The Portland home-brew community is in a lather this month about a recent decision by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, who backed up a Department of Justice ruling that home brewing (and home winemaking) competitions are, in effect, illegal.

Evidently long forgotten by everyone, the law in question is ORS 471.403, which reads:  (1) No person shall brew, ferment, distill, blend … any alcoholic liquor unless licensed so to do by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. However, the Liquor Control Act does not apply to the making or keeping of naturally fermented wines and fruit juices or beer in the home, for home consumption and not for sale.

So according to the exact letter of the law, a home brewer may legally brew and consume beer or wine within the confines of their own home. Anything between this narrow instance and the selling of a home brew to the public, which is expressly defined as illegal, has not been mandated over. Despite the fact that none of the in-betweens are addressed in the law itself, they still run the risk of violating the Liquor Control Act, pending judgment.

The problem originally surfaced when an Oregon State Fair committee brought the law to the attention of the OLCC, inquiring whether their popular home brewing and home winemaking competitions operate against the law, as they take place outside of the home and the brews/vints are sampled by a panel of judges. The OLCC deemed these judges members of the public and thus the competition is illegal. An even stricter ruling by the Department of Justice in consultation with the OLCC also pointed out that home brews may not be consumed outside of the home, adding another stitch in the Oregon State Fair’s side.

The State Fair’s home-brewing competition has been operating under this law for the last 22 years, and its winemaking competition has been doing so for 30. Why no one noticed before now is anyone’s guess and it appears that the committee would have been better off staying quiet on the subject. Oh well.

As things now stand, the OLCC is currently awaiting a final verdict from the Department of Justice, which is expected in the coming week. Joy Evensen with the OLCC has stated that the Commission is hopeful there might be some other way of interpreting ORS 471.403 that would allow these competitions to continue, but unfortunately it is anticipated that the initial analysis will hold.

Fortunately for home brewers and vintners, the OLCC has begun working with Rep. Mike Schaufler (D-Happy Valley) and Senator Floyd Prozanski (D-South Lane and North Douglas Counties) to draft language for consideration in the next session of the Oregon State Legislature. If the rewrite passes at this session, home-brewing competitions should be good to go for next year. To those concerned: let your voice be known. Contact your local representatives and senators and give them your two cents worth. Just remember, we beer/wine lovers will only find cooperation with local legislature if we demonstrate we’re deserving of it. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

We’ll keep you posted.