State House considers alcohol-related bills

mlee@macon.comFebruary 16, 2013 

ATLANTA -- In a state that first allowed Sunday alcohol sales in 2011, the Georgia House of Representatives is at work on bills to free the flow of small-batch hooch.

One legislator said it used to be seen as a “hillbilly” activity, but now homemade beer and craft moonshine are going mainstream.

The biggest beer contests in Georgia can attract as many as 400 homemade beers, beer sommelier and consultant Matt Simpson from Cobb County told a state House panel last week. He was testifying in favor of a bill that would make such competitions legal.

“Our current law doesn’t allow for transport of home brew,” said House Bill 99 sponsor state Rep. Jason Spencer, R-Woodbine. “That essentially makes home brew competition illegal. ... Let’s make it legal and let these folks exchange recipes. Just let them do this.”

Under the bill, a two-adult household could produce a maximum of four batches of up to 50 gallons of beer, four times more than Georgia law now allows. But hobby brewers must still quaff the suds at home unless they are going to a competition.

Spencer’s bill got unanimous approval from the Regulated Industries Subcommittee on Alcohol and Tobacco on Thursday. And the moonshiners’ old enemy, the revenue man, stood aside.

The Department of Revenue is not in favor of House Bill 99 or against it, said Sean Casey, assistant deputy commissioner of the department. He testified simply to note that transported home brew would be “quasi-commercial” and thus might be hard to distinguish from a commercial, taxable drink. But in response to questioning, Casey said he had heard of no problems of people running home brew.

His department would be in charge of collecting the bill’s proposed $50 for a beer contest permit.

Simpson called home brewing an expression of creativity, personal freedoms and economic development. “Every craft brewery, almost every brewery is a tree from which home brew was the acorn,” he said, citing Sweetwater in Atlanta.

If home brew is an acorn of economic development, craft distilling may very well be seed corn.

State Rep. Rusty Kidd, I-Milledgeville, said what’s good for wineries is good for distillers. He introduced a bill that would let places like Georgia Distilling in Milledgeville retail up to two liters of liquor to each of its visitors.

“There are about 10 distillery operations throughout the state that are making moonshine and other alcoholic beverages,” he said. They are drawing visitors for tours and tastings, but lack a key attraction such as Braselton winery resort Chateau Elan. Distillery visitors cannot buy a bottle of alcohol directly from the maker.

Kidd said his House Bill 185 would boost tourism in places where people already have invested their own money to set up distilleries and open their doors to visitors.

The subcommittee ran out of time before it could hear testimony and vote on Kidd’s bill. It also had to delay hearing House Bill 137 by state Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, which would legalize retailing and shipping gift baskets that contain wine. Hearings have not yet been rescheduled, and time is running short. The annual legislative session will end as early as the first week in April.

“People used to look down their nose at hillbillies” for making alcoholic beverages at home, said state Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, the subcommittee’s chairman. But, he pointed out, it’s actually a lot of work.

On the other side of the Capitol, a bill by state Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon, would allow alcohol retailers to conduct tastings at their stores.

Senate Bill 169 been co-signed by his GOP state Sens. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, and Burt Jones, R-Jackson.

No hearing has yet been set. Staton pushed a similar bill last year, but it never made it out of committee.

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