Brewing Competitions at Dry Sites

Arts and Sciences are an important part of the SCA experience. Fighting tends to dominate an event or demo, as it is a very visual activity; but the total period experience is made up of more than just the sound of rattan striking plywood, leather, or steel. At any event, the historical aura is made up of costumes, singing and music, banners and pennons, scrolls, jewelry and other accessories, and so much more. The arts and sciences bring the total experience to life.

Of all the A&S routinely practiced in the SCA, brewing seems to be the most controversial. It is one of the few A&S activities that is governed largely not by SCA convention, but by public law – federal, state, and local. It is also one of the few activities where the fruits of the artisan’s labor are subject to a high level of regulation. It was only a couple of years ago that the last of the states in the United States even legalized home brewing as a hobby. Brewers must be aware of the age of the people to whom they serve their wares. Site owners must be concerned with both regulatory and tort issues when allowing the SCA to use their site. Insurance comes into play, as do (at times) the personal, social, or religious views of the people involved in a contract for use of a site.

This brings us to the topic of the article. Any event can have an A&S display or competition. In general, the only concern is space and appropriate judges; but how do you conduct a brewing competition when the site is dry?

First, let me state unequivocally that I will never advocate for breaking the law or for misrepresenting the SCA or any of its subordinate groups. I will never promote the introduction of alcohol at a site where the owner has made it explicitly clear that alcohol is not permitted, or where local, state, or federal laws prohibit its use. That being said, there are several options for those wanting to include this important and historical aspect of medieval and renaissance life at the event of their choice.

The single biggest obstruction to a brewing competition at a dry site is the law. Many events are conducted at public parks or public facilities owned by a government agency. These might be state or municipal parks, federal buildings, national monuments, or other such locations offering wide open spaces at rock bottom prices. The first step is to contact the governing authority (usually the office that grants permission for use of the facility) to determine what level of prohibition exists, if any. In some cases, the prohibition is not on alcohol itself, but on some other aspect usually associated with alcohol. A public swimming area, park, tennis court, or ball field may have a restriction on glass containers. A facility in an urban or suburban area may have a restriction on public drunkenness. Some sites may even have compartmentalized prohibitions… maybe alcohol is only permitted in certain buildings or certain rooms, or only permitted outside. The autocrat and competition coordinator can very easily determine whether any of these restrictions are an actual obstruction or merely a perceived one. The site scheduling authority should be able to provide clear interpretations of the applicable laws and regulations, or direct the autocrat to the agency that can do so.

In cases where the site is privately owned, the law may still be an obstacle. Local ordinance or zoning restrictions may come into play. In these cases, the owning/scheduling authority may or may not be familiar with the specifics of the restriction; but rather may have just gone with the most restrictive interpretation in order to ease the contracting burden. This actually presents a much more difficult obstacle, since the site owner may not accept a third-party interpretation of the ordinance. Additionally, not every autocrat has access to a legal authority to provide that interpretation. In these cases, it is generally best to go looking for another site or to seek one of the alternate solutions for hosting the competition.

When the law is not an issue, there can still be a number of concerns based on public access to the site, insurance issues, religious or moral objections, or even just a general dislike for alcohol. In most cases, there will be a contract that will spell out any restrictions, but not necessarily the reasoning behind them. In cases like this, it is not out of line to politely request a variance. The autocrat can write out a very specific memo describing the activity to be conducted, the limitations on the use of the alcohol (e.g. sampling for judging purposes only), and the procedures to be used to ensure that only the prescribed activities will be conducted, and present it to the site owner for consideration. In many cases, a simple assurance in writing that the alcohol will not be available for general consumption can cause a variance to be granted. This may include an assurance that the judging activity will be confined to a specific room, facility, or outdoor location on the site.

In the case of many privately-owned facilities, the site is “managed”. This happens when the owner is not the agency arranging for the leasing or use of the site. That responsibility may be delegated to a rental agency, a land manager, a superintendent, or some other third party. In this case, the owner may have “no alcohol” as a standing order, and questioning the logic or suggesting alternatives to the agent results in a shoulder shrug and a “sorry – that’s the rule”. In this situation, it may be more difficult to state your case; but it is still possible. Presenting the case in writing and requesting that it be passed on to the site owner may prove enough. In more difficult cases, it may require a rider to the contract or even a financial deposit against any unexpected damages.

Ultimately, there will be times when it is impossible to get a variance on a “no alcohol” policy. Most often, this happens in the case of insurance restrictions or in the case of moral or religious objections to alcohol. In such cases, there may be only one way to facilitate a brewing competition: remove the judging to another location. This may be the nearby home of an SCA member or friend of the group, a hotel or motel room rented for this specific purpose, a nearby commercial facility that permits such activities (such as a restaurant or bar with a private room to lease a hobby shop with a back room), or even a camper or RV parked near the site. With the latter option, the parking lot of the facility may be sufficient for the site owner, as is often the case for churches or fraternal organizations who prohibit alcohol only inside their facilities. Finally, if insurance is involved, there are sites that will permit the purchase of a short-term policy or rider solely for the purpose of protecting the site owner or manager from liability based on alcohol related incidents. This could add a dollar to the site fee for attendees, but in the long run may be the least expensive of the “commercial” solutions.

At last count, there were more than 150 people on the AEthelmearc brewers list with between two and three dozen being active brewers. While some are discouraged from entering competitions by distance, lack of sufficient notice to prepare an entry, or fear of too harsh a criticism, just as many are discouraged by the tag line “the site is dry” in the event announcement. Given the role of alcohol in the middle ages, there should be just as much attention paid to accommodating this science as there is to ensuring a sufficient kitchen for the day board or feast preparation. I urge all potential autocrats to make every effort to work with site owners to permit judging of alcoholic beverages at any event hosting an A&S competition.

Author: madocarundel

Madoc is a 13th century squire from the area around Gloucester, England. His father was English and his mother Welsh. Since retiring from active service in the army of King John, he has taken up brewing as a pass-time.

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