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Microbrewery legal setback

Kind of a lousy Christmas present.

Three Texas brewers are going back to battle with the state after an appeals court reversed a decision that would have allowed them to sell their distribution rights for monetary compensation.

In 2014, Peticolas Brewing Co. (Dallas), Revolver Brewing (Granbury) and Live Oak Brewing Co. (Austin) sued the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission, saying a newly passed law related to who could sell a brewery’s distribution rights was unconstitutional. The mandate, which passed in 2013 with a bundle of other beer regulation reforms, said breweries may not accept payment for contracting with a distributor, but that a distributor could get a payout if it sold those same territorial rights to another distribution company.

Last year, a judge served victory to the breweries. But on Dec. 15, the Texas Third Court of Appeals reversed that decision. It stated, in part, the law does not prevent the brewers from successfully operating their businesses and that it also upholds the industry’s three-tier system, which aims to avoid conflicts of interest between alcohol manufacturers, distributors and retailers.

The decision will be appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, according to a statement from Institute for Justice, which is representing the breweries.

“It is well established that the Texas Constitution protects economic liberties, and these rights do not cease to exist when the government begins licensing and regulating individuals and businesses,” said Arif Panju, managing attorney for Institute for Justice’s Texas office, in a statement. “Every business in Texas should be concerned with the court’s ruling in this case. It is dangerous and we will ask the Texas Supreme Court to reverse.”

See here, here, and here for the background. You know how I feel about this. The three-tier system is an anachronism and a travesty, a glaring counterexample to any politician’s paeans to how Texas has a great business environment. Yet it persists, a lasting tribute to the lobbying efforts of the beer distributors and the big breweries that support them. As with so many things in this state, the ultimate solution is going to have to be a political one. Nothing will change until we elect enough people who want it to change. Austin360 has more.

Microbreweries win their distribution rights lawsuit

Excellent news.

beer

A Texas law that prohibits brewers from selling territorial rights to distribute their beer is unconstitutional, a judge ruled Thursday, serving up a major victory to beer companies seeking to expand their presence in stores, bars and restaurants throughout the state.

The decision says the government has no compelling interest in prohibiting brewers from seeking cash compensation when negotiating a contract with distributors, who have almost exclusive authority to handle sales between producers and retailers.

“This law, it was written by beer distributors to enrich big beer distributors and that is not a legitimate state interest,” said Matt Miller, senior attorney and head of the Austin office of the Institute for Justice, which litigated the case on behalf of Texas craft brewers Live Oak, Revolver and Peticolas.

The law, passed three years ago, allows brewers and distributors to negotiate for things like equipment and marketing efforts, but not direct compensation. That denies brewers who have worked to build up their business the ability to “capture the value of their brand” once they are large enough to require a distributor, said Charles Vallhonrat, executive director of the Texas Craft Brewers Guild.

A cash infusion from a distribution contract also would allow smaller breweries to expand operations, hire new employees and build up marketing teams to increase sales, Vallhonrat said.

Thursday’s ruling by state District Judge Karin Crump in Austin came after both the brewers and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission sought summary judgments in the lawsuit. After considering depositions from both sides, Crump declared the law violates state constitutional protection for economic liberty.

[…]

Plaintiff Chip McElroy, founder of Live Oak Brewing Co. in Austin and one of the law’s most vocal critics, called it “unjust … unconstitutional … just plain wrong.”

“It took our property and gave it to them for free,” McElroy said Thursday.

Arif Panju, another Institute for Justice attorney in the case, said the ruling applies to out-of-state breweries as well. Miller said it protects all entrepreneurs looking to build up their businesses.

Miller said the ruling will help breweries going forward but does not address those who struck distribution deals while the 2013 law was in effect.

The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission has 30 days to file an appeal. A spokesman said agency lawyers are in touch with the Texas Attorney General’s Office and likely will appeal.

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the ruling. I hope the TABC will reconsider its inclination to appeal. This law serves no one’s interests except those of the Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas. The state should not be spending its own resources pursuing a reversal of this ruling. As noted elsewhere in this story, if the original bill that forbade the microbreweries from selling their distribution rights had been about any other commodity, it would have been laughed out of the Capitol. Surely we have better things to do than this.

More from Austin 360:

Brewers and their fans might be rejoicing their victory right now, but they’re still holding their breaths over two other beer-related cases in Texas courts.

One case involves an issue that brewers unsuccessfully pushed for in the 2013 legislative session. As a result, Dallas’ Deep Ellum Brewing sued the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission last year to try and get breweries the ability to sell beer to-go from their facilities — something that wineries and distilleries in Texas are both able to do. (Operators of brewpubs, which sell food in addition to beer, also can sell their products to the public.)

Also, Cuvee Coffee decided to go to battle with the TABC over the issue of whether retailers can sell crowlers, which the TABC argues are one-use cans, rather than aluminum growlers, that only manufacturers of beer can sell.

Both cases are expected to be resolved within the next couple of weeks.

See here for more on the Deep Ellum lawsuit, and here for more on Cuvee Coffee. Let’s hope for a clean sweep. I’ll keep my eyes open for further news. The DMN has more.

Microbrewery lawsuit heard in court

I can’t wait to see how this turns out.

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Just how much is it worth for that Velvet Hammer or other local craft brew to make it to your favorite bar or convenience store?

That’s one of several key questions that came before a state district court Monday, as a group of craft brewers — including Peticolas Brewing of Dallas and Revolver Brewing of Granbury — challenged a contentious component of the state’s arcane alcohol regulations.

Namely, the craft brewers want to overturn a 2013 law that says they cannot accept financial compensation for their distribution rights.

In Texas and in many other states, the alcohol industry operates under a three-tier system: producers, distributors and retailers. That arrangement, which dates to the end of Prohibition, seeks to eliminate potential problems by keeping each operation independent from the others.

[…]

In 2013, the Legislature passed several new alcohol laws, many involving the burgeoning craft beer scene. Though multiple bills helped the upstarts, particularly brew pubs, there’s little doubt that the distribution rights piece boosted that middle tier of the system.

Consider that at least one brewery — Live Oak Brewing in Austin — sold its distribution rights for the Houston area for $250,000 before the law went into effect. Now, that would be impossible.

Some craft brewers, if they meet certain criteria, can use what’s called self-distribution as a work-around. But the restrictions that come along with that practice can make it difficult for some brewers to expand their reach, particularly across the state.

Adding to the frustration of the craft brewers is that a distributor, once it has the territorial rights to a certain brewery, can then sell those rights to another distributor. So what can’t be measured, by law, in dollars on the front end carries significant value on the back end.

“There’s just no rational basis for the law,” Michael Peticolas, owner of his eponymous brewery in the Design District, said in an interview after Monday’s hearing.

See here for some background. The lawsuit was filed in 2014, and its root is in SB639, which passed during the 2013 session at the same time as the other bills that allowed microbreweries to sell their wares at their home locations. The Statesman adds on:

Karen Watkins, a lawyer from the office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, defended the law on behalf of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission and said the state must not weaken the current regulatory system.

In Texas, the sales of beer and liquor are governed by post-Prohibition rules that maintain strict boundaries between manufacturers, distributors and retailers. In the three-tier system, makers of beer, wine and spirits create their products, distributors sell them, and bars and other retailers peddle the beverages to the public.

“The government’s interest is in preserving the integrity to the three tier system,” Watkins said. She said the state intends to prevent any overlap between the manufacturing tier and the distributing tier.

Watkins said the law helps the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, for example, quickly remove tainted products from store shelves, if needed.

Arguing the case for the brewers, Matt Miller, an attorney for the Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Justice, said the case isn’t about the three tier system, but about fairness.

“It enriches distributors at the expense of craft brewers,” Miller said.

Miller said the law prevents many brewers from selling their products in some markets, which has the effect of providing less choice to consumers and fewer opportunities to expand for craft brewers that choose not to give away distribution rights.

As you know, I think the three-tier system is an archaic holdout from the Prohibition days that do nothing to enhance competition. Quite the reverse, in fact. Attorney Watkins went so far as to imply that success by the plaintiffs in this case would lead to organized crime, which thankfully the judge pushed back on. I’m rooting for the plaintiffs, as I’m sure you could guess. The judge says she expects to make a ruling in the next few weeks.

Microbreweries file lawsuit over distribution rights

Interesting.

beer

Three Texas breweries filed a lawsuit against the state on Wednesday seeking to to overturn a 2013 law they say violates the Texas Constitution by forcing them to give away their territorial distribution rights for free.

In their complaint, filed in state district court in Austin, the heads of Live Oak Brewing in Austin, Peticolas Brewing Company in Dallas and Revolver Brewing in Granbury, say that were it not for Senate Bill 639, they would be expanding. Instead, their plans to bring their beer to new markets around the state have been put on hold.

In the suit, they accuse the law of “stifling the Texas craft beer renaissance.”

[…]

There are three “tiers” in the alcoholic beverage industry: brewers who make the beer, retailers who sell it, and distributors who pick it up from the former and bring it to the latter.

Prior to 2013, craft brewers could negotiate payment from distributors for the exclusive rights to deliver their beverages in a certain area. But the law, authored by state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, prohibited the sale of these territorial rights.

Carona was not immediately available for comment on Wednesday. He told the Dallas Observer in 2013: “What happens when the large manufacturers decide to require payment from a distributor for the right to distribute their brand? We could be back where we started from, with those who won’t pay to play getting muscled out of the marketplace.”

Distributors are not prohibited from selling territorial rights that they have acquired to another distributor. The craft brewers’ complaint says, “A distributor is thus able to receive territorial rights for free and re-sell them for a profit.”

This strikes the brewers at Live Oak, Peticolas and Revolver as unfair — and in violation of the state’s constitution, which says that a person’s property can not be taken without consent unless it is for use by the public or an entity granted the power of eminent domain. Miller said it was likely that other craft breweries will join the lawsuit.

These territorial rights are “a valuable piece of property” that brewers should be able to sell in order to generate revenue for the growth and expansion of their companies, the lawsuit says.

You can read the lawsuit here. SB 639 generated controversy from the moment it was filed; it was clearly seen as a sop to the distributors that were trying to derail the package of craft beer bills that ultimately passed last session. It was a modified version of SB 639 that ultimately passed, but the objections to it remained. Austin brewery Jester King singled out SB 639 after the session as a remaining obstacle to the continued success of craft beer in Texas. I’ll be very interested to see who else gets involved in this litigation, and what bills get filed in the Lege this session to address those lingering concerns with SB 639.