Can you serve beer without a liquor license?

The rules surrounding alcohol in the United States can be complicated if you’re not used to dealing with them. How much can you serve, and what kinds? Where can you serve it? Can you serve beer without a liquor license? If you look at the actual laws themselves, though, it’s not as daunting as it may seem.

Beer can be served domestically to friends and family without a license, but if the beer isn’t free, you’ll need one. A liquor license is required if you are planning to charge for the beer being distributed, even if that charge is an admission fee for an event. 

There are also a few specific exceptions and details to these laws that you should understand. Here’s the basic overview of what you need to know about liquor licensing when it comes to beer.

What Liquor Licenses Cover

Liquor licenses are legal permits distributed to businesses that are going to deal with alcohol being given to the public in a few different forms. These licenses cover what kind of alcohol can be sold, how much each individual customer can buy, and how unfinished bottles and other containers are to be disposed of. They may also cover how much the drinks can cost and who can serve them.

According to the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration, in the United States, liquor licenses are required when:

  • An event is charging for alcohol of any kind
  • An event with complimentary alcohol requires a cover or admission fee
  • Any alcohol-related service is being paid for (hiring a bartender or wait staff, catering, etc.)

This means that if you are an establishment that sells beer to patrons, or an establishment that requires people to pay to enter but doesn’t charge for beer, you’ll need to apply for a liquor license.

The ABRA also specifies that alcohol licenses are given jurisdiction by the state rather than by country, and these licenses don’t necessarily apply across jurisdictions. So, for every state that you or your business sells beer, you’ll need to apply for a different license.

Exceptions to Liquor Licenses

Of course, if you’re having a gathering at your house and want to hand out booze, you don’t need to apply for a liquor license. There are some common-sense exceptions to the rules of licensure in the United States.

If the beer being distributed is at a private gathering in someone’s home or a private event like a wedding, then you don’t need a license, as the beer is being given away for free rather than charged for or covered by any kind of entrance fee.

People who make their own beer and wine at home aren’t required to have a liquor license as long as the alcohol they make is for private use rather than to be sold. You aren’t required to have a license to use personal brewing and distillation machinery, although you still need to be at least 21 years old.

Frequently Asked Liquor License Questions

Though almost everyone knows the basics – that you need a liquor license for alcohol – there are still quite a few pieces of the laws surrounding them that aren’t common knowledge. Here are the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about liquor licensing for beer and other drinks.

How many kinds of liquor licenses are there?

There are four kinds of standard liquor licenses in the United States. To sell beer specifically, you’ll need a Beer and Wine license, which covers lighter alcoholic beverages not meant to make up a significant portion of your revenue. There are also:

  • Restaurant liquor licenses, or “all liquor licenses,” cover most standard spirits sold at less than 50% of total revenue. 
  • Tavern liquor licenses cover places that make at least 50% of their revenue from alcohol sales.
  • Brewpub liquor licenses are for actual commercial breweries and distilleries.

You can visit your state’s ABC website for details on each kind of license.

How Much Does a Liquor License Cost?

As mentioned above, liquor license specifications vary state by state, so, of course, the cost of those licenses varies as well. Depending on which license you’re applying for and where you’re applying for it, your license may cost anywhere from $300 to $14,000 accounting for the fees associated with it.

You’ll also have to pay every time you renew your license, though that will generally be a lower charge than the initial license fee, in the hundreds rather than the thousands.

How Long Does a Liquor License Last?

Your liquor license is valid for twelve months, after which it will need to be renewed. There’s usually an expiration date listed on the license itself that you can refer to. You have to have your renewal submitted and paid for within four to six weeks of the posted date.

There’s an online database you can check to see whether your renewal went through that’s usually updated fairly quickly following the date. This is the same database you can use to prove your license’s validity to distributors and other business partners.

What Else Do You Need to Serve Beer?

In addition to a liquor license, if you’re planning to charge for the beer you serve, you’ll probably need a sales tax permit. This varies state to state, but generally, it’s the license that states you’re adhering to ethical business practices and sourcing your goods properly. You can get a sales tax permit from the Department of Tax and Fee Administration (in California, you can even apply online).

You may also need a server permit that validates who exactly is serving the beer at your establishment. This isn’t the norm in all states, but in the ones where it is required, these permits forbid anyone under the age of 18 (sometimes even 21 in particularly strict jurisdictions) prepare or serve alcoholic drinks of any kind. Check your state’s policies to see if you need one of these permits.

Liquor Licenses for Beer Can Be Simple

Licensing for alcohol is specific, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. As long as you know what you’re serving, who’s getting it, and whether it’s free or not, it should be fairly straightforward. Even if you’re not quite sure, there’s plenty of information available online and through your local ABC to see how the rules apply to your unique situation.

As long as you do your research well in advance and ask the right questions to the right people, you should be able to legally serve beer at any event.


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