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22 Feb 2014

The Beer Goddess: A Renowned Homebrew Festival Narrowly Survives a Strict Interpretation of a New Law

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An image from a previous Southern California Homebrewers Festival. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding that it’s all about the beer,” California Homebrewers Association president Christy Elshof said about the festival. “We want to make it very clear it’s all about the homebrewer.” An image from a previous Southern California Homebrewers Festival. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding that it’s all about the beer,” California Homebrewers Association president Christy Elshof said about the festival. “We want to make it very clear it’s all about the homebrewer.”

The Southern California Homebrewers Festival is held every year in early May.

The festival, hosted by the California Homebrewers Association (CHA), is held at Lake Casitas, in Ventura County—about a three-hour drive from Palm Springs. Commercial breweries and homebrewers pour their beers; award winning homebrewers and brewmasters speak at the wildlife recreation area. With more than 40 homebrew clubs in attendance, and unlimited tastings, it’s a beer and camping extravaganza that attracts a couple thousand beer-lovers every year.

However, its future was temporarily thrown into doubt, thanks to a potentially damaging piece of legislation.

On Oct. 1, 2013, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Assembly Bill 1425. The bill was supposed to do good things—namely, make home-brewed beer and wine easier to share. However, it included this phrase: “A nonprofit organization established for the purpose of promoting home production of beer or wine, or whose membership is composed primarily of home brewers or home winemakers, shall not be eligible to sell beer or wine pursuant to this subdivision.”

The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control initially interpreted that phrase as prohibiting homebrew festivals—such as the Southern California Homebrewers Festival.

The California Homebrewers Association put pressure on the ABC for a more favorable interpretation of the law—and they had help from some powerful people. On Jan. 23, the top two members of the Assembly Committee on Governmental Organization—chair Isadore Hall III, a Los Angeles Democrat, and vice-chair Brian Nestande, a Palm Desert Republican—issued a press release announcing they’d sent a letter to the director of the ABC in an effort to ensure the festival can continue.

“It appears that there is a misinterpretation of the committee’s intent with this bill,” Nestande said in the news release. “These small local festivals attract thousands of people. They are a vital part of our economy and promote small-business growth. I’m committed to working with director (Timothy) Gorsuch to ensure the festival can carry on as planned.”

David Humphrey is the CEO of the Coachella Valley Brewing Company, as well as an attorney. He said that the provision in question was intended “to keep commercial breweries from using the expansive language as an end around from obtaining a proper license.

“Under no good-faith reading was the provision meant to limit a homebrewer or home wine-maker from showcasing his hobby at a festival,” Humphrey said.

Brett Newman is the Coachella Valley Homebrew Club president and has been helping the other Southern California homebrew clubs fight the ABC interpretation. Newman has attended the festival twice. He said he loves getting ideas, and tasting rare beers.

“Serving and pouring at your booth is just amazing,” he said. “I actually love doing that almost more than anything else. It’s like instant feedback. … You can’t trust your own senses with your own homebrew sometimes.”

California Homebrewers Association president Christy Elshof wants to make it clear that it’s the Southern California Homebrewers Festival. Note that the word “beer” is not included.

“We want to make that clear, because it seems that there’s a lot of misunderstanding that it’s all about the beer,” she said in early February. “We want to make it very clear it’s all about the homebrewer. It’s the homebrewers’ rights that are in jeopardy with the law as it stands.”

Elshof started homebrewing 17 years ago. She started going to the event as a volunteer in the 1990s and was later asked to join the board. Elshof feels that the ABC was looking at the event as a beer festival; she looks at it as a place for homebrewers to get together and talk about what they make.

“We are enthusiastic hobbyists. Over the years, we’ve grown from … three or four clubs that started it. … We had over 2,000 people last year. If they could actually hear how brewers talk to each other—talk about technique, you know. As a brewer, you’re always looking for that little intangible. You want to know what it is that added that little back flavor. What did you add? What was your temperature? You gather more information by sharing with others.”

Things came down to the wire, but in mid-February, Elshof learned that the event could go on: Thanks to a loophole and the involvement of a nonprofit group, the early May festival is safe. Tickets should go on sale around the first of March. Meanwhile, the group will keep fighting to make sure the law is fixed.

“This is where we grow our future craft brewers, in the homebrewing industry,” Elshof said.

For more information, visit www1.calhomebrewers.org.

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