Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Tasting Homebrew at Club Meetings

Conducting homebrew beer tasting events are one of the most central and important things that a club can offer its members. Tastings are important for a variety of reasons:
  • Tastings allow club members to get feedback on their homebrew and collaboratively troubleshoot problems.
  • They provide the opportunity for club members to be exposed to new beer styles.
  • Tastings support internal competitions, such as the American Homebrewing Association's Club Only Competitions
  • They create an enjoyable social forum that club members that I have spoken with consider some of the most important events they attend.
But conducting a homebrew club tasting event at a public or commercial establishment may have legal ramifications. In Virginia, where my club is located, alcohol laws and regulations are governed by the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC). Like many state alcohol regulations, the Virginia laws regarding homebrewed beer and its transportation and usage are vague and subject to interpretation. Specifically, ABC laws indicate that our club should be able to conduct tastings in a private room with two ounce pours, so long as the events occur for the purpose of judging and/or offering feedback on each entry. However, we have had ABC agents state that bringing homebrew to any public venue is strictly illegal because the beer has not gone through Virginia's three tier distribution system. This is in spite of the fact that the regulations state otherwise and that other homebrewing clubs in the state have received permission to conduct tastings in private rooms at bars and restaurants. These inconsistencies make it hard for commercial establishments, such as a brew pub or restaurant where our club might meet, to agree to allow homebrewed beer in the door. This reluctance is understandable, seeing how conducting such tastings improperly could cost the establishment their liquor license.

So, how do you find out if there are legal restrictions on homebrew tasting events in your areas? What is your club to do if it is in search of a commercial location to both hold meetings and homebrew tastings? I can offer some pointers from our experience, though take it with a grain of salt, as we have not received official approval to conduct such tastings yet.
  • Do your research. Most state alcohol governing bodies post their regulations on the internet (for example, Virginia regulations can be found here). The more research you can do up front, the stronger your case.
  • Contact other homebrewing clubs in your state to determine how or if they conduct tastings. In cases where the actual regulations are vague or confusing, showing how the regulations are actually put into practice can be persuasive.
  • Formalize your findings into a written letter that can be sent to an agent of the state's regulating body. It is easier to present arguments in a written form than trying to do so on a telephone call. Additionally, the letter gives you something to fall back to, if needed, at a later date.
  • Work with commercial establishments that are interested in hosting your club meetings and be up front about your club's intentions. Their business would most likely be the one held liable if a formal inquiry regarding the tastings is started by the state's regulatory body. If this is the case, your club's relationship with them might be damaged.
Hopefully, these tips are helpful for clubs looking to hold meetings and tastings in a public place. If you have a moment, please fill out the homebrew tastings survey we have posted on the blog. We are interested to know how our reader's clubs currently conduct tastings.

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