Texans, historically, can come together across all political lines on two things: freedom and beer. Imagine my dismay upon my recent homecoming when I discovered that I could pick up bottles at the grocery store from brewpubs west in Oregon (Deschutes) to east in Delaware (Dogfish Head) – but I could not bring home any beer made by Austin-based Uncle Billy's Brew and Que. Could this really be illegal, just like selling meth and people?
"Our state prides itself on its pro-business regulatory environment, but here is an instance in which antiquated laws are decidedly anti-business," said Scott Metzger, head of the Texas Craft Brewers Guild's Legislative Committee and founder of Freetail Brewing Company in San Antonio. The brewpub legislation prohibits Texas brewpubs from selling their wares to wholesalers who sell to my grocery store, without imposing that same restriction on brewpubs based elsewhere. "Absolutely this should be changed," Metzger believes. "Why would we not want a Texas brewpub to grow into the next Dogfish Head?" he said, referring to one of the best-known craft brewers in the country.
Meanwhile, Texas breweries have the inverse retail restriction: While brewpubs can't sell their beer outside of their restaurants, breweries can't sell in their own space. "You cannot buy beer at a brewery! No growlers, six-packs or bombers to-go, and you can't just buy a pint and hang out," said Leslie Sprague, media spokesperson for Open the Taps (www.openthetaps.org). This "grassroots organization of craft beer consumers" currently advocates for these six legislative goals:
1) Allow breweries to sell a portion of their beers directly to the public.
2) Allow brewpubs to distribute their beers to wholesalers.
3) Update licensing for out-of-state breweries to make it easier for smaller breweries to come.
4) Promote beer tourism, and eliminate the 24-ounce serving limit at beer festivals.
5) Permit consumers to bring more than a case of beer into Texas from out-of-state breweries for personal consumption.
6) Allow establishments with liquor licenses to sell growlers. Currently, growler sales are limited to places that have a beer and wine license only, which excludes bars.
Equal opportunity drinkers have probably noticed that Texas wineries are allowed to sell their goods in their tasting rooms, while breweries and distilleries may not. Wine statutes were reformed in 2001, after which the underdog Texas wine industry doubled production. According to a recent economic impact study issued by the Texas Craft Brewers Guild, even if the craft beer industry doesn't post higher growth rates due to Texans' cultural preference for beer, reforms would net an extra $5.6 billion in economic growth and nearly 52,000 jobs in breweries and related industries in less than eight years. "There is a lot of economic growth and jobs that the state is missing out on by restricting our breweries," deadpanned Metzger.
The politics aren't even being played out by the politicians. As The Austin Chronicle has reported before, the Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas lobby group has opposed these changes in order to "preserve the independent American three-tier system." WBDT holds that these laws violate the principle of separation among producers, distributors, and retailers, a principle that absolutely no political party holds. Accordingly, WBDT contributes to campaigns of candidates regardless of party affiliation, including the very ones who have proposed legislation WBDT opposes.
These laws were intended to help increase alcohol industry competition after Prohibition, when mobsters had monopolized the production, distribution channels, and points of sale. Today, start-up breweries chafe under the limitations. But lobbyists on their behalf, such as the Texas Craft Brewers Guild and Open the Taps, have not had the resources to make campaign contributions that would guarantee an audience with lawmakers.
"Citizens need to reach out," said Sprague. In these two months between the elections and the start of the biennial legislative session, state representatives and senators need to know whether constituents care about beer statutes more than the WBDT does, or if they should let these bills be killed by special interests as they have in the past three sessions. Your civic duty doesn't have to end in the voting booth.
Ivy Le, a new and thirsty Austinite, hails from Dallas, but has lived and written in Georgia for the last 11 years. Follow her on Twitter @UrbanHaiku.
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