Monday, May 11, 2020

Bill Steiger and the Bathtub Beer Bill

Considering the history of this place, it’s not too surprising that someone from Oshkosh would have played a central role in the legalization of homebrewing in America.

William A. Steiger.

On January 4, 1977, Congressman William A. Steiger of Oshkosh introduced House Resolution 1337. It was a sausage-like bill that, among other disparate parts, included a provision that would legalize the making of beer at home "for personal and family use." Just over two years later, the federal prohibition on homebrewing came to an end.

For his part, Steiger never professed any special love for the home craft of making beer. He was born in 1938, five years after Oshkosh's once-vibrant homebrewing scene had been made redundant by the repeal of Prohibition. The city was home to three breweries during Steiger's time, but young Bill was brought up about as far removed from all of that as was possible for any person living in Oshkosh.

Bill Steiger was born into a wealthy family. His father, Carl, was president of Oshkosh's Deltox Rug Company and heavily involved in politics on both the local and state levels. Bill grew up in a posh neighborhood on Algoma Boulevard in a mansion that had been built for lumber baron Edward Paine in 1860. Steiger probably never heard that there had once been a brewery run by a German named Kaehler just a few doors down from the family home. That part of the story was forgotten by the time the Steigers arrived.

The Steiger family home.

Bill Steiger quickly made a name for himself. Upon graduation from the University of Wisconsin in 1960, he ran for and won a seat in the Wisconsin State Assembly. In 1966, he was elected to Congress and at 28 became its youngest member. By 1977, Steiger was a rising star within the Republican Party and being groomed as a potential Senate or Vice‐Presidential candidate.

William Steiger and Richard Nixon, 1966.

William Steiger, 1968. At the far left is Steiger's intern, future Vice-President Dick Cheney.

So why would a guy like Bill Steiger bother to insert an unrelated clause legalizing homebrewing into a larger bill concerned with excise taxes on trucks and buses? The thanks goes to one of Steiger's colleagues on the House Ways and Means Committee. A Congressman from Rochester named Barber B. Conable.

Barber B. Conable

Conable had been trying to get homebrewing legalized since 1975. On September 27 that year, he introduced House Resolution 8643, a bill to authorize the home production of beer. Homebrewing was a federal crime punishable by a $5,000 fine and/or five years in jail. Conable’s bill would eliminate that penalty for a two-adult household making less than 200 gallons of beer a year. He later told a reporter from Copley News Service that the idea for legalization had come to him via a constituent who made kits for homemade beer and wine.

The man who had Conable’s ear was probably Jack Leonard, president of Rochester’s Vynox Industries. Vynox was then selling wine and beer making kits and equipment from the back pages of Popular Science magazine. Leonard was one of the early voices campaigning for legalization and had testified before Congress in December 1975 on behalf of Conable's bill. That bill never came to a vote.

Popular Science, October 1976. 

The legislation Steiger introduced in 1977 was a repackaging of the Conable bill. And as the new bill took shape, Conable became its chief advocate.

It took a year for the Steiger bill to come out of committee. The process left it significantly deformed. Officials from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), had gotten into the mix. They managed to insert a provision requiring homebrewers to register with the federal government. It was a matter of bureaucratic quid pro quo.

At the time, home winemakers were required by law to register with the federal government before producing any wine. Many home winemakers simply didn’t bother. But some 21,000 others sent in Form 1541 each year to remain on the right side of the law. Steiger’s bill would eliminate that prerequisite. The BATF wanted something in return.

The grasping nature of the agency's argument was evident. “Unregulated homebrewing might facilitate evasion of taxes on distilled spirits,” a BATF official said. "The mash that is left after beer is brewed can be distilled into hard liquor." Of course, you could accomplish much the same by distilling wine. But at this point, the bill had garnered little attention. Perhaps the BATF was banking on others not noticing what it was up to.

The bastardized bill sailed through the House with little fanfare and no opposition. It passed on a voice vote on Monday, March 13, 1978. It then went to the Senate where it was named the Homebrew Beer Equality Act of 1978. Newspapers called it the Bath Tub Beer Bill. Homebrewers weren’t amused. Their annoyance turned to outrage when they learned of the onerous addendums the bill had been saddled with.

It wasn’t just the federal registration requirement. The bill allowed for 100 gallons of beer production per year for a single adult household, and 200 gallons for households that had two or more adults. But those limits came with the stipulation that no homebrewer could have more than 30 gallons of beer – either finished or under fermentation – on hand at any one time.

Homebrewers pushed back. California homebrewing clubs the Maltose Falcons and San Andreas Malts appealed to Senator Alan Cranston of their home state. They found a powerful ally in the Senate's second-ranking member. Cranston jeered the BATF's meddling, saying it was "beer-ocracy at its worst." He called it "white-collar leaf raking."

The Maltose Falcons, 1974.

Alan Cranston

When the bill hit the Senate floor, Cranston was waiting with an amendment of his own that stripped the extraneous provisions and restored the bill to something very much like those Conable and Steiger had proposed in 1975 and 1977. No federal registration. No 30-gallon limit. Cranston had already lined up all the support he needed. His revisions passed through both the House and the Senate and October 4, 1978, the finalized bill was sent to President Jimmy Carter.

On October 14, 1978, Carter signed H.R. 1337 into law. Public Law 95-458 ended the federal prohibition on homebrewing effective February 1, 1979. By then, Bill Steiger was gone.

On December 4, 1978, the 40-year-old congressman from Oshkosh died unexpectedly of a heart attack. The New York Times, in its obituary of Steiger, noted that "He was widely regarded as one of the most promising political figures in his party... known for his wit, sunny disposition and informal appearance."

Steiger had grown up in a small, "informal" city with three breweries. He saw each of those breweries fail during the consolidation of the industry that occurred during the 1950s, '60s, and '70s.

Today, Bill Steiger's hometown has four breweries. And each of the brewhouses here is run by a former homebrewer who directly benefited from the legislation Steiger introduced in 1977. It was the trigger that set into motion the unanticipated transformation of America's beer culture.

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