The attorney general says home-brewing is legal in the state with a permit from the Department of Revenue. But here's the catch: State tax officials say the law doesn't allow permits specifically for home-brewers.
There are permits for commercial brewers and brewpubs, each running $1,000. And home-brewers arguably would also owe an excise tax of 42.68 cents for each gallon of beer brewed. Breaking the law is a misdemeanor that carries fines of up to $500 and jail time of up to six months. And here's what would probably sting the home-brewers even worse: The police could seize the beer.
The upshot is that Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, says he's likely to introduce a bill in the 2013 Legislature to exempt home-brewers from permits and excise taxes.
"I was disappointed to learn you have to go through the Department of Revenue to do what I consider tantamount to cooking," he said. "We're not talking about a product that someone is taking and selling. My approach is to try to create an environment where people who want to brew at home, can."
Craig Hendry, president of beer advocacy group Raise Your Pints, said his members are hopeful that legal issues around home-brewing will be cleared up. Their lobbying would build on a victory earlier this year, when lawmakers passed a bill that allows beer with 8 percent alcohol by weight, or 10 percent by volume, to be sold in Mississippi.
It was Baria who requested the attorney general's opinion earlier this year.
"For five years I have filed a bill to legalize home-brewing," he said. "The reason I filed it was we were told it was illegal." But then Baria began to hear that maybe it wasn't, so he asked Attorney General Jim Hood's office to research the question. In August, Hood's office said there was no difference between making beer at home or in a brewery. He said a home-brewer would need a permit, and the permit would have to be issued under the authority of the Revenue Department.
"Since the statute expressly declares the manufacture of beer (without distinction as to purpose) to be legal and then requires by criminal penalty a permit for same, it is our opinion that the commissioner of revenue by necessary implication has the authority to issue permits for home-brewing as well as any other type of manufacture of beer," Hood's office wrote.
But Kathy Waterbury, the Revenue Department's spokeswoman, says the department does not agree that it has the authority to create a special home-brewing permit without an act of the Legislature. She noted that the existing permits are laid out in law.
Hendry, a Florence resident, said his group doesn't consider the attorney general's opinion a win.
"It didn't reach our goal," he said. "We wanted it to be completely legal, not just legal if you have a license."
Hendry said some estimates suggest as many as 2,000 home-brewers are making beer in Mississippi. He's been doing it for 12 years, and says no other state that allows amateur beer making requires a license.
"Why would Mississippi go and be a little tighter than everyone else?" he asked.
There are some signs that Mississippi's home-brewers are already coming out of the shadows. Brewing supply stores opened in Greenville and Jackson in December.
"They've told us as long as we're not selling it or giving it to minors, they're not going to come after us," Hendry said.
He said home-brewers recognize that it's illegal to do either.
"I can't just take it to a party and sell 6-packs," he said.
Online: Miss. attorney general's opinion on home-brewing: http://bit.ly/TbewkJ
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