The ability to buy beer to go from a craft brewery may seem like a given, but in Texas, the issue is far from simple. Although it’s perfectly legal to buy and take home products from Texas wineries, distilleries and brewpubs, Texas is the only state in the U.S. where it’s not legal for craft breweries to sell beer to go from their tasting rooms.
The Texas Craft Brewers Guild, an organization that represents the interests of the state’s craft brewers, is pushing to change that law in the 2019 Texas legislative session. To promote the issue to lawmakers, the guild created the political action committee CraftPAC in January 2018, and soon after brought up the matter of beer-to-go laws to Texas legislators in the hopes of getting bipartisan support for their cause.
“Through the whole year of 2018, we raised money from both brewers and craft beer aficionados across the state — people who just wanted to see our laws be equalized with most other places across the country,” says Adam DeBower, legislative committee chair for the guild and chair of CraftPAC. “And we got politically active. We actually attended both the state Republican and Democrat Party conventions. After participating in both of those events, we were successful at having language in both party platforms that addresses beer to go as an issue.”
(Note: DeBower is also an owner and the operations manager at Austin Beerworks; a common thread in the Texas Craft Brewers Guild is that many on the board of directors hail from local breweries.)
After attending the conventions, CraftPAC received support from Senator Dawn Buckingham (R-Lakeway) and Representative Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) as they filed bills SB 312 and HB 672, respectively, to allow patrons to purchase up to two cases of beer per calendar day from a craft brewery tasting room for take-home consumption.
One factor that motivated Representative Rodriguez to file the bill is the high number of craft breweries in his own constituency. “It's the fact that I have 13 breweries and brewpubs in my district and three more coming down the line,” he says. “So it's just it's a really big deal in my district, and frankly, it's a really big deal in Austin.”
The numbers certainly back this up. There are 37 craft breweries within Austin city limits, more than any other city in Texas; the state itself hosts a total craft brewery count nearly 300. And in spite of the current law’s limitation, craft brewing in Texas is on the rise. In 2017, Texas craft breweries contributed $5.3 billion to the U.S. economy, making it the third most profitable state in the industry, behind California and Pennsylvania.
Though it may sound nonsensical at first — particularly when the counterargument now has wide bipartisan support — there is a reason beer to go is currently not allowed at craft breweries, and it’s embedded in the basic system of the state’s beer distribution. The three-tiered system, which separates beer manufacturers, distributors and retailers into three separate groups, was originally designed to prevent unjust influence from one group member over the other two. However, the middle tier, composed of two main distribution trade associations, has gained an uneven amount of power due to their frequent lobbying and large campaign contributions.
Fortunately for craft breweries, this contributing factor to keeping beer-to-go laws stagnant is now changing. One of the trade associations, The Beer Alliance of Texas, has announced their support for the new beer-to-go bill, giving brewers even greater hope that the legislation will make it through this session.
“For the first time in a very long time, we actually have one of the two middle-tier wholesale trade organizations interested in seeing this legislative change take place,” says DeBower. “I'm more optimistic now than at any other point before. Having a willing partner, an active partner, in The Beer Alliance of Texas to help us advance this legislation makes all the difference.”
Rick Donley, president of The Beer Alliance of Texas, echoed this sentiment at a joint press conference held at the Texas Capitol. “We're here in the spirit of cooperation. Obviously this has been kind of a long process, to come to this agreement … We started looking at this more about market certainty. We need some stability in the beer marketplace, and we think this agreement provides more. And we're delighted and look forward to supporting this piece of legislation all the way through the process.”
If the legislation does become a new law, all three tiers of the beer market will see benefits. Allowing customers to buy beer to go at taprooms gives the craft breweries hard numbers on which beers have a demand, meaning grocery stores will be more likely to carry the popular beers — and this will also provide the distribution tier with more product to transport.
“It's really just also a way for breweries to show how much people like their products,” says Representative Rodriguez. “It could be a faster way for them to get to the stores, frankly. That's where they're going to make most of their money, and that's where they're going to grow.”
In an industry that is expanding as quickly as this one, any opportunity for growth will make for more jobs in the field. “Our industry employs thousands of people,” says DeBower. “It's about 3000 people statewide that are employed by over 250 small breweries that are really in every corner of the state of this point.” With the addition of beer to go, those numbers are only expected to grow higher.
Throughout the current legislative session, those supporting the bill will continue to push its message in a bipartisan effort that’s rarely seen in the Texas Capitol. “I think that's something that really is special about our industry,” DeBower says. “It's not a republican issue; it's not a democrat issue. This is an American issue, and this is about equity and freedom and fairness.”
by Darby Kendall • Images courtesy of Texas Craft Brewers Guild
For more information, visit texascraftbrewersguild.org