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Hacking SF: Modern Day Bootlegging

Caleb Pershan | June 19, 2013 | Lifestyle Story City Life

Bootlegging just ain't what it used to be. Homebrewing has been legal since 1979, and winemaking long before that, but there are still limitations for you to meet (or break) if you want to feel like a real moonshiner. For instance: Can you distill gin in your bathtub, or give a bottle of homemade beer to friends as a gift? Since brewing and winemaking can be the most fun in the summer months (think wheat ales and wine coolers) we spoke with Homer Smith, manager of Berkeley’s Oak Barrel Winecraft, to find out more.

How much booze can you legally make?
“The limit for wine is 200 gallons per year per household. As far as beer making, you can make 100 gallons a year.” What Smith describes sounds like plenty, but if you ramp up your operation, it’s worth being wary. Typically homebrewers work with 5 gallons (about 50 beer bottles) at a time. “In terms of maxing out, there are some [home brewers and winemakers] that come close. You gotta work pretty hard for it but you can do it, especially if you’re a home winemaker who has a vineyard themselves and access to their own grapes.” That said, nobody is going to audit you unless your place smells like the Anchor Steam factory. And fortunately: “You don’t need a vineyard—we and others sell grapes in season.”

Do you really stomp grapes like Dionysus?
“You can buy either crushed fruit or you can crush it at home. You wouldn’t crush it with your feet. You’d use a crusher-destemmer, cause you don’t want those stems in their throwing off harsh, bitter tannins.” Sounds like your feet would be throwing off the worst tannins of all. For beer making, you’ll want to sanitize all your equipment, from the fermenter to the tubes you’ll use for getting beer in the bottle, to prevent contamination. Cider making is also increasingly popular, and resembles brewing due to your presumed desire for carbonation.

How hard is it, really?
“You acquire the skill over time, but it’s truly a game of patience too. Air is your worst enemy in winemaking and beer making, because if it starts to oxidize it’s going to distort the flavor of the wine or beer.” Great places to get started are here at Oak Barrel and spots like SF Brewcraft with a weekly 6 pm Monday night class (you'll probably only need to go once), or else with a small scale kit like this one from Brooklyn Brew Shop. “Our motto here is patience, we’re willing to help you through the process.” That better be yours, too, since wine making season comes once a year and brewing can take up to a month or two (though without a discrete season, there’s more time for trial and error). “Beer making is just as hard as wine making, with a bit more forgiveness due to the higher alcohol content,” says Smith. For those looking to try brewing without purchasing equipment, you'll have to wait for the forthcoming Diving Dog Brewhouse, an Oakland DIY brewery that promises all the supplies and guidance for you to come in and make your own beer.

Can you give it away? Can you sell it?
“You have that right to be able to produce something and give it away as a gift,” but the most you can get in return is a favor or good will: “You can’t sell any unless you acquire a government license.” If your aspirations are bigger, bear in mind “tons of wineries have sprung up in just over the last year for instance, and a lot of them first started making wine through here. A number of breweries have started here too, like Linden Street and Triple Rock, heck their first recipe that they brewed 25 years ago came from here.” That sounds like fatherly pride.

What about gin and liquor?: “Unfortunately, distillation hasn’t been legalized yet. In fact it was just back in ’79 that Alan Cranston got the bill pushed through right here to legalize homebrewing.” That’s recent enough that you can brew an old school beer in your garage and pretend it's illegal. "There’s a grey area to whether or not you can really sell supplies for distillation or not—we don’t because we’re trying to uphold the law.” No problem there: supplies for home distilling are easily available online as well as at SF Brewcraft, and you can always infuse vodka with juniper berries or add honey to whiskey at home for some DIY fun. “I’m hoping that somebody puts a bill through," says Smith, "because by doing that like they did with the craft beer, the market changes people’s tastes by opening up a plethora of different flavor combinations and recipes.”

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