Can I Sell Homebrew? Can I Make Pro Brew at Home?

Can you sell your homebrew? Can you make pro brew at home? In this series, we dive into the details of the legal aspects of brewing at a residence.
Can you sell your homebrew? Can you make pro brew at home? In this series, we dive into the details of the legal aspects of brewing at a residence.

A special post on homebrewing, in honor of all our friends at Homebrew Con 2016 (it’ll always be NHC to me!) who are out there kicking tires on new gear while enjoying the camaraderie and great array of homebrew seminars (and no shortage of homebrew…) out in Baltimore right now. Another homebrew-related post coming tomorrow.

So, we know you can homebrew. But can you ever sell your homebrew? In other words, can you brew beer at “home” and sell it? Could you run a bona fide brewery business out of your home; make pro brew in your garage? Let’s unpack these common questions, and we’ll do it in two parts.

Homebrewing is legal in all fifty states (thankfully, for our friends in the South, Alabama finally came around!). Federal regulations allow adults to brew up to 100 gallons of homebrew a year if living alone, and up to 200 gallons of homebrew per year for a household. As you might imagine, it’s pretty hard to police that figure, but for this risk-averse attorney, that means my 3.5G weekly batches cleanly put me under that household threshold (for 200G/year, it comes out to about 3.8G/week). Whew.

And for anyone who has thought about going pro, costs are often daunting. Many wonder, could I produce beer at my home somehow, and turn around and sell it? That would mean I could avoid spendy commercial leases, and use the space and gear I’ve got. We’re here to say maybe, and with a lot of caveats; as we don’t represent our dear readers, you should always seek an opinion of counsel in your home state. That said, we have successfully helped people open commercial beverage businesses at their residences. If you’re in the right locality, with the right separations at your premises, it may well be possible. Note, though, that commercially brewing at home as a licensed producer is one thing. That’s sanctioned “Pro Brew” (more on that next time). However, selling “homebrew” without a permit is another, and that’s always a no-no. Here are the issues at play.

First and foremost, absent federal licensure (and applicable state/local permits), you cannot sell alcohol made anywhere. Not no way, not no how.

If you’re interested in opening a commercial brewery at your home, or licensing an outbuilding as a brewery, stay tuned for our next post. If you’re curious about other aspects of homebrew, read on for frequently-asked homebrew questions.

I’m a pro brewer in planning, can I charge for homebrew at an event?

We get asked a lot about charging admission for an event hosted by a brewery in planning. Typically, the would-be brewer wants to woo investors and build up a fanbase before going live. At these events, they want to serve or sell their homemade wares. Keep in mind that the more you edge closer to money and homebrew, the more you’re walking that fine line. Homebrew simply cannot be sold, so a monetary transaction for the beer is not possible. And, in many states, including Washington, to “sell” has a particularly broad definition (including even bartering and exchanging it which may be difficult to enforce but is nonetheless the law). Homebrewers would be well-advised to seek experienced local counsel before serving homebrew anywhere beyond the home or at a friend’s house. Indeed, even pouring at festivals may require notice to applicable regulators.

Can I bring my homebrew to a wedding?

Typically, homebrew is okay at private events. The places where friends, family, and loved ones gather. Just as no one regulates the service of homebrew at your house party, these sorts of events tend to fall in this category. Technically, the federal language refers to homebrew as to be for “personal or family use and not for sale.” Thus, of course, again the standard no-sales caveat applies again. If someone wants to run a business of making custom beer for private events, we’re talking about a licensed business, and not a homebrew operation. Unlike other industries, such as baking or candy-making which can often be conducted right out of the kitchen with minimal permitting, brewing alcohol for commercial purposes is highly regulated. It needs a permit, taxes must be paid on production and, as we’ll touch on tomorrow, it may or may not be possible at a residence.

I’m 18, can I make homebrew….?

According to federal regulations, any adult may produce homebrew. Further, federal regulations clarify that an adult is someone aged eighteen or older. Of course, drinking age laws still apply. Moreover, states can also restrict production of homebrew to those older than 21. But, if your state allows 18+ production, a Mr. Beer Kit for high school graduation is a viable gift idea for your favorite niece or nephew, although probably frowned upon by mom and dad.

Are the gallon limits for beer only, or does wine count?

Cheers to diversifying your homebrewing interests. If you’re seeking a compliant homebrew path, but the 100G/200G homebrewing limitations aren’t enough to keep the whistle wet, you might consider making wine (which includes wine, cider, and mead). Federal regulations give you an additional 100G individually/200G household allotment for winemaking. Brew on.

What about home distilling, can I do that?

Not legally, no way. Home distilling is illegal. Over cocktails, I’ve pontificated about what a licensing process for this might look like, maybe involving permitting and training (and, of course, a healthy fee to the applicable regulators for the classes and annual right to do so). It hasn’t happened yet (and I hope somewhere, someday, someone is reading this and the law has changed). But, take note! At the time of writing, there’s activity in the House and Senate that may help make a path possible. This effort is thanks to the efforts of the Hobby Distiller’s Association.

We’ll add other Homebrew Law FAQs as they come to us.

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Understanding Kombucha Law: Legally Selling Hard Kombucha

Kombucha law can be mystifying—here, we discuss whether a permit may be needed, spot sources of risk, and touch on steps to be compliant.
Kombucha law can be mystifying—here, we discuss whether a permit may be needed, spot sources of risk, and touch on steps to be compliant.

My fascination with kombucha started in the kitchen, as I raised my first SCOBY from a bottle of GT’s. As she grew, so did another fascination with kombucha—the issues involved in kombucha law. Do you need a federal license to produce kombucha? What about a state license? Can you make kombucha at home and then sell it? Or, do you need a commercial premises to make and sell kombucha—must that be your own commercial space, or could you make kombucha at a commercial kitchen and then sell it? I found that the answer, responsive to so many questions in the law, is that it depends.

As a preliminary matter, though, the first thing to consider is what the alcohol content of the kombucha is (or will be). When producing traditional kombucha, the alcohol content often drifts above .5% ABV (that is, one half of one percent). A product that consists of .5% ABV or more is legally considered alcohol, and a permit is required from the federal government. Moreover, a TTB permit is required even if the ultimate final product is less than .5% ABV. For example, if a producer makes anything beyond .5% ABV—even if the producer plans to dilute that later in the final product—a permit is still required. Of course, there’s no “kombucha permit”—at least not yet!—and so the options for alcohol permits are the ones you would expect. The federal government (the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, or the TTB for short) has three kinds of alcohol permits. There is the brewery permit, the winery permit, or the distilled spirits plant permit.

Through vigil efforts, a kombucha producer (side note: I often think of them as a professional “kombuchery,” and I’m seeing others are starting to use the term as well!) may keep the ABV below .5% at all times. If this is the tact the producer is taking, a permit is not required, and sales would not be limited to those of legal drinking age. Nevertheless, because of the steps involved in making kombucha, it is often not a product eligible to be made at home under the cottage food laws in each state. Moreover, keep in mind that if the product drifts above .5% ABV while it is on the retail shelves (perhaps due to unrefrigerated storage and continued fermentation), then the producer is liable for alcohol taxes, and is essentially producing alcohol without proper licensure. Not good. Indeed, this issue spawned a recall of kombucha products five or so years back, and caused a few entrants into the kombucha market to reconsider. More regulation, federal taxes (at the time of writing $7 for every 31 gallons, also known as a barrel, on the first 50,000 bbls), state taxes (depends on the state), a regulated premises, sales to those 21+ only, potential placement in the alcohol aisle of the grocery store (and many natural foods stores lack permits to even sell alcohol), and so on. It’s a lot to deal with and more risk—especially when dealing with unpasteurized kombucha with live cultures, which for many producers and consumers is the very point—there’s far more inherent risk than when selling a pasteurized orange juice.

If you are making traditional kombucha, or want the ability to produce a line of .5% ABV+ kombucha, then the TTB brewery permit is what tends to fit. Without drilling too far into the legal nitty gritty, a TTB-approved brewer is able to produce alcohol through extracting sugars from malted barley, or using any number of approved substitutes . Sugar is one of those substitutes. Moreover, a TTB-approved brewer is able to use various adjuncts in flavoring the final product—and so this is how tea and various herbal seasonings may be introduced into the product. Keep in mind, though, that a beer product—or any food product—may only contain ingredients that FDA deems “Generally Recognized as Safe,” or GRAS.

Key, though, is that if a TTB-approved brewer is making a product that lacks malted barley and hops (which defines beer under the Federal Alcohol Administration Act), then the product is not subject to TTB Certificate of Label Approval requirements. This may seem like a boon, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. Because the product is not TTB “beer,” it may not be subject to COLAs, but it is subject to labeling requirements of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Thus, nutrition facts would be necessary. (And, notably, laws prevent producers from dropping in just a tiny bit of  hops and malted barley to get around this requirement.)

Further, depending on the composition of the kombucha, a formula approval may be required. However, if all the ingredients come from the exempted list, then the formula approval may be avoided.

All in all, the legal requirements for making kombucha are nuanced. They also can vary by the state. For someone interested in opening a kombucha brewery, it is well worth learning about the legal requirements involved in producing kombucha—and forming a plan for a compliant launch of your new business endeavor. If you are going the the traditional permitted route, then obtaining federal, state, and local permits may affect your kombucha company start-up timeline, not to mention your start-up costs.

This kicks off a series of posts we’ll be making about kombucha law, including diving into more detail about the above issues we’ve already noted.



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Legal Beer Shipping Through US Mail? Maybe Soon.

Will shipping alcohol through the US Postal Service finally be legal?
Will shipping alcohol through the US Postal Service finally be legal?

Legal alcohol shipping? Congresswoman Jackie Speier of California says she’ll introduce a bill that just might make it so. Announced through her Facebook page on July 14, 2015, Congresswoman Speier would like to “tear down the last vestiges of #Prohibition” by introducing a bill that will undoubtedly be unpopular with craft beverage fans across the United States. The bill would make it legal for consumers to ship alcohol through the United States Post Office, “expanding consumer choice and keeping the Post Office solvent in the process,” according to Congresswoman Speier.

For those out of the loop, it’s currently illegal to ship alcohol through the US Mail. It’s also not okay through third-party carriers such as FedEx and UPS, although violating their rules is not as risky as the USPS’s. For example, violators of the United States Post Office alcohol shipping prohibition technically “shall be fined . . . or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.”

Don’t get too excited yet, though. This isn’t the first time a bill like this has been introduced. However, it’ll be the first time such a bill has been introduced (if it indeed is) on new Postmaster General Megan J. Brennan’s watch. Previous Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe, however, publicly supported previous steps to open up alcohol shipment. Indeed, he even had ideas about making shipping easier, including introducing flat-rate boxes designed to ship bottles.

For the curious, the ban on shipping alcohol through the United States Postal Service stems back to 18 U.S.C. § 1716, a federal statute that came on the books back in 1909. The statute provides that “[a]ll spiritous, vinous, malted, fermented, or other intoxicating liquors of any kind are nonmailable and shall not be deposited in or carried through the mails.” Pretty straightforward.

Opening up beer and wine shipping through US Mail won’t be without its administrative challenges, but former Postmaster General Donahoe thought they were surmountable. For example, there are issues with shipping out of and into various states (some states allow it, some do not), and further issues with preventing delivery to those underage.

With interest in craft beverages at an all-time high, this may just be the time for a bill like this to make it through. Keep in mind, however, that secondary markets, from a consumer-to-consumer sales perspective, would still be illegal—and bartering or trading could still be deemed a sale of alcohol, prohibited under many state laws. Shipping of gifts back and forth to your buddies in different parts of the United States, however, may pass muster. So, perhaps it’s a good time to warm back up to your old college friends who may be scattered about the US, and living nearby your favorite hard-to-find source. We’ll keep you posted.

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TTB Brewer’s Bond Amount: How Much of a Bond Does a Brewery Need?

TTB Brewer's Bond
What TTB Brewer’s Bond amount does a brewery need? This post goes over the essentials for a TTB-compliant brewery’s operation.

What TTB brewer’s bond amount does a brewery need? Learn the essentials—calculating the right brewer’s bond amount, and choosing the right kind of bond.

What brewer’s bond amount does a brewery need? It’s a question that often comes up when a new brewery is completing its TTB application for its Brewer’s Notice. The TTB brewer’s bond form can look intimdating, but it’s fairly straightforward. First some background, then some guidance to frequently asked questions.

What is a TTB brewer’s bond?

A brewer’s bond is a way of guaranteeing TTB (or states that require them) that production tax, also known as excise tax on beer, is going to get paid. If a brewery fails to make its tax obligations, the bond is going to kick in and cover the deficient amount. That’s why it’s important to get a brewer’s bond amount right. In fact, if a brewer’s bond is too low for a brewery’s production, the brewery is not compliant.

How can I get a TTB brewer’s bond?

There are two kinds of TTB brewer’s bonds. A brewer’s surety bond and a brewer’s collateral bond. A TTB brewer’s surety bond is when a third party covers the brewery; it’s essentially insurance. The brewery pays a certain amount up front, and the insurance company is obligated to cover the bond. A brewery can get a surety bond by contacting an insurance agent. Many breweries go this route because the start-up brewery needs to put all of its cash toward start-up and build out expenses, and the bonds are relatively cheap. Typically $100 up front for a $1,000 bond and sometimes still just that $100 for a $5,000 bond.  To avoid having to deal with a third party, and keep filing paperwork every few years, another option is a Brewer’s Collateral Bond. Instead of paying a certain amount up front for the bond coverage, with a collateral bond, the brewery itself pays its full bond amount to TTB and TTB holds onto that cash. If a brewery doesn’t mind locking up the cash, it’s an option.

What TTB brewer’s bond amount is adequate?

The right TTB brewer’s bond amount depends on a brewery’s production. How many barrels of beer will a brewery produce in a quarter, and what would the brewery’s federal tax obligation on that beer be? That’s the amount of a TTB brewer’s bond a brewery needs to have on file. If a brewery anticipates its quarterly production and, in turn, brewery tax obligation is going to go up in a quarter, a brewery needs to strengthen its bond. The first bond a brewery files is an original. A superseding bond replaces that bond. A strengthening bond strengthens the amount of the one that’s on file.

Currently, the minimum TTB brewer’s bond amount for a production facility is $1,000. For nano breweries opening today, that’s sufficient. Or, at least, it wouldn’t take much more to be sufficient. If you plan to brew more than around 12 bbl per week, the bond would need to be bigger. We’ll walk through the numbers. Tax on beer is, at the time of writing, $7 per barrel for nearly all brewers. If you’re producing below 60,000 bbl per year, it’s $7/bbl today. So, a brewery would have to produce a bit more than 142 bbl per quarter—about 48 bbl per month or 12 bbl per week—to need a bigger brewer’s bond than the minimum $1,000 TTB brewer’s bond. Showing the math, $7 * 142 = $994. That 143rd bbl would bring the quarterly tax obligation to $1001, putting a brewery over the $1,000 minimum coverage. A greater bond would be required.

Notably, if a brewery is seeking a surety bond, very frequently a brewery can pay the same up-front amount, but get a much bigger bond. If a brewery is not posting a cash brewer’s collateral bond, it’s best to get the biggest surety bond it can while paying the lowest amount. This covers the brewery for increased production, without thinking twice. A brewery can shop around for coverage, often a $5,000 bond can be obtained for the same price as a $1,000 bond—that’d be 5x the coverage, giving headroom for production of up to nearly 60 bbl per week. As a brewery expands, or makes plan to, the amount of bond coverage on file with TTB should be in the back of the brewery’s mind.

Do TTB brewer’s bonds expire?

They do. Keep in mind that a brewer’s bond expires after four years. A Brewer’s Bond Continuation Certificate, whether for a surety brewer’s bond or a collateral brewer’s bond, must be filed and accepted by TTB.

Can a brewer change its TTB brewer’s bond type?

Yes, a brewery could switch from a surety brewer’s bond to a collateral brewer’s bond, or go from a collateral brewer’s bond to a surety brewer’s bond.

Help with a TTB Brewer’s Bond or TTB Brewer’s Notice Application

We regularly help handle TTB bonds as a part of our two Brewer’s Notice federal licensing packages. The first is our Comprehensive TTB Licensing Package, where we oversee the entire licensing process, guiding a brewery through every step of the way and handling all the application drafting. The second is our TTB Application Review, which is geared toward DIY breweries who want to save money by taking a stab at the Brewer’s Notice, but want an experienced professional’s review for completeness, removal of errors that may hold up the application, and guidance on streamlining the application for an efficient TTB review. Breweries in planning may call or email for details.

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What Beers Need TTB Formula Approval?

When does your carefully craft brew require a TTB formula approval? It's not as straightforward as it seems.
When does your carefully crafted brew require a TTB formula approval? It’s not as straightforward as you might hope. Read on for important background on TTB formula approval requirements.

Government authorities are great at drawing confusing lines. One example is understanding what beers need a TTB formula approval. (Note that TTB, or the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, is the primary federal regulatory authority over alcoholic beverages and producers.) Before getting to the question of which beers require TTB formula approvals, it helps to cover some background material, and the necessary rigmarole it takes to get one. What are they, what beers need them, when do you apply, how long does it take? Read on and we’ll roll through it.

What is a TTB formula approval?

When brewing certain kinds of beer with certain ingredients and processes, TTB requires that the agency first approve your formula (your recipe / process essentially) before it will consider your beer for a Certificate of Label Approval (COLA). That process is commonly referred to as a TTB formula approval. This is required for a range of beers, as we’ll cover soon.

When do I seek TTB formula approval?

The time to seek formula approval is when you’re planning to package and distribute a product across state lines. That’s when you’d need to get something else, called a Certificate of Label Approval (which authorizes you to move that beer across state lines). The formula approval is a prerequisite to the COLA for beers that need it. Here’s another scenario that’s important to know. If your state requires a COLA before packaging and selling your product even within the state, then you’ll need to go through the formula-approval process first. (Submitting your TTB COLA label approvals is technically required by the Washington State Liquor Control Board, for example, so you’d need your (1) TTB formula approval and then (2) TTB COLA label approval, before you have authority to sell packaged product in the state).

How long does it take to get a TTB formula approval?

TTB does a great job, but it’s not as fast as getting your COLA. You can view average TTB formula approval processing times at this website. At the time of writing, it’s taking TTB about 53 days (so almost two months) to issues its formula approvals. In part, TTB’s backlog is due to the increase in number of producers and, thereby, the beers hitting the market and crossing state lines. Sneak preview, though…Based on statements from TTB correspondents at the Craft Brewers Conference this year, they’d like to see the number of required formula approvals go down, and may be easing requirements even more, letting more beers through the gate without requiring approvals first. We’ll touch on that in a second. In any event, you will want to budget this time when planning to release any beer to market that requires a formula approval. And then you’ll want to keep in mind that, after the formula approval, it’s going to take some time to get your COLA as well. (Current TTB COLA approval wait times here. Battle Martin does a fantastic job getting through these. Yes, it’s one guy at TTB who does every beer label, and he’s refreshingly also most awesome to hear speak and to deal with.)

Which beers require a TTB formula approval?

Well, let’s be glad not all of them do. But, the line drawing here doesn’t make the most sense. TTB requires formula approval for any beer that is made using nontraditional processes. If you’re brewing up a traditional recipe, this doesn’t need to be on your radar. Water, malt, hops, and yeast? No worries. It does, however, come into play when you start using adjuncts or creative processes.

As a general rule, the kinds of beer recipes listed below require a TTB formula approval. However, there are very important exceptions to this rule which I’ll cover below.

To which flavors or other nonbeverage ingredients (other than hops extract) containing alcohol will be added;
To which coloring or natural or artificial flavors will be added;
To which fruit, fruit juice, fruit concentrate, herbs, spices, honey, maple syrup, or other food materials will be added; or
That is designated as saké, including flavored saké and sparkling saké.

Which beers are exempt from the general TTB formula approval rule?

Here’s a list of the exempt ingredients below (thanks to a ruling in 2014 relaxing the standards). This list came from urging by the Brewers Association, wanting to relax the onerous approval requirements for beer ingredients and processes that really were traditional. As you peruse the list, you’ll see that certain fruit additions are okay…but not others, at least right now. For example, coconut doesn’t make the cut. So if you’re using coconut in any beer, you need a TTB formula approval. Moreover, a multitude of spices got the green light, but if you’re using something creative like lemongrass in your wheat, it’s not going to pass muster. Last, and fortunately, ingredients like brown sugar, chocolate, coffee beans and grounds, honey, lactose, maple syrup, and the like are all okay. But, notably, if you’re brewing a batch of coffee and then using that brewed coffee in your beer process, that is not okay. Just the beans or grounds. Hmm.

Fruits (whole fruits, fruit juices, fruit puree or fruit concentrate)
juniper berries

cocoa (powder or nibs)
orange or lemon peel or zest
star anise
vanilla (whole bean)

Other Exempted Ingredients
brown sugar*
candy (candi) sugar*
chili peppers
coffee (coffee beans or coffee grounds)
maple sugar/syrup *
molasses/blackstrap molasses *

The below processes are also exempt. As you review the list, keep in mind that you can use woodchips (remember, though, you can’t say it’s a barrel-aged beer then or say on its label that it has barrel flavor, that gets to labeling issues), but you can’t soak those woodchips in alcohol.

  • Aging beer in plain barrels or with plain woodchips, spirals or staves made of any type of wood.
  • Aging beer in barrels, containing no discernible quantity of wine or distilled spirits, that were previously used in the production or storage of wine or distilled spirits.
  • Aging beer with woodchips, spirals or staves derived from barrels, containing no discernible quantity of wine or distilled spirits, that were previously used in the production or storage of wine or distilled spirits, or with woodchips, containing no discernible quantity of wine or distilled spirits, that were previously used in the aging of wine or distilled spirits.

In Conclusion, TTB Formula Approval: Moving Forward

Ultimately, based on comments from TTB authorities who attended the 2015 Craft Brewers Conference in Portland, TTB seems to be revisiting further ingredients / processes to include on the list. We’re hoping coconut and a multitude of other now-traditional ingredients make the cut. We’ll include them in a post whenever we get word. But, for now, as you make plans to expand into other territories, keep in mind that the COLA isn’t the first step for many of your creative beers. Instead, it’s TTB formula approval, then the important step of TTB COLA approval. Forgetting this, or doing them out of order, can add significant delays to your beer’s release time. If you have questions or concerns about your upcoming COLA or TTB formula approval needs, Doug and I can help, no matter where in the U.S. your brewery is located. Feel free to send us a note.

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