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Home brewers support bill that would lift restrictions

Ryan Will of Fond du Lac displays some of his home brewed beer, along with the equipment he uses to brew up batches in his basement pub. He supports a bill that would lift restrictions on home beer and wine enthusiasts. (Patrick Flood/The Reporter)

Ryan Will of Fond du Lac displays some of his home brewed beer, along with the equipment he uses to brew up batches in his basement pub. He supports a bill that would lift restrictions on home beer and wine enthusiasts.

Ryan Will’s basement looks a bit like a mad scientist’s laboratory.

The Fond du Lac resident said he gets a kick out of mixing up batches of his own pale, golden ale.

“There’s a lot more flavor in it than a typical Budweiser or Miller and you get the satisfaction of knowing you made it yourself,” he said.

Will, who serves as vice president of Central Wisconsin Vinters & Brewers, is among home brewers lifting a glass in support of a bill currently before the State Legislature that would lift restrictions prohibiting homebrew from being transported outside of the home where it was made.

Bill LRB 3101, sponsored by Senator Michael Ellis, R-Neenah, and Rep. Dean Kaufert, R-Neenah, would allow home brewers to resume what they had been doing for decades, until last year.

In 2011 the Wisconsin Department of Revenue determined that the existing law prohibits homebrew from being removed from the residence of the maker. Prior to this decision, home brewers had been hosting homebrew competitions and sharing their libations at homebrew club meetings — common practices for home brewers in other states.

“Given Wisconsin’s longstanding brewing tradition, it is unthinkable that Wisconsin law restricts home brewers far beyond what federal law and most other state laws allow,” said Mike Engel, president of the Society of Oshkosh Brewers. “Our club has had to curtail many of our regular activities, most notably an event designed to raise money for the benefit of local children’s education programs, as a result of this newly discovered law.”

Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R-Fond du Lac, signed on to be a cosponsor of this bill after being contacted by several local home-brew enthusiasts.

“I think the bill will be especially beneficial by enhancing the ability of these citizens to be able to set up at varying community fairs to promote their hobby. Most of these fairs benefit nonprofit causes and with the difficult economy have been struggling to fill their booths. These are brewers who do not sell their products and make no profits. It is truly a hobby and ought to be treated as such with reasonable requirements,” Thiesfeldt said.

Hobbyists say home brewing represents an important source of growth in a down economy. In both 2009 and 2010, homebrew retailers saw revenue growth of 16 percent, according to the AHA, and likely had similar growth in 2011.

The Cellar on South Main Street has seen business increase by about 70 percent this past year, said owner Dave Koepke. The clientele who stop in to purchase home brewing supplies range from gardeners who turn their grapes and berries into wine once a year to connoisseurs of microbrews and imported beers.

“This bill will allow us to further our hobby, get back to what our grandparents used to do. Home brewing has a great cultural history in this state,” Koepke said. He estimates between 250-350 people are home brewing in the Fond du Lac area.

Will recalls how the Wisconsin State Fair would host a home brew island where hobbyists used to be able to bring their beer and wine for sampling. He enjoys brewing seasonal varieties, most recently a cranberry-flavored beer. In a year’s time, he produces 6 or 7 batches, which equates to 35 to 40 gallons of homemade “brewski.”

“We want to be able to bring it out in the community and raise money for good causes, which we’d be able to do again as long as we receive no proceeds for it,” Will said.

In addition to support from Wisconsin home brewers, homebrew clubs and homebrew shop owners, the bill is backed by the 28,000 member-strong American Homebrewers Association (AHA), a national organization aimed at promoting the home brewing hobby and protecting home brewer rights.

The AHA estimates that nearly 1 million Americans make beer and wine at home. Currently there are more than 1,000 homebrew clubs, 600 homebrew supply retailers, and over 300 homebrew competitions held annually throughout the nation

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