Refreshing bills about beer

Natalie San Luis

I was born just down the street from UT at St. David’s, and I’ve never lived farther than 20 minutes away from the Tower. Still, I would never call myself a diehard Texan. Cowboy boots are lost on me. The summer heat makes me fussy. I don’t understand the appeal of high school football.

But there’s one aspect of Texas culture that brings out the Lone Star pride in me: beer. Our city has become a paradise for those who value beer fests, brewery visits and adventurous small-batch concoctions. And there’s something about the microbrewery scene that is distinctly Austin: Dogs hang out in taprooms, brewers are friendly and approachable and the craft beer community is the type of laid-back-classy that defines the City of the Violet Crown.

The Central Texas area has experienced a boom in microbreweries in the past five years. As a result, Austinites have reaped the benefits of industry and job growth, a thriving craft beer community and a wide selection of local drafts in most bars. About a year ago, Sen. John Carona, R-El Paso, chair of the Senate Business and Commerce Committee, called for a working group consisting of stakeholders and legislators to address the growing trade. Craft brewing organizations like Open the Taps and the Texas Craft Brewers Guild aided their efforts.

This spring, they drafted and filed a handful of bills that loosen regulations on breweries and brewpubs. Adapted versions of those bills passed in the Texas Senate last week and are likely to pass in the House. According to Josh Hare of Hops & Grain Craft Brewery, “[The bills] give small breweries more access to a market and more interaction in the taproom.”

The package makes timely adjustments to laws that haven’t changed much since Prohibition. Since the 1930s, Texas beer has traveled from brewery to consumer through a three-tier system. Brewers make the beer, distributors take the beer to stores, bars and restaurants and retailers sell the beer to customers. Each of these tiers has different legal privileges and doesn’t take kindly to another tier shaking things up.

The package of bills would relax brewers’ self-distribution restrictions so that they can compete with out-of-state brewers that are not subject to the same production limitations. Additionally, one of the bills would allow brewpubs like Whip In or Pinthouse Pizza to sell their beer to retailers and distributors. Lastly, breweries would gain the ability to sell beer on brewery premises.

“By selling to our consumers, letting them come in to taste and sample the beer, they’re going to go buy it from the closest place that they can find it to their house, which is not going to be the brewery,” Hare said about the interaction between tiers. “Ultimately, we’re going to drive more business to those stores and downstream to the distributor.”

But not everyone agrees with this approach. When the working group formed, it seemed like a perfect opportunity for Texas lawmakers to reach across the aisle: Everyone loves beer and everyone loves jobs. However, craft brewing supporters encountered a sudden obstruction when Sen. Carona, who helped organize the working group, introduced SB 639, an unexpected bill that transferred enormous financial power from brewers to Texas distributors. 

The proposed law would force brewers to set flat prices for all beer sold, regardless of shipping costs, and prohibit brewers from selling their distribution rights. During the year that he had encouraged the craft beer negotiations, he refrained from endorsing these harsh restrictions. For most, SB 639 was a surprise, but many critics have pointed out that distributors have contributed tens of thousands of dollars to the senator’s campaigns.

Although the discord between the two tiers settled with a compromise — microbreweries retain the right to set their own prices for beer, but they can’t sell their distribution rights or beer to take home — some brewers are still unsatisfied. The sale of distribution rights frequently provides the revenue necessary to expand a brewing operation.  

Still, the legislation is an important step forward for the Texas beer industry. At the end of our discussion, Hare told me, “We’re all just very excited to be able to do what we’re doing. More than anything, we just want our consumers to have a better experience.” For a legislative session filled with delicate issues like reproductive rights, water shortages and education funding, the optimism surrounding these bills is refreshing.

San Luis is a women’s and gender studies and English senior from Buda.