New Hampshire’s Libertarian Beer Renaissance

Kevin Bloom, a member of the Free State Project, has led a push to loosen New Hampshire's brewery laws. Now, he's about to open a conspiracy-themed bar of his own.

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Dec 9 2014, 11:07pm

Photo by Dan Ox via Flickr

What could thousands of libertarians do if they moved, en masse, to one tiny state and tried their hardest to reduce taxes, regulation, and general government meddling in people's lives? That's the question that one group of die-hard liberty-lovers has been trying to answer for more than a decade.

Founded in 2001, the movement, known as the Free State Project, has persuaded nearly 17,000 people, from across the US and other countries, to sign a pledge promising to move to New Hampshire once the number of signers reaches 20,000. So far, 1,674 "early movers" have already relocated to the state.

As you might expect from libertarians, the Free State migrants don't have a single strategy when it comes to turning New Hampshire into an Ayn Randian paradise. Some Free Staters have been trying to change the state from within the system—between 15 and 20 members of the 400-seat New Hampshire House of Representatives are now associated with the Free State Project. Others are trying to build their own utopian institutions, starting businesses and schools aimed at putting as much distance as possible between themselves and Big Government.

Kevin Bloom is seriously involved in both. A real estate agent-turned craft brewer, Bloom moved to New Hampshire with the Free State Project in 2008, and founded a microbrewery in Concord, the state capital. After the venture failed—due in part, he claims, to regulatory hurdles—he helped lead a campaign to pass the nation's first nanobrewery law, differentiating tiny beer producers (2,000 barrels a year or less) from their larger counterparts. Essentially, the law legalizes a scaled-up version of home brewing in your toolshed, letting hobbyists and other experimental fermenters tap into the growing market for craft beer.

Kevin Bloom

Bloom, who is also the political director of the New Hampshire Liberty Alliance, is now in the process of opening up his own nanobrewery, named Area 23. Like a lot of libertarians, Bloom combines earnest beliefs that owe much to Ronald Reagan with a style more in line with Monty Python. The name Area 23, for example, comes from adding Area 51 to Building 19 ½—a much-loved, now-defunct regional chain of discount stores—dividing by pi and rounding to the nearest whole number. (It works, he says, if you're bad at math.) He's also a founder of the Church of the Sword, a religious denomination that, from the looks of its website, is mostly libertarianism, with some foam sword fighting.

With Area 23 set to open soon, VICE caught up with Bloom to find out more about the project, and talk about his various crusades against big government.

VICE: Why did you move to New Hampshire?
Kevin Bloom: I had been working on a brewery project in Michigan, and I sold out to my partners. So I wanted to start my own brewery. I had a friend who had moved from Michigan to New Hampshire with the Free State Project, and I ran into a couple of other people who had talked about it when I was a volunteer with the Ron Paul campaign in 2007.

VICE: What drew you to that end of the political spectrum to begin with?
The first time I was exposed to politics was in 1978-79. When I was living in Michigan, the state decided to raise the drinking age from 18 to 21 right after I turned 18, which was hardly fair. So I got involved with that. And then a company put a toxic waste dump right next to a river up near my grandparents' property, so I got involved, kind of, in environmental stuff. And then in 1980, [the] first actual political campaign I campaigned for [was for] Ronald Reagan. And I learned more about Thoreau.

VICE: Thoreau. That's interesting.
That was the first time I'd ever seen them put together, [Reagan quoting Thoreau's] line, "that government is best which governs least."

VICE: You said you got involved with fighting pollution—it seems like that could lead you to be pro-regulations, instead of against them.
The big problem isn't that you need new laws. They don't enforce the ones that we have. And also, I found out that government is absolutely the biggest polluter in the country. They just do all kinds of incredibly bad things. And when the government's got some money on the line, they're going to approve that toxic waste dump in your backyard no matter what. It's a property-rights failure. Once upon a time, you were able to sue if pollution entered the atmosphere over your yard, you had property rights straight up to the sky, and if somebody was polluting your water table, you'd go after them. But they decided you don't have any real right to sue because that's a government thing.

VICE: Can you talk about your first brewery in New Hampshire?
In 2008, we opened Manchester Brewing. We had, I think, about 39 outlets for our beer. We had an agreement [with a distributor] that they would buy a certain number of cases every week. And they never did. And about two months in they said, 'We've got enough beer. We don't need any more.' We had spent more money on bottling equipment and things like that, and we were really overextended, based on the idea that all this beer was going to be going out. But that didn't happen so we ended up shutting the company down and dissolving it.

And part of the reason [was] there were a lot of laws that I didn't know about when I started the company. You could only sell one case per person per day. And beer tourists drove up from North Carolina [and] Virginia to get beer, and came to Concord to get beer, and then you have to tell them that you can only buy a case. Really crazy. I hadn't really got into the law but I—sort of in self-defense—started reading. It turned out, at the time, if you were Budweiser you basically paid the same thing as some guy who makes five gallons at home—$1,200 for your license fee every year, which is a lot if you're just starting out. And so I decided I wanted to change it, and around 2009 started asking other brewers what they thought was important about getting things fixed, and I wrote the first draft of HB 262, which became the nanobrewery bill.

VICE: Was that your first foray into state politics?
That was my first one. That was a real education, and I went to all the committee hearings, and to all the subcommittee hearings. I learned how things worked. It started out as a huge bill that would have affected the entire industry and basically reduced barriers of entry for everybody. And what they ended up doing was New Hampshire became the first state in the nation to recognize nanobreweries as a separate category. However, Anheuser-Busch got a small change made to the bill before it got out of committee and before the executive session that I didn't know about until it was too late. That was, it limited sales over the counter to four ounces.

After it went into effect, more breweries opened in New Hampshire than in any period of New Hampshire's history, including right after Prohibition. We kept trying to fix [the law] and get it right. Finally [New Hampshire] Governor [Maggie] Hassan signed the bill that actually fixed things, and that went into effect in 2013. If you had a restaurant, then you could sell beer over your counter that you make yourself. That made a big difference for the industry, and now they're just coming out of the woodwork, and we're going to have a big renaissance in beer in New Hampshire for the foreseeable future.

VICE: Now you have a new nanobrewery, Area 23?
Yes. It's not a production brewery. We won't be bottling and distributing, only over the counter. When I put the legislation together [this] is what I was looking for, so I kind of got it where I want it.

VICE: Tell us about the name Area 23.
We kind of liked the name. There were a lot of reasons why we thought Area 23 would be cool. It's [also] related to the 23rd hexagram of the I Ching—it means imminent change.

VICE: You're the political director for the New Hampshire Liberty Alliance. What are some of the things you are working on now in that capacity?
My biggest thing that I'm working on now is civil asset forfeiture reform. And yes, we were working on that before John Oliver came out with his fantastic piece. In the 2010 session, there was a bill introduced to halt the practice in New Hampshire. It's a very bipartisan issue. It's not a Republican thing, not a Democratic thing. Beer, you'll notice, is bipartisan too. I like to work on things that you can get everybody involved in.

VICE: Tell me more about civil asset forfeiture ?
It probably started back in the time of the witchcraft trials, probably in the 1500s. Say you have a cart and it rolls down the hill and it kills somebody's pig. What they'll say is the cart was possessed by demons, so the cart itself is guilty of killing this guy's pig, so we're going to steal it. So it might become property of the church.

In the 80s, [police] noticed that if they could charge the money that was used in drug transactions they could just keep it. And they then noticed, Oh, there's other stuff we can charge too, like Corvettes. And boats and houses and buildings.

[With modern civil asset forfeiture] generally what happens, the police stop people and say are you carrying any cash in your car? If you say yes, they take it. The average amount seized is about $1,500. It costs more for you to hire an attorney to fight it, and you won't. In almost all cases, people are never charged with a crime, much less convicted. They just take the money and you find out you have to sue the police to get your money back.

VICE: So that's a really serious issue. I think a lot of people have the impression of the Free State Project being a little goofy. Stephen Colbert did a piece on Free State Project members in Keene whose "activism" involved bothering parking-ticket enforcers.
I think there's a big split in general between what happens in a college town [like Keene] and what happens when you're looking at business and life in general. I disagree with people being hassled. I disagree with it on rudeness grounds. We should keep a humorous attitude if we can. On the other hand we're in a fairly serious contest to protect people's rights.

VICE: How are your political involvement and private ventures connected?
The cost of entry into any business needs to make sense, and generally be as low as possible. Quite frankly, the days of going to the bank, or investors, and saying, "Hey, I'm going to open a brew pub, I need a million dollars," those days are pretty much gone. You can open a nanobrewrey with very little money, but you have to be able to sell what you make.

I have a friend, [Free State Project member] Amanda Bouldin, who makes gourmet ice cream, and it's really, really good. And so she wanted to sell it, and she found out what the laws were about street vendors. She wanted to get a cart and just take it downtown. The fee was like $1,500 and you have to be attached to a restaurant. Well, anyway, she doesn't do that anymore, but she was elected to the legislature, and this is her first term. I like that she's a member of the legislature, but then again, she made really good ice cream. I think society has lost in that deal.

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