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Open The Taps

Microbreweries organize again

About time.

Craft brewers are asking beer fans to put their money where their thirst is.

Six weeks before state primary elections, the Texas Craft Brewers Guild on Monday launched a political action committee to raise money and awareness to challenge “archaic, anti-competitive beer laws” it says are holding back an industry poised for dramatic growth.

The PAC already has raised more than $40,000 from among its approximately 250 brewery members, with the largest individual donations coming from the owners of Austin Beerworks and Saint Arnold, Live Oak and Deep Ellum Brewing Cos. Much of the money raised by the new CraftPAC will go to support state legislative candidates who support the brewers’ agenda, guild executive director Charles Vallhonrat said

CraftPAC so far has donated $1,000 each to two incumbent legislators – one Democrat and one Republican – in the Austin area.

“We intend to influence where we can,” Vallhonrat said.

Here’s the CraftPAC finance report for January. The legislators in question are Reps. Eddie Rodriguez and Tony Dale, though I’m sure there will be more. It’s one thing to give money to a friendly incumbent in a friendly district, but it’s something else altogether to contribute to someone who’s looking to take out an enemy. We’ll see how seriously they decide to play.

Brewbound has more details:

Initially, CraftPAC will focus on legalizing of to-go sales from production brewery taprooms, which Texas law currently outlaws. Although the state’s manufacturing breweries are not allowed to sell beer for off-premise consumption, the state’s brewpubs, wineries and distilleries are allowed to sell their products to-go.

Speaking to Brewbound, Texas Craft Brewers Guild Executive Director Charles Vallhonrat said Texas distributors have had a financial edge over brewers after giving more than $18 million in political contributions to lawmakers. CraftPAC, he added, is a way to level the playing field.

“We want to be on the same field,” he said. “We know that they have big bats, but we need to be on the same field to say we’re in the game.”

CraftPAC board chairman and Austin Beerworks co-founder Adam DeBower added that Texas’ brewers haven’t had a voice in the legislature since 2013, when several lawmakers who supported brewers retired or moved on.

“We don’t have any champions left,” he said.

[…]

Vallhonrat said last year’s passage of House Bill 3287 — which put tighter restrictions on how beer that is sold for on-premise consumption at brewery taprooms — was the catalyst to the formation of CraftPAC.

“The blow we received from 3287 showed the overwhelming power that the distributors wield,” he said. “That they could influence a bill that absolutely no brewery supported, and they could go around saying this was for the protection of breweries and convince the Legislature and get it passed, that really demonstrated what we’re fighting against.”

In 3287, Texas lawmakers changed the way the state’s barrel cap is calculated, adding production across multiple brewing operations rather than from individual facilities. Now, breweries making more than 225,000 combined barrels annually will be required to repurchase their own product from a wholesaler in order to continue selling beer for on-premise consumption in their taprooms.

In the announcement of CraftPAC, the Guild also cited the 2013 passage of Senate Bill 639, which prohibits breweries from selling their distribution rights to wholesalers, and led to a lawsuit that will be decided by the Texas Supreme Court.

Vallhonrat told Brewbound that CraftPAC will also work to make other “common sense updates” to Texas’ alcohol code such as eliminating the distinction between “ale” and “beer.” According to the Texas code, an ale is a beer above five percent ABV while a beer is under five percent ABV. Such distinctions are costly, and add market confusion and work for brewery owners, he argued.

DeBower added that CraftPAC would work to equalize licensing differences between breweries and brewpubs. Currently, brewers are required to have a manufacturer’s license while brewpubs receive retail license and are afforded different privileges, such as off-premise sales.

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know what I think of this state’s ridiculous, anachronistic, and extremely consumer-unfriendly beer laws. (If you’re new here, you can now probably guess.) I support all of this, of course, but I’m shaking my head a little because this is at least the third separate effort to organize and whip up public opinion in favor of modernizing the beer codes. There was a bipartisan blog-based effort in 2007, of which I was a part, and the now-dormant Open The Taps group that helped spearhead the 2013 laws that represented the one step forward we have taken. The experience since then shows that a movement can never take anything for granted – what has been done can be undone, or at least undermined. I wish CraftPAC all the success – their Facebook page is here; give it a Like – and I especially wish that they stay around and keep at it well after they do have success.

Craft beer legislation advances

Moving forward.

Legislation authorizing the most significant changes in 20 years to the way beer is bought and sold in Texas passed a key Senate committee Tuesday with broad support.

Under terms of the bills, Houston’s Saint Arnold and other Texas craft breweries could sell a limited amount of beer on site and brewpubs like San Antonio’s Freetail Brewing could package some of their product for sale in stores, bars and restaurants.

The breweries, meanwhile, would be prohibited from accepting cash payments for the rights to distribute their beer in specific geographic regions, but they would be allowed to continue to share marketing and some other costs with their distributors.

“It’s an exciting day,” said Scott Metzger, the owner of Freetail Brewing, who has been negotiating on behalf of the Texas Craft Brewers Guild. “ … We have a path ahead of us.”

Final terms of the bills – four of which were developed after yearlong negotiations between brewers, lawmakers and distributor and consumer groups – were hammered out under a tight deadline set last week by the chairman of the Senate Committee on Business & Commerce, who introduced a competing bill and ordered the two sides to reach a compromise.

The committee approved all five amended bills unanimously Tuesday and sent them to the local calendar committee for expedited scheduling before the full Senate. Metzger said a signed agreement among stakeholders with an interest in the bills should expedite companion bills in the House.

Metzger and Brock Wagner of the Saint Arnold brewery both expressed positive thoughts on this, while spokespeople for the Beer Alliance of Texas and the Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas, who had played the role of villain prior to this, both basically said everyone got some of what they wanted and no one got everything. In its summary of the legislation, Open The Taps says that “at least a few craft brewers are not pleased with the limitation on selling their brand territorial distribution rights”, which is an aspect of the Carona bill that had been criticized by everyone except the Wholesale Beer Distributors. My feelings on this are in line with Open the Taps, which writes in its analysis of the bills:

This is by no means a perfect package of regulatory changes, but again it is a good step. Things happen incrementally in legislative bodies, and we will be back next session if necessary to continue the fight to OPEN THE TAPS in Texas.

We still have a few points on our wish list to accomplish, and we are looking for ways to implement those points, but this may be the most we can get at this time and we will consider it more progress than has been made since 1993 when brew pubs were first allowed in Texas, post-prohibition.

See also Scott Metzger’s analysis of the bills and the process that led to the package that emerged from committee. This is tangible progress and a big deal in its own right, but hardly the end of the line. Now let’s get this across the finish line, and we can see where to go next from there. Good job, y’all.

What does it mean to be a beer?

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.

Our stupid beer laws in action

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Owners of the popular Eatsie Boys food truck will open their first stand-alone restaurant later this year on Montrose Boulevard, serving everything from breakfast items to sandwiches to house-made gelato.

Closer to downtown, and possibly around the same time, the young entrepreneurs will cut the ribbon on their 8th Wonder Brewery. They recently took possession of a brand-new brewhouse and three shiny tanks that will produce craft beers like Alternate Universe, Hopston and Intellectuale, “the beer that makes you think.”

But don’t expect to see any of those brews on tap at their restaurant. Texas law forbids it.

“What a joke is that?” asked Ryan Soroka, a founding partner of both operations. ” … It makes no sense that we’re doing things the way we have to do them.”

[…]

In Texas, brewers must decide whether they want to be a shipping brewery, á la Saint Arnold or Anheuser-Busch, which are prohibited from selling their own products directly to consumers, or a retail brewpub, which cannot distribute to bars, stores and other restaurants.

The catch for 8th Wonder as a shipping brewery is that holders of a Texas brewer’s license are barred from selling alcohol on-site or at any other establishment they own. Licensees are forbidden even from giving away samples at any retail site they own, a Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission spokeswoman said.

So for now, at least, Soroka and his business partners will make beer in an old warehouse east of downtown and run a separate (and dry) cafe in the former Kraftsmen site at 4100 Montrose.

Despite what the shill for the Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas says later in the story, this arrangement, which is solely to the benefit of the distributors and the big brewers, is hurtful to small outfits like 8th Wonder and to beer drinkers everywhere. It’s the same old story and will continue to be until there are enough members of the Lege who are willing to do something about it. Towards that end, I will point you again to Open the Taps and their Beer Voting Guide. Beer lovers have made progress in each of the past three legislative sessions, and as long as we keep up the pressure, we will eventually get the Lege to do the right thing.

Open The Taps voters’ guide for 2012

Want to know how your preferred legislative candidates stand on the important issue of beer freedom in Texas? Then the Open The Taps Voters Guide for 2012 is for you. As a reminder, Open The Taps is about the following:

Open The Taps was created for the sole purpose of bettering the craft beer environment in the state of Texas for craft beer drinkers. We believe that if the consumers speak with one voice, our legislators will hear it loud and clear.

Our goal is to use the legislative process to make significant change in the laws and regulations that govern all aspects of the craft beer industry in Texas. While we know that there are many things that need to be done, we have chosen to focus on these issues heading into the next legislative session in 2013:

1) Allow Texas Craft breweries to sell their beer directly to the public via tasting rooms, similar to how the Texas Wine industry currently operates.

2) Allow Texas brewpubs the opportunity to have their beer distributed to retail stores and bars.

I first heard about them last year, and I’m glad to see them staying active. They put together a questionnaire for candidates and contacted every one they could find, and you can see the results so far on that voters’ guide page. They’re also looking for some help getting responses from the candidates who have not yet sent in a reply, so click over and see how you can help. I’ve been personally invested in this idea since it first cropped up during the 2007 legislative session, and I’ll say again what’s been said before: Beer is a bipartisan issue. Our current beer laws are an anachronistic mess that heavily favor a couple of well-heeled and deeply entrenched interests at the expense of the consumer, which is a situation that should offend sensibilities across the political spectrum. The folks fighting against this have made progress over the ensuing three sessions, but getting across the finish line remains a challenge. Please help shine a little light on this, and make sure your State Rep and State Senator know that you want them to do right by the beer-drinking public. Thanks very much.

Open The Taps

Better late than never.

“The fourth tier wants to speak up,” said Ted Duchesne, a Clear Lake-area beer blogger and president of a nascent nonprofit organization that pledges to work on behalf of consumers to increase the availability of craft beer in Texas.

The group, Open The Taps, hopes to do so by encouraging legislation – such as the stifled efforts to expand the ways small breweries and brewpubs get their goods to market – and regulatory changes often cited as a deterrent by out-of-state craft breweries that want to do business here.

Duchesne and the other founders believe they can tap into a large, passionate base that prefers craft beers to mass-produced ones. They are set to launch a fund-raising drive in major Texas cities and next month will be recruiting members at a public home brewing event in Seabrook.

[…]

The founders of Open The Taps say the recent explosive growth of craft beer in the state and the number of new breweries prove there is grass-roots support here that they can leverage into legislative action through lobbying. One of their first initiatives is to recruit 100 people willing to contribute $100 apiece in each of the state’s four biggest metro areas: Houston, Austin, San Antonio and Dallas/Fort Worth.

Here’s their nascent website and Facebook page. They have a launch party scheduled for this Saturday the 23rd at 4 PM at the Moon Tower Inn on Canal Street. I’m glad to see this group form, and I wish them all the best, I’ll just note that we’ve now had three legislative sessions in which microbreweries have tried to get a bill passed. It would have been nice if something like this had existed even a year ago. Be that as it may, it’s going to take grassroots action to get this done, so if you care about beer in Texas and can’t understand why we don’t have a free market for it, join up with these folks and start working towards 2013. Beer, TX has more.