Update, May 24, 2019: In a huge victory for the Texas Craft Brewers Guild, the Texas Senate yesterday passed an update to the state’s alcohol laws which would allow manufacturing breweries to sell beer to go, up to the equivalent of one case per customer per day. The Texas House is expected to concur and the governor to sign the bill, allowing to-go sales to begin September 1.
Original story, February 15, 2019: Currently, a good chunk of Texas breweries can’t sell customers beer to-go—not in cans, not in growlers, not in crowlers or bottles or kegs. It’s the only state in the nation with this type of law, and it’s much to the consternation of breweries and beer fans who’d like to bring beer home to enjoy later. Distributors, the middle-men between alcohol manufacturers and retailers, have long opposed any changes to the law which they’d perceived as potentially cutting into their slice of profits.
But there’s a bright spot on the horizon: the Texas Craft Brewers Guild and the Beer Alliance Of Texas (BAT), one of Texas’s two powerful distributor lobbying groups, have reached an agreement that would allow to-go sales from breweries, up to two cases of beer (576 ounces) per customer per day. Because distributors and brewers have finally found some common ground, there’s a chance to amend Texas’ convoluted laws to allow manufacturing breweries to sell to-go beer. Both groups agree that if this new legislation passes, distributors and breweries will refrain from lobbying lawmakers for adjustments to Texas’ brewery production cap for 12 years. Right now, manufacturing breweries can make up 225,000 barrels of beer annually and still operate a taproom, with taproom sales capped at 5,000 barrels. If the compromise legislation passes, beer sold to-go would count against that 5,000-barrel limit.
Is your head spinning yet? Mine was. So I called Adam Debower, cofounder and coowner of Austin Beerworks and the legislative committee chair for the Texas Craft Brewers Guild. He’s been the point person working on behalf of breweries for this legislative compromise, which explains why he practically lives at the Capitol now. He helped me sort through the current state of Lone Star beer laws, and what the compromise agreement could mean for breweries and beer drinkers. Let’s tackle the questions one-by-one.
In Texas, breweries are licensed either as brewpubs or manufacturing breweries. Brewpubs often serve food, though whether or not they’re legally required to do so is a matter of municipal regulations (told you this was messy). Brewpubs can sell beer to-go in any format; manufacturing breweries’ taprooms cannot. For comparison, Texas wineries can sell almost unlimited wine to-go, and distillers can sell up to two bottles of spirits to-go. So why doesn’t every brewery just open as a brewpub? Because brewpubs are capped at producing 10,000 total barrels of beer annually, and because municipal zoning might not allow for a brewpub versus a manufacturing breweries.
When Prohibition passed, the 21st Amendment left alcohol regulation largely up to states. Texas’ legislature meets only once every two years for 143 days, narrowing the window to make changes to its brewery laws. Couple that with powerful distributor lobbying groups’ longtime opposition to to-go beer sales, and that goes a long way to explaining the current situation.
Debower says that obviously consumers would like more freedom to enjoy beer where and how they want, which would include buying taproom-only beer from manufacturing breweries if they could. He also notes that visitors to Texas from the other 49 states get frustrated by this law or think breweries are putting them on when taproom staff explains the rule.
Debower says he’s “as hopeful as he’s ever been” that this “armistice” can pass. He notes that the law has been filed in each chamber of the legislator, and has bipartisan sponsorship and support. However, he acknowledges that another powerful distributors’ group, Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas (WBDT), has refused to be a part of the compromise and has been criticizing the legislation on social media.
The BAT and brewers’ guild shook hands over this compromise—and then put in writing. Both sides have signed a contract governed by civil law that binds them to the no-lobbying terms of the agreement. If one side backed out, they could be sued in civil court by the other.
Committee hearings are expected next week or the week after, after which there’s usually about another week until a committee vote, then more time before a full vote. “There’s a lot of steps in front of us,” Debower says, adding that May 28 is the final day of this year’s Texas legislative session.