Boy, is that a deep question or what?
Until recently, beer drinkers who took their time to read the labels on their bottles or cans may have encountered some head-scratching fine print concerning Texas.
Underneath the name of Brooklyn Brewery’s Brooklyn Lager, for instance, was the note “In Texas, malt liquor.” Even closer inspection would reveal that the word “beer” did not appear on the label.
The labeling quirks were the result of a law that required all malt beverages (read: beer) containing more than 4 percent alcohol by weight to be labeled as either “ale” or “malt liquor” to be sold in Texas. The same law also prevented any drink with an alcohol content of more than 4 percent from being advertised in Texas as a “beer.”
“It made for a very awkward label,” said Eric Ottaway, the general manager of Brooklyn Brewery. “Try writing a description without using the word ‘beer.’”
That rule was overturned in December following a lawsuit, and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission officially changed its labeling rules on July 24. Now, brewers can essentially label their products by whatever name they’d like, as long as the label includes the alcohol content. The judgment against TABC said its rules for labeling violated the First Amendment rights of beer makers by dictating what language they could and could not use to describe their products.
That would be the Jester King lawsuit, and it was a good thing for the industry and for us consumers. But you can’t talk about beermaking in Texas without bringing up the elephant in the room:
Small breweries have tried and failed to lobby the Legislature for changes to the code for a number of years, according to Leslie Sprague of Open the Taps, a craft brewing advocacy association. Sprague said the label law change could pressure the state into more changes in the future. Sprague said the laws Open the Taps is most interested in changing include rules that prevent breweries from selling beers on their premises and brewpubs from distributing their products to stores.
Earlier this year, the state Senate commissioned a working group of interested parties — including craft brewers, wine makers, distilleries, distributors and wholesalers — to consider other parts of the code that could be updated. The reason behind the group is at least in part to help avoid more future lawsuits, according to state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, who helped organize it.
“Our alcohol beverage code has a lot of inconsistencies,” Van de Putte said.
“The alcoholic beverage code did not keep up with the market and technology,” she added, although she pointed out that law changes in the 1990s benefited the Texas wine industry. “It’s all over the place. I think there are things that we need to clean up,” she said.
Indeed. You can read more about Open The Taps and their efforts here and here. I do believe we will eventually fix what’s wrong with our anachronistic beer laws, as there is no good justification for them, but it won’t happen without a lot of people pitching in to make it happen.