When President Jimmy Carter signed a bill legalizing home brewing in 1978, fewer than 100 breweries operated in the United States. Two years ago, a study of the found country beer scene nine metropolitan areas with more than 100 active breweries.
Correlation is not causation, of course, but any story of the explosive growth of American craft beer over the past four decades should include the small but vital role Carter played in unleashing this flood of foam – and the enormous amount of economic growth produced by the once stale and now thriving US beer market. And despite a deep personal aversion to the hagiographic histories of any American president, this week’s news that Carter is receive palliative care at home makes me think of the credit the 39th president deserves for the proliferation of crisp lagers and bitter IPAs offered in thousands of American craft breweries.
In 2010, Atlantic declared that Carter had “saved craft beer” by signature HR 1377 and make it legal for Americans to brew beer at home. But in do, the craft beer revolution was brewing before Carter signed the bill. It was the product of financial entrepreneurs like Fritz Maytag, who saved San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing. from bankruptcy in 1965 and helped keep a tradition of small, independent breweries alive in a world increasingly dominated by mass-produced beer. It is the result of scientific breakthroughs, such as the development of Cascade hops (which would become the backbone of the revitalization of a once nearly extinct and now ubiquitous type of beer called “India Pale Ale”), which arrived on the market in 1972. State-level legal changes that paved the way for breweries– beginning with significant reform in Washington State in 1982 – probably did more to create today’s brewing environment than any federal change.
Still, Carter’s deregulation of home brewing was a watershed moment. By repealing a Prohibition-era law that served primarily to limit competition in the brewing market, he gave Americans the freedom to try a new hobby — and some of them quickly turned professional.
Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, widely recognized as one of the first true craft breweries in the country, was launched in 1980 by Ken Grossman and Paul Camusi, who started making beer at home. Jim Koch, who founded Sam Adams Brewery in 1984, also got his start in brew at home. None of these brands would likely exist today without Carter.
Charlie Papazian, then president of the Brewers Association, a trade group, said Raison in 2009, around 90% of brewers started making beer at home. The number of breweries in the country has increased significantly since then, so this figure could be significantly lower today. Still, the transition from home brewing to craft brewing was an essential step in the process.
This 1978 law did not change the federal ban on making spirits at home – another legacy of Prohibition that persists to this day. Because of this, we can get a glimpse of the alternate reality where homebrewing hasn’t been deregulated.
Today there is a growing market for craft spirits– but it is far behind craft beer, and the big brands continue to dominate the hard liquor market. Without the experimentation and entrepreneurial possibilities opened up by the deregulation of home brewing, it seems reasonable to assume that beer would have evolved along a similar trajectory. We would probably have more than Budweiser and Coors today, as consumers demanded more and better choices, but the explosive growth of alternative styles and independent breweries would not have materialized.
Ultimately, the heroes of the craft brewing revolution are the entrepreneurs and workers who invested time and money to make a profit, not Carter, who simply conceded that they shouldn’t be imprisoned for innovating the wrong type of building. But he nonetheless played a vital role in sidelining the federal government. Without it, we would probably have less choice and less fun.