This past weekend, Steve Wilkes and I traveled to Salt Lake City to take part in the fifth annual Beehive Brewoff homebrew competition. It took place at the Bayou restaurant, where every table was occupied with judges poring over samples of 599 beers submitted by 254 brewers. It’s serious work, as the judges did their best to pick the best of each category and fill out score sheets giving valuable feedback to the entrants. A scene like this could be taken for granted across the country, but in Utah it was nonexistent just five years ago. At that time, homebrewing was illegal.
Among the judges gathered at the competition is the man responsible for initiating the Utah homebrew legalization movement. In 2008, Douglas Wawrzynski was a law student and a home brewer. Douglas wasn’t comfortable with the thought of being certified to uphold the law at the same time he broke it by brewing beer. It was either quit homebrewing or change the law forbidding it. He chose the latter.
Working with Christine Johnson, his Utah state representative, Douglas championed a bill legalizing his favorite hobby. It took two sessions of the legislature, the support of other Utah homebrewers, and the help of the American Homebrewers Association, but in 2009 homebrewing was legalized across the state. The first Beehive Brewoff soon followed.
It was a legal landmark. For a little over a decade, the number of states where homebrewing was against the law stood at five. In the years since, all of those left have followed suit. Alabama and Mississippi made it unanimous just this year.
“I celebrated with everybody else when the last state sealed the deal, and it was legal across the board,” Douglas says.
Douglas is modest about his involvement in the process, but Jamie Burnham, manager of The Beer Nut – a Salt Lake City homebrew shop, gives him credit for getting the ball rolling toward legalization across the country.
“I think that had he not pushed the issue, I don’t know that we would have done much to get it passed in our state,” Jamie says. “He was the catalyst for sure. And because of that, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Alabama – all of them joined on board.” Jamie smiles. “Because you can’t be behind Utah.”
Jamie and Douglas aren’t complacent about their hobby’s legal status. Douglas has seen negative comments about homebrewing in news stories, and Jamie notes that their ally in the legislature, Christine Johnson, has moved out of state.
“In a state where full-strength beers aren’t served on tap, anytime a homebrewer talks about having three or four taps of homebrew in their basement, I sort of cringe a little,” Douglas says. “You’re never quite sure how some people will react to the expanding hobby.”
If only critics of homebrewing could see the seriousness that the judges apply to their task of evaluating each contest entry, perhaps they’d open their eyes a bit. This is not a room filled with drunken rowdies.
“I hope it’s being perceived as a positive thing in the state,” says Douglas. “We certainly have all the typical arguments being advanced by local breweries that say homebrewers become brewers, brewers become tax revenue. It’s a part of economic development.”
In the years since the legislative victory, Douglas and his wife Sarah have added two sons, now five and two. Douglas has already started training the next generation of Utah homebrewer.
“One knows how to help me move the mash paddle, and the other knows just enough to stay away from things that are hot.”
You can see the Beehive Brewoff winners here.