Last weeks article about new grass roots craft beer advocacy group in Texas, Open The Taps, was well timed it turns out. For those who missed it, their mission and goal is to help small craft breweries, and beer consumers, help change the beer laws in Texas so as to allow for fair competition in Texas amongst the many new breweries and brew pubs that have sprouted up in Texas. Now, Jester King Craft Brewery in Austin, Texas has sued the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission (TABC) for what it feels are inequities in the Commission’s code.
Currently, all breweries in Texas are not allowed to tell the public where their beers can be purchased and are not allowed to sell their own beers on premises. In addition, they are limited to very strict guidelines on how beer can be labeled, based on its percentage of alcohol.
For example, “Under the bizarre, antiquated naming system mandated by the TABC Code, we have to call everything we brew over 4% alcohol by weight (ABW) “Ale” or “Malt Liquor” and everything we brew at or below 4% ABW “beer”. This results in nonsensical and somewhat comical situations where we have to call pale ale at or below 4% ABW “pale beer” and lager that is over 4% ABW “ale” says Jester King, who goes on to say “At the same time, the State prohibits breweries from using other terms that accurately reference alcoholic strength like “strong” or “low alcohol”. That means you will not be seeing any Belgian or American Strong Ale in Texas. Further, the State restricts the context in which we can communicate the actual alcohol content of our beers. We are not allowed to put the alcoholic content on anything the State considers advertising, which includes our website and social media. We are simply seeking to exercise free and truthful speech about the beer we make and strongly believe that the State has no interest in keeping you from knowing the type of beer we make, how strong it is, or where it is sold.”
In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, Stone Brewing Co had similar difficulties with its Imperial Russian Stout. The Federal government would not allow Stone to label it as Imperial, based on labeling laws that dealt with the ABV. Stone argued that to label it otherwise was going against hundreds of years of brewing tradition and would be falsely labeling the Stout. After several years of legal battles with Federal Agencies over the issue of labeling, Stone was finally allowed to label it as the Imperial Russian Stout.
Jester King also takes issue with TABC code that prohibits overseas breweries from selling to distributors in Texas, who already have a license and instead requiring that they obtain a separate license as well. “When we started Jester King, part of our plan was to help other small, artisan brewers, from both the United States and abroad, sell their products in Texas. This is something that we remain interested in doing at some point, which is where our material interest in this part of the case comes into play. Our much larger interest, however, is in allowing Texas beer drinkers to have access to the beers that helped shape our desire to build an authentic farmhouse brewery in the Texas Hill Country and that have had a direct influence on the type of beers that we have set out to brew.” says the brewery, who advised that they have “chosen to pursue these matters in federal court after witnessing the lack of progress that has resulted from previous attempts to address the inequities of the TABC Code legislatively. During the last legislative session, there were bills aimed at giving breweries and brewpubs similar rights to Texas wineries, but these bills never even made it out of committee.”
Jester King refers to the recent legislative session in Texas that saw HB 660 (dubbed the brewpub law and co-authored by Freetail Brewing’s Scott Metzger and Blue Star’s Joey Villareal), that would allow Texas brew pubs to distribute and sell off premises, and HB 602, which would have allowed a limited sale of beer on premises, both of which were killed. HB 602 made it to committee, but no further, while HB 660 never saw the light of day. Distributers have a powerful hold in Texas, as they do in many states, that dates back to right after Prohibition, when the Federal Government required all brewers big or small to sell directly to distributors who would pass the beer along to the bars, no longer allowing brewers to sell directly to the bars and their ultimate customers. What this did was allow distributors, who previously had little control over the beer industry, to get stronger, along with the large breweries getting bigger. With almost 80 years having passed since Prohibition ended, we now have a system that favors the large rich breweries and distributors, while small independent craft breweries are left struggling to get out a product brewed with love.
The suit has a huge uphill battle if it hopes to win over a system that still has a strong hold over beer in Texas. Although ultimate success is slim, what the suit may at least do, is bring an even greater awareness to the inequities of the liquor laws in Texas. For that is the real enemy to craft beer in Texas. The TABC merely enforces the laws already in place, they don’t write them. that being said if a suit was to be filed, the TABC is the logical choice. Change is coming, it’s just a matter of time.