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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

No, Jimmy Carter Did Not Save Beer

A curious meme passed around the blogosphere last week. Not the beer-o-sphere, though, the polit-o-sphere. It went like this:
If you’re a fan of craft beer and microbreweries as opposed to say Bud Light or Coors, you should say a little thank you to Jimmy Carter. Carter could very well be the hero of International Beer Day. To make a long story short, prohibition led to the dismantling of many small breweries around the nation. When prohibition was lifted, government tightly regulated the market, and small scale producers were essentially shut out of the beer market altogether. Regulations imposed at the time greatly benefited the large beer makers. In 1979, Carter deregulated the beer industry, opening the market back up to craft brewers.
I found this odd. Two of my great passions are politics and beer. I am one of 472 Americans who think Jimmy Carter's presidency wasn't so bad. I'm even a bit of an amateur beer historian. And yet never have I heard of this monumental legislation. Surely someone would have mentioned it before now. Yet late last week, scads of blogs--many from the MSM--picked up the story and ran with it. Carter's a hero! Forget the Camp David Accords, he brought us good beer!

I bookmarked the page, determined to get to the bottom of this. Fortunately, my cause was abetted by Alexander Mitchell, whose mind had been running down the same track. His conclusion? The original blogger, Balloon Juice's ED Kain, conflated Carter's much-praised legalization of home brewing with "deregulated the beer industry." After a lot of digging, Mitchell concludes that it's a classic case of urban myth running wild on the internets:
What I discovered is that, as of this moment, "Jimmy Carter deregulated brewing" is on track to replace "Ben Franklin said 'Beer is proof that God loves us and wants to see us happy'" as THE most popular "urban legend" regarding beer, thanks to people online citing the New Republic piece.....
Kain, for what it's worth, admits that there was no legislation in comments to the post. ("Actually Carter's deregulation of home-brewing was a deregulation of the beer market. I'm still failing to see how that doesn't count. " And that, of course, is the problem.)

I'll add one more piece. If you go to the original souce, you see a graph charting the growth of craft brewing in America; follow the link and it takes you here, to a March blog post about craft brewing (lesson: follow your links!). It's a long article making some point about " distributed biological production." But the key point, and the ur mistake that led to a thousand mis-appropriations, is this passage:
In 1979, Jimmy Carter signed legislation reopening the market to small brewers. This is an interesting and crucial point, because as far as I can tell nothing else substantive changed about the market. Deregulation reopened the market to craft brewers and the industry blossomed through organic growth and the preferences of consumers.
Very small brewers, as it happens. The author apparently didn't realize the law legalized home-brewing. (Amusingly, it did lead to a heated debate between libertarians and liberals about the advantages of deregulation on the one hand and Jimmy Carter on the other.)

Of course, laws did have to be changed: state laws. Bert Grant lobbied the Washington legislature to make brewpubs legal, as did the McMenamins in Oregon. States have tinkered more, liberalizing distribution laws to allow small breweries to get their product to market. But these had nothing to do with Jimmy Carter. He was cool, he just wasn't that cool.


  1. I agree that the meme has distorted the actual story.

    Carter's role was pretty small. He didn't propose or encourage House Bill 1377 (Leet-speak!). Carter only signed it.

    The principal force behind legalization of homebrewing is William Steiger, not Jimmy Carter.

  2. ....and California Senator Alan Cranston.

    From AHA website:

    "Homebrewing Legalized! On October 14, 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed H.R. 1337, which contained an amendment sponsored by Senator Alan Cranston creating an exemption from taxation for beer brewed at home for personal or family use. This exemption went into effect February 1, 1979."

    I guess we can say if Cranston (as a politician) didn't step up to the plate, the ball would never have got rolling for Craft brewing or Home Brewing.

  3. I was on this as well; as far as I can tell, though, only a few of us have bothered to do the modest amount of research necessary to determine that the "Carter deregulated the beer industry" claim is completely false. It's a little depressing to me that a false claim like that can suddenly become conventional wisdom. (I think the problem in this case is that there's no political agenda behind correcting it.)

    For what it's worth, it looks like you and I (independently) came to similar conclusions about the role of brewpub laws in this. (One data point: according to the ABA, the low point in brewery numbers was 1982--meaning the turnaround was in 1983, after WA and CA changed their brewpub laws, not 1979.)

    And while I know Washington was first (Oregon was third, in 1983), I would consider California's action was more important, simply because of the size of the market it affected (10% of the US population). Hence my (tongue-in-cheek) reference to Tom Bates saving beer.

  4. Tom, as far as the brewpub thing goes, I give the credit to Bert Grant. California gets the credit for early breweries, but they don't get ALL the credit just by dint of being California. When Grant was trying to change the brewpub law, he had to chart new waters--and advocates in others states just followed.

    What's more, brewpubs are a far greater fixture in the NW than they are in any other region. Of the 200+ breweries in the NW, the overwhelming majority are brewpubs. This is even more true if you add in brewpub clusters/chains like McMenamins (dozens of outposts, several separate breweries), Laurelwood, and Lompoc.

  5. I would point out that legalizing homebrewing encouraged people to become "hobbyists" and brew beer at home, experimenting with different styles beyond "American pilsner", and it was these hobbyists who went on to start up small local breweries, which resurrected American beer.

  6. If this law had been so fundamental to the birth of craft breweries, we would expect that the people involved in that business would at least be aware of it. I looked at several different sites devoted to the craft beer market that provide histories of its growth; not one of them even mentioned the law. Certainly in the case of Sam Adams beer, arguably the prototype for the craft beer "movement", home brewing had exactly nothing to do with it.