During a trip back to Wisconsin over Christmas, I was able to pick up “MexiCali Brew” from Zymurgy Brewing in Menomonie, WI.
I discuss my thoughts about things to consider when you’re just getting in to the hobby of homebrewing. Most people just jump in and look for equipment they’re told they need, kind of like I did.
It is important that you think about what you want your homebrewing to be like. Not just the beer you make, but how it integrates into your life.
Some important considerations:
What’s Happening in Life?
As I record this episode, it’s New Year’s Eve of 2020. Most people are excited to get this year behind us, and it would be easy to jump on that bandwagon. Transitioning from 2020 to 2021 is a time when I want to focus on things in my life I am thankful for.
I am thankful for my wife, her patience, and support.
I am thankful for my kids and seeing them pursue their interests.
I am thankful we made the decision to live in the mountains. It hasn’t always been easy, and there are challenges. But I’m thankful we’ve been able to use this opportunity to learn a lot about ourselves.
When you’re just getting started in homebrewing, and especially when you’re making good beer, you’ll start thinking about starting a brewery. Some people try to short circuit the process by just thinking they can sell their homebrewed beer.
The information below is what I’ve learned from talking to brewers and listening to lawyers discuss some of the issues. I am not a lawyer, and some of my knowledge may be out of date, so make sure you consult a lawyer if you are starting a brewery, and especially if you’ve run afoul of the law.
Under US law, you are allowed to make 100 gallons of beer or wine per person of legal drinking age in your household up to a maximum of 200 gallons per calendar year. It is also stipulated that the beverage is for personal consumption.
As of 2013, homebrewing is legal in all 50 states in the United States of America. Mississippi and Alabama became the last two states to legalize homebrewing.
The federal law is the most liberal of the laws relating to making beer and wine at home, with the 200 gallon maximum volume. Many states have a much smaller volume limit per year, and some states specifically limit the consumption of homemade beer and wine to the house where it was produced.
But What about Selling?
As with most alcohol production throughout human history, governments end up levying taxes on commercial alcohol producers. As soon as you start selling your product, the government wants their cut of the money. In historical contexts, some governments based their taxes on the size of the mash tun or kettle.
Currently, in the USA, federal taxes are levied based on the volume of beer produced and packaged for sale. In addition to the federal tax, most states also have an excise tax brewers must pay in order to sell their beer in that state.
Commercial breweries must be licensed by the federal government, specifically the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). This happens before breweries can even seek state and local licensing.
Prior to filing for your TTB certificate, you will want to make sure the location you selected will allow your brewery to be in business there. There are many laws regarding proximity to schools and other certain areas. Additionally, your local community may have additional requirements, and may not allow breweries.
Once you’ve received your TTB permit, you will start working with state and local authorities to receive applicable permits.
Alcohol production is generally also subject to most of the food safety requirements for your state. Since people are consuming your product, it is treated like a special food product.
Your brewery will have to pass inspection with whatever department is in charge of breweries. Not every state treats breweries the same. Some use the department of agriculture to monitor breweries, but not all.
Most homes are not zoned in a way to allow commercial food production, including beer and wine.
There are clearly written regulations about how to report and pay taxes for your brewery. Taxes and their payment is one of the main ways you will get in trouble if you try to sell your homebrew.
Without meeting all of the regulatory requirements, and then also filing and paying taxes, you will get in to trouble with the government.
Don’t Give Up
If you truly want to sell the beer you make, do not try to skirt the legal system. Follow the rules and do it right. It will be frustrating at times, but if you are determined to start a brewery, do it right.
I’ve heard stories about homebrewers that got caught playing a little too fast and loose with legalities. One problem is that if you get caught, the government is going to examine you more closely when you try to start a brewery legally. And in some cases, you could be barred from opening a brewery, depending on the severity of your offense.
And based on talks I’ve had with brewers, I’d recommend working in a commercial brewery before you try to start one. Commercial beer production is very different from homebrewing.
In my opinion, the bottom line is that you shouldn’t sell your homebrew. There’s too much risk and too little reward. Share it with friends, but don’t sell it unless you’ve gone through the process to be legal.
As homebrewers, we do not need to worry about the same legalities a brewery, distillery, or bar would need to consider. We can do what we want.
Why Does it Matter?
Breweries must produce the alcohol they sell in-house. This means they must create a sugary liquid for yeast to ferment into the alcoholic content of their seltzer.
As a result, a brewery cannot take an alcohol solution produced elsewhere, carbonate it, add flavor, and sell it as hard seltzer.
But We Can
As homebrewers, we have a lot more legal leeway, since we are not selling what we produce. The main benefit of this situation, especially as it pertains to making hard seltzer is that if we have a kegging system (affiliate link), we do not have to produce the alcohol used to make hard seltzer.
We can take any neutral-flavored spirit, dilute it to the ABV we want, and force carbonate it like any other keg we put in our kegerator. Primarily, this means we can take vodka at 40% ABV (80 proof) and dilute it down to whatever strength we want. There are also other spirits available, like Everclear 190 Proof (95% ABV), that require less volume to produce the desired strength.
Unfortunately, Everclear 190 Proof is not sold in many states in the USA. Because of its high alcohol content, the 190 proof version can be hard to find, but they do have a lower-ABV versions at 60%, 75.5%, and 189% ABV. However, the 120 Proof version is the most available. Even this will reduce the quantity of spirit needed to make your seltzer by half.
How Much do I Use?
There are formulas available that will walk you through the process of hand-calculating the volume of spirit and the volume of water you will need to produce the seltzer at the desired strength you desire.
But I found a handy calculator that greatly simplifies the calculation for you. Given that most seltzers clock in at 5% ABV, and I have a 2.5 gallon keg, I was curious what it would take to make 2.5 gallons of seltzer using Everclear 120.
The calculation is based on liters, so I put in 9.5 liters as the target volume after dilution, 60% as the actual before dilution, and 5% as the target after dilution.
This handy tool spits out the handy instructions that I need to combine 0.79 liters of spirit at 60% ABV with 8.71 liters of water to produce 9.5 liters of seltzer.
The Simple Version
There you go. Fill that small keg, force carbonate, and you’re all set. You have delicious, unflavored hard seltzer.
Oh, wait, you wanted flavor? Well, you could treat it like my keg of carbonated water and keep an array of Italian soda syrups, fruit juices, and mixers on hand so you can mix up whatever tickles your fancy.
The nice thing about this is that it allows you tailor your beverage to your tastes at the moment you want a drink. Not sweet enough? Just add more of your flavoring.
The Committed Version
If you have a flavor you know you want, there is another option. And if you have 5 gallon kegs rather than 2.5s, there is a simple option just a few clicks away. You just re-run the dilution calculation above so you have a target volume of 19 liters (5 gallons).
This gives you a needed volume of 1.58 liters of spirits at 60% ABV, combined with 17.42 liters of water to produce 19 liters of beverage.
The link above takes you to list of fruit wine base concentrates. They come in 1 gallon jugs and are intended to be diluted to make 5 gallons of wine. One gallon equals 3.79 liters, so you could make 5 gallons of the flavor you desire by combining:
1.58 liters of spirits at 60%
3.79 liters (1 gallon) fruit wine base
13.63 liters of water
And you’re off to seltzer town! This ratio would produce a fairly sweet sweet seltzer, with a similar flavor profile to fruit juice. You may need to play around to find the right combination of what you enjoy.
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