Rural police target possession of home-brew ingredients

Casey Grove

Owning yeast and sugar isn't enough to get you arrested in most places. But in some communities of rural Alaska, the high rate of alcohol abuse has caused voters to ban booze along with possession of the supplies to make it at home.

A recent case highlights a 2007 state law that makes it illegal for a person to possess yeast and sugar in a local option community if they intend to use the ingredients to make home-brew, a cloudy, intoxicating liquid often mixed with fruit juice. Villages have the option to ban booze as one way to combat to a longstanding epidemic of alcohol-related injuries and deaths in rural Alaska.

According to court records, a village public safety officer in Hooper Bay on the Bering Sea coast arrested Gerald Hunt, 42, June 30 for possession of homebrew ingredients.

Sgt. James Hoelscher went to Hunt's home for an unrelated matter, but once inside, he had reason to believe Hunt was hiding something. In a recent phone interview, Hoelscher wouldn't say what raised his suspicions, but it was enough that he applied for a search warrant.

Hoelscher wrote in court papers that he returned to Hunt's house with the warrant and seized about 7 pounds of yeast, a pound of sugar and three juice containers filled with a liquid that tested positive for alcohol.

Hunt said he'd gotten the brew elsewhere. And he said he was going to bake bread, the court document says.

Hoelscher apparently didn't believe him and arrested the man.

Hunt's assertion that he was a baker is a common answer, said Lt. Christopher Thompson, who heads the Alaska State Troopers' Western Alaska Alcohol and Narcotics Team.

"We'll ask the questions, 'How much yeast does it take to bake a loaf of bread,' and you'll get an answer like, 'Oh, a cup,' " Thompson said. "I mean, it takes like a tablespoon, so that makes no sense."

"These cases, it's not criminal masterminds," he said.

At last count, there were 34 communities in Alaska that had voted to ban the possession, sale, importation and manufacturing of alcohol, Thompson said.

State law says that local option also makes it a misdemeanor offense to possess yeast and sugar in pound quantities with intent to make alcohol.

The key is proving what the person intends to do with the ingredients, said Bethel District Attorney June Stein. The amount of yeast is one indication, she said.

"There's only one thing to do with 7 pounds of yeast. Well, two things. You could either feed an army or make homebrew," Stein said.

It's not a charge that Stein has seen come across her desk very often, she said.

"I would say that it is not that common, because usually the officers don't find out about it until after they've made it," Stein said. "And the reason they find out about it is because something bad happens."

Most home-brew cases start with a more serious alcohol-related report -- domestic violence, assault, suicide, even homicide -- that leads officers to a batch of home-brew already imbibed. And that means two felony charges, manufacturing and distributing the drink, rather than the lesser charge of simply possessing the ingredients to make home-brew.

Simply put, if the booze is already there, it's too late, said Hoelscher, the village safety officer.

"We hope to stop or prevent and hinder people from committing felonies by manufacturing and selling home-brew, because as everybody is much aware, alcohol is the bane of Western Alaska and it has caused more deaths and heartbreak than anything I can imagine," Hoelscher said.

In most cases, the authorities find the yeast as it's being shipped from hub cities, Thompson said.

A grocery store manager in Anchorage might call alcohol investigators if someone buys a lot of yeast and the manager suspects it's being sent to a village, Thompson said. As in many bootlegging arrests, investigators sometimes find the yeast packed in someone's luggage or their mail bound for the Bush, he said.

"Oftentimes we find these cases when a postal package is leaking yeast," Thompson said. "In fact, we had one recently in Nome just like that, where it's a parcel with yeast where one of the bags inside burst and there's yeast spilling out of the seams of the box."

Controlling the ingredients for home-brew in villages is similar to the effort to control the sale of ingredients used to cook methamphetemine, Thompson said.

Federal and state laws limit an individual's purchase of pseudoephedrine -- a key ingredient in meth known by its brand name, Sudafed -- and mandate that stores must keep it locked up.

Similarly, yeast is often locked up behind a village storekeeper's counter, along with mouthwash, vanilla extract and hair products, all of which a person can use to get high or drunk.

"You kind of get control over those items, and you can curb it is the logic," Thompson said.

The investigator admitted that the law banning the possession of yeast and sugar was unique to Alaska.

"You talk to law enforcement folks in other states, and they just shake their heads," Thompson said. "It's a rarity. But those communities in Alaska have decided it."

Nine out of 10 crimes in Hooper Bay are alcohol related, explained Hoelscher, the Hooper Bay public safety officer. Hoelscher said he moved to the village when he was 12, his wife was born there, and so were his six kids.

"It is a personal goal of mine to slow down the rate of alcohol in Hooper Bay," Hoelscher said. "I not only want a better community because it's my home, but I want a better place for my children. I mean, who doesn't?"

Reach Casey Grove at or 257-4589.