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Keg dispute

Your beer choices at certain fancy restaurants in Houston have been curtailed.

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A dispute over deposit fees for kegged beers could slow the flow of several craft brands, including a few that are made locally, at some of Houston’s best-known bars.

The issue boiled over this week when Silver Eagle Distributors instituted an unannounced 20 percent hike in the deposit it charges retailers when they purchase kegs filled with beer, local proprietors said.

Two said they will stop purchasing kegged beer from Silver Eagle, at least temporarily. Affected brands include Houston’s Saint Arnold, Karbach and 8th Wonder, and such national brands as Firestone-Walker and Sierra Nevada. Because of state laws governing how beer is sold in Texas, no other wholesalers are allowed to carry those beers in Houston.

“It’s a really hard decision,” said Kevin Floyd of the Montrose craft beer bar Hay Merchant, referring to the decision to not have the local beers on tap.

But he said the $10-per-keg increase, to $60, double what it was just a few years ago, has prompted him and other bar owners to act.

Although the deposit technically is refunded when a keg is returned to the distributor, the retailer typically doesn’t see the money because the credit is immediately applied to the next keg. Depending on the size of the bar, the deposits could tie up thousands of dollars.

“That’s money that’s just caught up,” said Ben Fullelove, owner of the Petrol Station in the Garden Oaks/Oak Forest area. “You’re not going to see that money again unless you close down.”

Fullelove, who usually has 70 to 100 kegs on hand from various distributors, said he will be out of those supplied by Silver Eagle by the end of the weekend and does not intend to purchase more unless the deposit hike is rescinded. He said he wants to support local breweries as well as the national brands his bar is known for carrying. But he, too, cited the steep increases over the last six years and said enough is enough.

“How does it end?” he said. “Suddenly I’m paying $100 a keg? $200 a keg after a year?”

In an emailed statement attributed to John Johnson, executive vice president of sales and marketing, Silver Eagle Distributors cited increases in the deposit fees it has to pay when it receives the kegs.

“These deposit fees are a standard operating procedure in the industry and from time to time are increased by suppliers, resulting in an increase by distributors,” the statement read. “As a result, Silver Eagle recently increased the amount of its refundable keg deposit.”

Hope this doesn’t ruin anyone’s dinner plans. For a perspective from one of the microbreweries affected by this, read what Scott Metzger of Freetail Brewing has to say. From my perspective, this just highlights another flaw in Texas’ byzantine tiered distributorship model for wholesale beer sales. In a sane world, there would be more than one way to get their beer from the breweries to the retailers. Microbreweries won some freedoms from the Legislature two years ago, but they still don’t operate in anything resembling a free market. This is just one illustration of that.