Our “Makers” series highlights the people who make the beer, the decisions and the policies that shape the craft beer landscape in Illinois.
A little over two years ago a pair of homebrewers spearheaded an effort to change Illinois’ homebrew laws. With the help of the American Homebrewers Association, Peter J Rzeminski II and Richard Placko, formed a coalition of Illinois homebrewers, began the exhaustive process of negotiating a bill from the inside out and worked to rally support once an agreement was reached.
Their plight began a few months prior, after the state began cracking down on homebrewers taking part in festivals — stating homebrewed beer can only be consumed in the home.
Today we pull back the curtain on the Illinois Homebrew Alliance, the lengthy negotiations on both HB 6299 and HB 630 and get a firsthand look at Illinois beverage industry politics.
Guys Drinking Beer: For starters, Richard and Peter, can you give us a bit of background into your homebrewing background; what club(s) you’re involved with, how long you’ve been homebrewing and the beer or beers your most proud of brewing? And can you also outline your roles with the Illinois Homebrew Alliance?
Peter J. Rzeminski II: I am a member of two clubs actually; the PALE homebrew club and the Spent Grain Society, both of which are serving the western suburbs. I first started making homebrew in 2002 and did it off and on for about 5 years before taking a short break. I picked it back up in 2010 and have not looked back since.
The beer I am most proud of is my Chocolate Porter. It was the third beer I had ever made back in 2002. Having no idea what I was doing, I grabbed a bunch of ingredients, all extract, some chocolate grains to steep, picked some random hops, and brewed it. To my surprise, it was “not bad.” I’ve been tweaking the recipe over the years as I got better at brewing and as my equipment changed. Today, it is hands-down my favorite beer and one that gets made at-least twice a year.
I did not have an official title in the IHA, but I was calling myself the “Lead Negotiator” on the mailing list to give a name to what I was doing. Richard was handling the conversations with the politicians and I was the one talking to the ABDI (Associated Beer Distributors of Illinois).
Richard Placko: I have been brewing off and on for 20 years. For the last ten years, I have been involved with the Silverado Homebrew Club in St. Charles, IL. We meet on the third Thursday of each month at the Tap House in St. Charles. Currently I am helping the club with communications and helping to get projects up and running for the group.
The beers I’m most proud of brewing recently are different American IPA’s. Recently I’ve been using Citra, Amarillo, and different varieties of hops from New Zealand. In fact, I have a pound of Citra hops and a pound of New Zealand Rakau hops sitting in my fridge waiting to be used.
My role with the Illinois Homebrew Alliance was to communicate with the bill’s initial sponsor (Representative Keith Farnham) and work with him on timing as well as figuring out the next steps after we introduced the legislation.
GDB: It was a lengthy process to get to the point that this bill was signed into law, in the summer of 2013. So let’s go back to 2012 and create a timeline from there. The Illinois Liquor Control Commission starts cracking down — seemingly out of the blue — on homebrewers taking part in beer festivals. If I recall correctly, a festival in Peoria that April was the first to draw the ire of the commission. What was the initial reaction of the homebrew community when this crackdown began?
Rzeminski: My memory of that time is that there was a lot of anger and confusion among the homebrew community. I had joined PALE a few months prior and volunteered to run the booth for PALE at the second Midwest Brewers Fest. The very first MWBF, in 2010, had a homebrew tent and PALE served homebrew to the patrons. So when the ILCC decision came down of homebrew being “for the home only and not the public” (paraphrasing), the news spread like wildfire. The Board of Directors for the MWBF spoke to the officials in Plainfield where the fest is held, and the decision was made to remove the serving of homebrew from the fest. We were not the only ones affected; fests across the state were making similar decisions, and the clubs were not happy.
Placko: When the crackdown on serving homebrew at beer festivals began in 2012, my homebrew club was puzzled and a little bit angry. We had been serving homebrew at a local fundraiser at Porter’s Pub in Elgin in previous years and had positive feedback with no problems at all.
I was so frustrated with this, that I contacted my local representative in September 2012 about getting a bill drafted. I also sent an e-mail to Gary Glass at the American Homebrewer’s Association for help. Gary then put together an e-mail group of Illinois homebrew clubs as well as homebrew shops so that we could communicate about the legislation.
Richard and I just kinda stepped forward and starting organizing things. I was talking to the lawyers on the side and was feeding them all the requests the IHA members had regarding the law. Peter Rzeminski II, Illinois Homebrew Alliance
GDB: In the fall of 2012 State Representative Keith Farnham tells the Southtown Star he is going to draft legislation to address this crackdown and make it legal again for homebrewers to partake in festivals. Had you guys formerly assembled the Illinois Homebrew Alliance at that point or did a lawmaker taking some initiative encourage homebrewers to organize?
Rzeminski: I believe that Silverado had already been in contact with then Rep. Farnham about getting the law changed, so those actions came before the IHA had really done anything. Richard joined the IHA as Silverado’s representative, and we ended up combining forces. Rep. Farnham submitted his bill while the IHA was still working on fixing the language of his draft. That submission is what became HB 6229 and we worked to try to “fix” it in that early session.
Placko: Farnham was using legislation that was based on Wisconsin law. He ended up submitting the early draft of the bill because he explained that getting a bill through the Illinois legislature required that we first get it on the schedule and then it would be modified in later sessions. Peter and I both found out later that different associations and trade groups always get involved when a bill involving alcohol is submitted in Springfield.
The Illinois Homebrew Alliance was assembled in September 2012 by Gary Glass and the next few months involved a lot of communication via e-mail. Peter was instrumental in assembling all concerns and working to get a bill drafted that would fit the needs of as many clubs and stores as possible. The clubs and the AHA were fired up about the legislation and took the initiative of working through the legislation updates.
GDB: How did you two wind up running the policy and communications side of things for the organization?
Rzeminski: Richard and I just kinda stepped forward and starting organizing things. I was talking to the lawyers on the side and was feeding them all the requests the IHA members had regarding the law. Andrew Kriz used to be a legislation drafter in Springfield, and he used those skills to create the initial version of the IHA sponsored draft bill. Now, this draft was separate from what Rep. Farnham had submitted as HB 6229.
Placko: Communication just started via an email group that was set up. There were a number of clubs that were frustrated with what the Illinois Liquor Control Commission was doing to eliminate homebrew at festivals. Because of that, the clubs had a lot of passion and ownership over the issue and were all seeking to get the law changed.
GDB: The Fall Veto Session came and went with no action on the bill. When did it occur to you, or did it, that the initial path for this bill wasn’t progressing as you had hoped?
Rzeminski II: It was our intention to get HB 6229 replaced by the IHA draft, and submitted that Fall, but we had not accounted for a few things; politics, political power, and special interest groups. We had not realized that attempting to change the law in Illinois, particularly the Liquor Control Act, meant that you needed to deal directly with the *other* groups that had an interest in the liquor industry in Illinois. It was at this point that Rep. Farnham asked us to speak to the representatives of the Associated Beer Distributors of Illinois, Wine and Spirits Distributors of Illinois and the Illinois Licensed Beverage Association.
We really had no ideas about how to go about contacting them.
We spoke to Rep. Farnham who told us who to contact, but it was you that did the actual introduction between myself and Bob Myers; then VP of Government Relations for the ABDI. It was with the ABDI that I did 99.9% of my negotiations.
GDB: Speaking of, when you worked with Bob Myers, he was VP of Government Relations at the ABDI and Bill Olson was President. How were your dealings with Bob and Bill?
Rzeminski: I did not have any direct dealings with Bill; everything I did was with/through Bob.
My dealings with Bob went extremely well. They were interested in ensuring that their Three Tier System stayed in tact, and that anything we were seeking did not disrupt that. Seeing as homebrew cannot be distributed or sold in any commercial manner, there were not many issues at contention.
Through Bob, we were able to get the WSDI to take a “neutral stance” if we dropped any mention of the word “wine” in the draft. Bob also spoke to the ILBA behind the scenes and relayed their wishes to us.
Now, the ILBA had a number of things they wanted, so we needed to do most of our “hard” negotiations with them through Bob. The main result to come out of that was the judging section regarding who can and cannot judge a beer (we passed it by the Beer Judge Certification Program to ensure it not break their system). The other major piece affected by the ILBA was not allowing homebrew to be sampled on a “retail licensed premises.” That is “word art” for any location with a commercial liquor license. This gives us the weird situation where you cannot give homebrew samples away at a bar, tavern, or grocery store, but you can give them away at someplace like Solemn Oath because they do not have commercial taps; they only sell their own product.
Chicago Brew Werks was originally blocked from being able to offer homebrew samples to their patrons because they had commercial taps. Once they dropped those commercial taps and switched over to only serving their own product, they are now open again, should they choose to do so.
In the year since the passage of Public Act 98-55, Bob has helped the IHA out a few times when a specific circumstance came up and we needed clarification as to how it pertained to the law. He either gave us advice or put is in direct contact with one of the ILCC Attorneys to discuss the matter with them.
GDB: As the bill was being negotiated and revisions were being made, how were those proposed changes relayed to members of the Illinois Homebrew Alliance and were members able to vote up or down those proposed changes?
Rzeminski: At the beginning, I did not communicate a lot back to the larger IHA group. This was not because I wanted to exclude them, but because the changes were being made so quickly, and because these were items we had no room to negotiate on. Once we got past that first round, I was able to bring the modified draft back to the group, get their feedback on it, and then go back to the ABDI and find a compromise on the issues we in the IHA wanted changed.
It took a few rounds of emails and phone calls to clarify what exactly we were looking for and for us to not be seen as adversaries.Peter Rzeminski II, Illinois Homebrew Alliance
GDB: Can you guesstimate how many email exchanges and phone conversations you had with the ABDI in hashing out the finite details of this bill?
Rzeminski: Taking a look at my email history, it seems to be about 200 emails with the ABDI and easily that many between myself and the IHA. There were, maybe, 20 phones calls between me and Bob Myers that I can recall.
GDB: And did you ever hit a point you didn’t think a compromise would be reached?
Rzeminski: At the very beginning, yes. The ABDI and other groups had only seen the version Rep. Farnham had written by himself, so in their minds, they were thinking the IHA wanted something very different from what eventually became HB 630. It took a few rounds of emails and phone calls to clarify what exactly we were looking for and for us to not be seen as adversaries, but a group that could help us get what we wanted.
Placko: There were also times late in the negotiating process in which clubs expressed disappointment with parts of the legislation. For example, I believe the ABDI (Peter can confirm this) insisted that the legislation say that only 3 samples of homebrew could be given to each event attendee. Nobody wanted this in the legislation, but it wouldn’t get sponsored unless we kept this in.
Rzeminski: Richard is correct, there was an insistence that 235 ILCS 5/6-31 be enacted in the new law to control how much homebrew was given away. ILCS 235 is a Control Act, meaning that anything not deemed legal is considered “illegal.” So based on that and how 5/6-31 was written, outside of a residence, any liquor given away without cost is limited by the language of that part of the Act. Since we were giving away homebrew for free, the volume given away is limited.
I do not agree with that restriction and would like to see it increased, but I do understand why it was done with the homebrew law.
GDB: Language from a bill that impacted homebrew shops was eventually added into the homebrew bill. It seemed natural to do so, but did that slow down the progress or potentially derail it?
Rzeminski: That actually came from a separate path. John Beystehner from Brew & Grow was in the IHA and had requested a number of items for homebrew shops. The IHA at that time thought it was better to concentrate on the homebrewer aspect and then work on the shops at a later time.
John went and spoke to Rep. Mike Tryon and got his backing for the homebrew shop portion as a separate bill.
In the end, when were moving the legislation towards final submission, I spoke to all the interested parties and with some help from the “IHA attorneys” merged the drafts so that the unique parts of the shop draft was included into the HB 630 draft. John having gone off to do it separately ended up being a very good thing as we were able to get all the things we wanted passed, done at he same time.
GDB: I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the American Homebrewers Association, which did offer some support to the IHA. What kind of help did they provide along the way?
Rzeminski: Gary Glass is the one responsible for putting the IHA together. While I think all the clubs would have eventually figured out a way to talk to each other, it would not have happened nearly as fast as it had with the AHA’s involvement. Gary was responsive during the entire venture, and even helped us get in contact with the leadership at BJCP at a point when we had to write language dealing with homebrew competitions and how they are judged. They ensured that the language was neutral and did not break competition judging as we know it.
Placko: Also, we circled back with Gary when issues came up with different groups we were working with. For example, when the Illinois Liquor Control Commission expressed concern that serving homebrew at a festival could be a health concern, he provided feedback about how the alcohol in beer actually helps to make the beer safer to drink.
GDB: The days the eventual law was called for a vote in the House and the Senate, did you have any advance notice that the bills would be voted on then and were you nervous?
Placko: Unfortunately, no. When the bill was getting close to being voted on, we did receive a phone call from a staffer for Michael Madigan who said that they would be submitting it soon. It happened so quickly that we were unable to get off of work to make it down to Springfield for the vote.
Rzeminski: I received phone calls from Bob Myers on the days that the bill went up for a vote in each chamber, letting me know to keep an eye out.
The law is not perfect. There are a few things we would love to see changed.Peter Rzeminski II, Illinois Homebrew Alliance
GDB: Looking back at the entire process; did it play out like you thought it would? Was there anything that surprised you?
Rzeminski: Heh, I am surprised my wife did not kill me. The final negotiations occurred right after the birth of my youngest son, so a big chunk of the three weeks I stayed home on paternity leave had me holed up in the office when he was napping. Otherwise I was sitting with him in my arms while typing on a laptop and/or making phone calls.
I learned a great deal about compromise, about how things work down in Springfield and how hard it is to balance the needs and wants of everybody — and still come out with something that is workable. I have to admit that I was very surprised that, in the end, we were able to get a compromise draft bill that got the backing of all the IHA members for the bill. They all gave a lot of input into the bill, some of their requests were turned down, as were a lot of mine, but in the end, all the participating IHA clubs voted to approve the draft that was sent to the Illinois Legislature that eventually became Public Act 98-55.
Placko: From my perspective, the thing that most surprised me about the process was that so many people get involved in every piece of legislation. I was a little naive in thinking that a bill could just be submitted and voted on. Little did I know that negotiation, discussions, and compromises would need to be made with different trade groups and associations before they would support the bill — and thus the legislators would support the bill.
Rzeminski: I have to agree with Richard on being naive about the process; I had the exact same thoughts he did about having it submitted and then voted on.
GDB: Do you have any advice for other small, grassroots groups trying to effect change at the statehouse?
Placko: Learn who the gatekeepers are in Springfield for the legislation that you’re submitting. Then, decide whether you want to work with them or work around them.
Rzeminski: You should also talk to your local Representative and local Senator; you will need sponsors in both Chambers. We were fortunate to get Sen. Linda Holmes to sponsor the bill for us in the IL Senate Chamber.
GDB: Where does the IHA go from here?
Rzeminski: The law is not perfect. There are a few things we would love to see changed; the “no fermentation outside of a residence or homebrew shop” is the big one. We have urban-based clubs in Illinois that by necessity, have to rent space to practice their hobby. One in particular rents space that is classified as residential, so they are in the clear as far as the law is concerned. However, I know of at-least one club that rents warehouse space that is listed as commercial/industrial. So for them, as the law currently stands, they are technically performing an illegal act, and that is just not right.
I would like to see the IHA come together again, tweak the standing law to remove that restriction, and get it passed. In the meantime, I have been working on IllinoisHomebrew.org to get the law explained in plain English. It is a work in progress. I hope that it can eventually be a resource for those seeking information on Public Act 98-55 and how it functions.
We hope this Q & A gives you a good behind-the-scenes look at how Illinois’ revamped homebrew law came about. When you take a step back and think about — this law wasn’t hashed out between multiple lobbyists or trade groups. Instead, it was two guys — working on this when the time allowed — with zero compensation. Sure, the end result wasn’t perfect but as the longtime saying goes it wouldn’t be a compromise if everyone got what they wanted.
By the way, in the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you I did act as a liaison of sorts between Peter and Bob Myess at the ABDI. Peter expressed an interest in working with the ABDI to craft a mutually agreeable bill, which is necessary most of the time if you want to move any alcohol industry related legislation in Springfield. So I briefed Bob on the IHA’s intent and connected the two. I also provided Peter and Richard with insight along the way regarding the legislative process and the bill’s progress in Springfield.