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Rick Donley

Craft beer lawsuit

This ought to be interesting.

On the same day merger talk surfaced regarding the world’s two biggest beer companies, a small Dallas brewery announced its own effort to shake up the industry in Texas.

Deep Ellum Brewing Co. launched the crowd-funded “Operation Six-Pack to Go” on Wednesday and said it had filed a federal lawsuit this week attempting to accomplish what multiple efforts in the Texas Legislature have failed to do: Give in-state breweries the right to sell their beverages directly to consumers for off-premise consumption.

While such sales are allowed at wineries, distilleries and brewpub restaurants, brewery visitors must drink any beer they buy before they leave.

John Reardon, the Deep Ellum founder leading the latest charge to allow these so-called dock sales, said antiquated laws hinder growth in the state’s rapidly expanding craft-beer industry. He and other craft brewers have long contended that to-go sales would provide startups with extra capital to expand and give all brewers a powerful marketing tool as people who visit the breweries take their product home and share with friends.

[…]

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Austin against the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission and its three commissioners, calls the ban unconstitutional.

“The U.S. Constitution prohibits a state from creating irrational and arbitrary distinctions between similarly situated entities,” the lawsuit reads. “Texas, however, does just that by creating distinctions between various types of alcoholic beverage producers, which in turn harm those directly involved, including Texas businesses, citizens and tourists, and ultimately the Texas economy.”

Danielle Teagarden, a Seattle-based attorney who specializes in brewery law, said in these types of lawsuits states must provide some “rational” reason for the different treatment and show that it helps meet a legitimate state goal, such as facilitating taxation or maintaining orderly operation of the market. She said it is not a high standard and states have successfully defended their laws.

“It just has to move the dial a little bit toward that goal,” said Teagarden, who writes and edits the Brewery Law Blog.

[…]

The craft brewers should not expect any support from the wholesalers, said Rick Donley, president of the Beer Alliance of Texas, which represents some of the state’s biggest distributors.

Donley worked closely with craft brewers in 2013 to develop a package of successful bills that, among other things, gave production breweries the right to sell a limited amount of beer on site as long as it is poured and consumed there. This March, when the craft brewers returned to Austin in hope of lifting the ban on dock sales, Donley fought back strenuously. On Wednesday, he again insisted that the laws are not harming the craft segment of the industry.

“My god, they’re growing at 20 percent (annually),” he said. “Most companies would love to have that kind of growth.”

Donley said the crafts should wait until the 2-year-old reforms have been in place long enough to see their full impact in the marketplace before trying to further tinker with the three-tier system.

“We have done everything in the world, bending over backward to help craft brewers,” Donley said. “They’re just never satisfied. … They want more, more, more.”

Teagarden, the legal expert, noted that in 2011 a federal judge in Austin ruled against an importer that made similar claims about the different ways breweries and wineries are treated. However, Judge Sam Sparks said the company had failed to provide any evidence the TABC reasons were not rational. The regulators do not have the burden of proof, he wrote.

In another aspect of that same case, the plaintiffs claimed victory because Sparks overturned a TABC requirement that beer be labeled either “Beer” or “Ale,” a distinction that had no scientific basis and was often cited by out-of-state breweries as a reason they could not afford to do business in Texas.

At the time, fellow plaintiff Jester King Brewery of Austin highlighted one of the judge’s comments regarding the failed part of the lawsuit: “The State of Texas is lucky the burden of proof was on (the plaintiffs) for many of its claims, or else the Alcoholic Beverage Code might have fared even worse than it has.”

You can go here if you’d like to contribute to the crowdfunding effort for the lawsuit. There was another lawsuit filed in state court in December 2014 over the requirement for microbreweries to give away their territorial distribution rights for free. I don’t know where that stands right now, but keep it in mind when you read Rick Donley’s words about what a bunch of whiners the microbrewers are, as opposed to those paragons of virtue the distributors and big brewers who are only just trying to hold on to the advantages they’ve always had. We’ll see what the court makes of this one.

Beer legislation 2.0

Just because craft brewers succeeded in passing a bill allowing them to sell beer for consumption on their premises last session doesn’t mean there isn’t more that can be done to advance the cause of beer freedom.

TexasCraftBrewersGuild

Twinned bills introduced this week would extend direct sales for breweries. The proposals by state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, and state Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, would let customers buy beer that they could take away and drink later.

“This gives Texas breweries the same rights already enjoyed by wineries, distilleries and many of their out-of-state competitors,” Keffer said in a written statement distributed by the Texas Craft Brewers Guild.

Under the bill, consumers would be restricted to a single purchase of no more than the equivalent of two cases of beer each month at a brewery. Advocates say this type of “souvenir” beer, often sold following tours or special events, can be an effective marketing tool.

“This legislation is designed to finish what we started last session and bring people from around the country to this state which is rapidly becoming the epicenter of craft brewing quality,” Eltife said in the statement from the Brewers Guild.

[Rick] Donley said the Beer Alliance [of Texas] is still digesting the details of this and other legislation affecting alcohol sales in Texas, but he sounded skeptical.

The Beer Alliance and major wholesalers have contributed many hundreds of thousands of dollars to numerous political campaigns in Texas since the beginning of 2013. Major recipients include Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, but the Beer Alliance of Texas PAC also gave a total of $5,000 to Eltife in June 2013, Texas Ethics Commission reports show.

Donley said it has been only a year and a half since the most recent law changes went into effect, and his organization would like more time to see how that plays out in the marketplace.

He also said he thinks the two-case-per-month limit is too high and he would want an annual cutoff on how much breweries could sell this way. The exemptions approved in 2013 limited breweries to selling no more than 5,000 barrels of beer on site. While the bill currently does not specify an annual limit, a spokesman in Eltife’s office said the 5,000-barrel limit would still apply to all beer sold on site, whether it was sold for on- or off-premise consumption.

Donley said the ongoing success of Texas craft brewing further suggests the industry does not need additional help.

[…]

Brock Wagner, owner and founder of Houston’s Saint Arnold Brewing Co., insisted the craft brewers are not seeking to replace traditional retailers. Rather, he said, this legislation would address the most common question from tour and special events visitors – why they are not allowed to buy beer to take home – and boost awareness of the brands.

Wagner also said lawmakers are probably more inclined to view craft brewers as important small businesses that deserve the state’s support.

See here and here for some background. As noted by the Texas Craft Brewers Guild, the bills in question are Senate Bill 1386 and House Bill 3086. I understand the Beer Alliance’s hesitation – and it should be noted that they were among the good guys in 2013 – but it’s still crazy when you think about it that brewers can’t sell a six pack or two to the people that come to visit their facilities. It would be one thing if there were a blanket prohibition on all forms of booze, but that’s not the case – Texas’ wineries and distilleries can sell bottles on site. So can microbreweries in other states. What Texas does makes no sense, and it’s all about what the big brewers and distributors want. The difference between the faith in free markets that people constantly proclaim in this state and the actual freedom of some specific markets never fails to boggle my mind.

Anyway. As those links above point out, there were other issues that the 2013 legislation did not address that remain untouched by these bills. Licensing fees remain high, and microbrewers were forced by another bill from 2013 to give away their territorial distribution rights instead of being allowed to sell them. Again – crazy, right? A lawsuit was filed last December to overturn that law. I don’t know where that stands now, but there’s apparently no legislative fix for it. So, while this has been a lot more low-key this session, there’s still a lot to be done to make the beer market in Texas what it should be.

The Trib on the brewpubs’ efforts

I’ve written before about the efforts by brewpubs to pass a bill that would allow them to distribute their product outside their own doors. That effort is being led by Scott Metzger of San Antonio’s Freetail Brewing Company, who has been promoting it via blog, Facebook, a new nonprofit called Texas Beer Freedom and pretty much anything else he can think of. The Trib wrote a story about this and about those who are opposed to it.

Under state law, brewpubs can make and sell their beers only on site; they are not allowed to distribute their products themselves or through a separate wholesaler. Only breweries that do not sell their own products on site may distribute their beer through wholesalers. House Bill 660, filed by Representative Mike Villarreal, Democrat of San Antonio, would give them the green light to increase production, sell to beer distributors and sell directly to stores and restaurants if they produce 10,000 barrels of beer a year — the equivalent of 20,000 kegs — or less.

But major beer distributors do not want to open those spigots. Their lobbyists argue that allowing brewpubs to sell their own wares would destroy the regulatory system in Texas that has operated, effectively and profitably, since the end of Prohibition. Rick Donley, president of the Beer Alliance of Texas, which lobbies for companies that distribute major-brand beer and some craft brews, said the three-tiered system — which regulates the production, distribution and retail sales of beer separately — made the beer business easier to regulate and tax, and keeps any one business from creating a monopoly.

Because brewpubs are not currently regulated in the same way as distributors, Donley said he worries that their products could be shipped to dry counties or to minors. “This regulatory system has worked well since Prohibition,” Donley said. “Why anybody wants to disrupt it is a question I can never quite get an answer to.”

It has worked well for the major beer producers. The top five brands in Texas, according to the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission, are Bud Light, Miller Lite, Budweiser, Coors Light and Natural Light.

The brewpub supporters point that the legislation would make brewpubs that produce up to 10,000 barrels a year and sell directly to restaurants and stores subject to the same requirements as wholesalers and distributors

“At the end of the day, it’s just about they don’t want increased competition and how that affects their personal wealth,” Metzger said.

I have no idea why Rick Donley thinks HB660 would lead to anarchy in the distribution process. The current regulatory scheme has indeed been a boon for the beer distributors and their large clients, but speaking as a consumer who might like to buy a six-pack of Freetail’s finest at my neighborhood supermarket some day, it has most certainly not been good for everyone. We don’t have a free market for beer in Texas, and the distributors are perfectly happy with that. Why our supposedly free-market-loving Legislature is also happy with this, I couldn’t tell you.