Jimmy Carter: American homebrew hero?

By John Harry

The next time you raise a glass of craft beer, make sure you toast former President Jimmy Carter. No, really. You should be offering your suds up to the man who was reported by the media during the 1976 election to be a non-drinker. As crazy as it may seem now, homebrewing used to be illegal and Jimmy Carter actually played a part in changing that, contributing to the craft beer revolution. But that’s just one unexpected facet in the story of how our current beer industry came to be.

The thirteen years of Prohibition, from 1920 to 1933, had been a hard slog of bootleg liquor, moonshine, and yes – homebrewed beer. Before and during Prohibition, many breweries essentially encouraged homebrewing by marketing malt extract. This product could be used as a baking ingredient, but was more often used to homebrew beer. In fact, breweries often included instructions of what not to do with the extract to avoid accidentally producing beer. (Wink, wink.)

An advertisement to "Make your own beer at home."
As Prohibition approached, the brewing industry created ingredients such as this “beer extract” (aka malt extract) to encourage Americans to brew at home. Advertisement, around 1900. Courtesy of Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, Archives Center.

When Prohibition ended in 1933, many homebrewers returned to buying professionally made beer and most homebrewing activities declined. Homebrewing remained illegal at the federal level. Federal regulators were concerned about people using the brewing grain not for beer, but for moonshine, a homemade and highly potent hard liquor. Unlike homebrewed beer, moonshine was often toxic due to impure ingredients and clumsy—if not negligent distilling conditions—when prepared by amateurs, making it proved dangerous. By the 1960s, even with homebrewing’s continued illegality, homebrewing clubs sprang up around the country as hobbyists tried to make beer that was different from the American light lager that was so common at the time.

One of these hobbyists was Charlie Papazian. While studying at the University of Virginia in 1970, a friend’s neighbor who made “Prohibition-style homebrew” introduced Papazian to homebrewing. Papazian found that homebrewed beer tasted more flavorful than the beer he was used to. “I never knew beer could taste like this,” he recalled.

A typewritten recipe with handwritten notations.
Charlie Papazian’s first recipe for homebrewed beer, “Log Boom Brew" from 1971. (Division of Work and Industry)

After graduating from college in 1972, Papazian moved to Boulder, Colorado, to try to figure out his life plans. Some people there discovered that he knew how to brew beer and asked him to teach a class on homebrewing at the local community free school. The classes were incredibly popular and attracted many curious local residents.

As word spread through newspaper articles, administrators grew concerned that the classes might be attracting the wrong type of attention. “After about the third year…those classes became notorious,” Papazian recounted. “One time at registration for the class, the administration contacted me, and said, ‘You know… there’s a guy, who’s registering for this class. He may be from the ATF.’” The ATF is the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms—the law enforcement agency in charge of regulating activities such as homebrewing. As Papazian started the class, a man walked in wearing a dark pair of slacks, a white shirt, and a skinny black tie. Papazian suspected he was the ATF agent right away. Curious as to the agent’s intent, he started the class by making sure to point out the illicit nature of their activity, with a plea for mercy. “I mentioned that it was illegal. But the ATF has better things to do than… to arrest homebrewers that are making homebrew for …home consumption.” As it turned out, the ATF agent wasn’t there to arrest anybody, he just wanted to take the class. “He seemed to enjoy it, but I think his gig was up after three [classes]. So, he had to leave after that.” Luckily, encounters such as this would prove rare as Papazian did not have to wait long for his hobby to become legal.

A large wooden spoon.
A spoon used by homebrew pioneer Charlie Papazian from 1974. (Division of Work and Industry)

This is where Jimmy Carter’s role in the story came into play. In 1976, a group of homebrewers in California, where homebrewing had become popular, lobbied Senator Alan Cranston for federal legalization. After two years of failed attempts, Cranston was finally able to incorporate the legislation into a transportation bill to avoid scrutiny. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed HR 1337, legalizing homebrewing at the federal level and giving Carter the unlikely distinction of homebrewing hero. The law took effect on February 1st, 1979, just as Papazian was launching his homebrewing magazine Zymurgy (Zymurgy is a scientific term that is defined as fermentation by yeast) and the American Homebrewers Association. Today, homebrewing is how over 95 percent of craft brewers learn their trade.

A coaster that reads "Relax, Don't Worry ... Have a Home Brew."
Coaster showing the logo of the American Homebrewers Association, founded by Charlie Papazian in 1978. This coaster dates to 1983-1986. (Division of Work and Industry)

Charlie Papazian’s quotes from this article were provided by an oral history recorded in 2017 for the American Brewing History Initiative, a research and collecting initiative to document the history of beer and brewing in the United States. Several artifacts relating to Papazian’s story will go on display for the first time this fall with the reopening of the museum’s refreshed exhibit FOOD: Transforming the American Table in late October 2019.

John Harry was an intern at the National Museum of American History.

The American Brewing History Initiative is made possible through generous support from the Brewers Association, the not-for-profit trade association dedicated to small and independent American brewers.