Brew the day

Home alcohol production laws are cloudy in the state of Nevada

Now that I’ve been of legal drinking age for several years, the novelty of drinking for the effects of alcohol has worn off. Instead, I’ve since learned to appreciate the extensive history and art of alcohol. While I’m far from an authority on spirits, I have my preferences—I like red wine, hefeweizen, rum and whiskey. But it’s hard for me to enjoy something without understanding how it works or how it’s made. So after receiving homebrewing equipment for Christmas, making my own consumable alcohol is my latest hobby—one I’m not particularly skilled at right now, but in any case, it’s the latest effort in my ongoing quest to develop unique skills. It stems from simple curiosity—I’m endlessly curious about how everything I use and consume is made, from electronics to tools to consumables. And, like most things I’m interested in—such as hacking (“Life hacks,” Nov. 10, 2011), lockpicking (“Throw away the key,” Jan. 19, 2012) or survivalism (“Are you ready for the zombie apocalypse?” Aug. 2, 2012), it’s somewhat rebellious without actually being illegal.

Well, sort of. Homebrewing laws are often vague and confusing. After perusing dozens of websites with conflicting information, I sought out the expertise of Rob Bates, longtime homebrewer and owner of Reno Homebrewer, a store on Dickerson Road for all things homebrewing. As an amateur homebrewer, I wanted to ensure that I wasn’t breaking the law through my experimentation.

I understand the philosophies and processes well enough. On the web, I stumbled across the Homebrewer’s Manifesto which states, “If you don’t like cheap beer, don’t buy it. … If you’re searching for the most amazing beer ever, stop. It will find you when you start brewing the beers you love. … Stop stressing. Brewing should be meditative. All beer is beautiful.”

Zen and the art of beermaking—that’s an idea I can get behind, because homebrewing is a commitment that often does not yield positive results. My early experiments with homebrewing were a mixed bag. The first beverage I made was apple cider using a very simple fermenting gadget affixed straight to a growler filled with unfiltered apple juice and a tablespoon of yeast. After 72 hours, it pretty much just tasted like lightly spiked apple juice and was pretty good, if not a little bland. Then I left it in a sealed jar for too long, which caused it to ferment further, turning it into vinegar.

Beer has been a total flop so far—my curious cat, interested in the strange barrel in the kitchen, managed to release the tight seal, spoiling the liquid fermenting inside. The second time was my fault, because I just couldn’t resist taking a peek.

According to Bates, homebrewing requires three skills: the ability to boil water, to keep everything sterile, and the patience to wait a month. Clearly, I lack the third skill.

“Homebrewing requires patience,” he says. “It’s also easy for it to spoil quickly.”

Bates been homebrewing for more than 25 years. His interest in making his own brews started after his wife gave him a beermaking kit. It quickly became a hobby and eventually, his livelihood. While homebrewing has become a popular activity in the do-it-yourself movement, Bates says he hasn’t seen a noticeable increase in the amount of local homebrewers. Interest has been steady since he opened his shop, but because homebrewing is a demanding endeavor, it has a high turnover rate.

“It’s like any other hobby,” he says. “People get into it for a while, and then move on to other things.”

Bates says that beer, wine and cider are the most popular mostly because the laws are clear and concise. Households of two adults are allowed to produce up to 300 gallons of wine or beer per year. It’s not illegal to brew, but it is illegal to sell homebrewed alcohol without the proper license.

Still life

As a Nevadan, I was curious about moonshine production, the laws of which are a bit cloudier than those of beer. Bootlegging and moonshine production are a part of Nevada’s history, but there’s not much evidence left of the activity. In Bootleg Hills near Boulder City, visitors can see the last moonshine pot, which was left in decent condition. During Prohibition, bootleggers in Boulder City brewed spirits and transported it down the Colorado River.

In the book Moonshine! by food historian Matthew Rowley, he starts by saying, “Without inspection and proper approvals, you are not permitted to make any amount for personal use. Not one drop.” Of course, the book then goes on to provide detailed instructions of the moonshine process.

Unlike beer or cider, whiskey requires distilling—the process of condensing liquid to its purest state. It’s the same process behind creating essential oils or ethanol. Depending on the website, some will say that distillation of any kind is illegal, with the exception of registered businesses. Bates breaks the laws down like this: Distilling to make alcohol for consumption is illegal, but distilling to make alcohol for fuel is not. This makes for a pretty big loophole, he says.

“A permit for making fuel is easier to get,” he says. “And people just don’t tell anybody. It’s like what the speakeasies did in the 1920s.”

Simply owning the supplies for a still is not illegal, either. According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Trade Bureau, “It depends on how you use the still. You may not produce alcohol with these stills unless you qualify as a distilled spirits plant. However, owning a small still and using it for other purposes is allowed.”

Nevada Revised Statute 369.155 says “The requirements of this state for determining whether alcohol is produced for use in or as a motor vehicle fuel or for use in or as liquor are the same as the requirements of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms of the United States Department of the Treasury.” A permit can be obtained through the the state of Nevada website,

And for the most part, the laws differentiating between alcohol and fuel distillation are difficult to enforce, Bates notes.

“Local laws are more stringent,” Bates says. “But you’re not going to have someone dressed like a Gestapo knocking on your door.”

Distilling can also be incredibly dangerous. The vapors are highly flammable, and home distillation rigs have a history of causing fire and explosions.

“Homeowners insurance will not cover that,” says Bates. “It’s important to think about that.”

But while distillation for personal use is risky, there are a handful of legitimate distilling businesses in Nevada, including Tahoe Blü Distillery in Reno and Las Vegas Distillery in Las Vegas. A Yahoo report from 2010 speculated that distilling could help revive Nevada’s struggling economy. But the laws, dating back to Prohibition era, are outdated and are difficult for professional distillers to work around.

For those who really want a hand in making whiskey, Bates suggests aging rather than distilling. Storing whiskey in wood is what gives it color and flavor. Aging kits, equipped with a small barrel, have become popular among homebrewers, but Bates says the kits are often overpriced. Instead, putting wood chips in a container of whiskey will have the same effects.

But ultimately, Bates thinks that sticking to beer, wine and cider are safer and legal options for aspiring homebrewers. It’s also not a simple hobby—brewing any alcohol requires an understanding of the science, safety and health behind it. And a significant dose of patience.

“Homebrewing is a commitment,” says Bates. “You have to dedicate your life to it.”