own that is not a light golden lager.”

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