**This article was originally published on March 25, 2009.**
Ever wondered why you can't go to the store and buy a six-pack of the North by Northwest Restaurant and Brewery's beer? How about one more: Ever wondered why, in a state of 24 million that ranks second-thirstiest in terms of beer consumption, Texas has about, like what, eight craft breweries? Partly thanks to, say many in the business, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission code, which keeps these small brewers from selling you a six-pack to go at the brewery.
Blame the code or blame beer distributors and their lobbyists, who wield a considerable amount of political power when it comes to TABC code changes, some small brewers say.
Bills in this session of the Texas Legislature might actually allow you to pick up some bottles of Saint Arnold Elissa when you tour Brock Wagner's Saint Arnold brewery in Houston. The bills have been introduced in different forms by state Reps. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth , and Jessica Farrar, D-Houston .
Six years ago, similar legislation passed to let Texas wineries sell their bottles where the wine is made. That happened largely because the wineries got organized and argued that it would be good for Texas tourism. Brewers have just made a unified go of it under the name Friends of Texas Microbreweries.
Is there a glimmer of hope this time for the brewers, who might ask why there should be different rules for wine and beer? Former Sunset Advisory Commissioner Howard Wolf, who is a proponent of this and other, more far-reaching changes to TABC regulations, says there's not a chance, even for this single-change bill.
"The distributors are defending a castle, a monetary castle, and they know that if they allow any breach anywhere in the wall, they might lose control of it," Wolf said.
Aside from the growler (half-gallon jug) you can get filled and take home from a brew pub like NXNW, pretty much the only places selling beer to go are the liquor, grocery, convenience and other stores where the beer is stocked by the distributors.
Another future threat to distributors might be direct online sales, if the craft brewers ever pushed for that.
Burnham said of his legislation last week: "Most of the micros are politically naive " I can file this bill. It's not going to go anywhere until the brewers can go to multiple members and be a political force because the big guys are a political force, and they have been for years."
If you care about beer, you should care about this issue, and it's worth getting our hands dirty in a little history to find out how we got here. One of the main aims of the TABC code as it was written was to thwart any latter-day Al Capones by establishing firewalls between the beer importer or brewery, wholesaler or distributor and retailer. The state's wish was also to promote post-Prohibition temperance, and God forbid Texas should ever be perceived as being in the business of promoting consumption. (Let us not forget that hatchet-brandishing Prohibitionist Carrie Nation, while born in Kentucky, later called Brazoria County home.) And Texas is still a messy legal hodgepodge of wet, dry, semi-dry and moderately damp counties.
Beer was seen as a drink of moderation, so nothing over 5 percent alcohol by volume could be called beer; it had to be ale or malt liquor or something else. This can make for something of a labeling headache when a brewer within Texas or from out of state wants to introduce a new beer into the market with a slightly higher kick.
Brewers also talk about other aspects of an antiquated code, such as steep licensing fees and other impediments to their business.
Over time, the wholesalers' and distributors' muscle grew. Beer distribution in Texas now generates some $1.4 billion in the state economy. And, quite understandably, their lobbyists made a whole lot of good friends at the Capitol.
I don't mean to rag on distributors, nor do brewers have any particular beef with them - they need distributors to move their beer in stores, after all. I'm friendly with a number of people who work for distributors and these folks work very hard. Nor should you think I'm singling out the TABC for being a bunch of meddlesome bureaucrats, because they're not. They're simply enforcing the code as it's written by the Legislature - with, the little guys say, a whole lot of input from the beer distributors' lobby.
But over time, quite understandably, the distributors grew rather protective of their lucrative middleman role.
"You've got a case of one industry getting so powerful that they do an incredible job of getting laws written to protect them," said Wagner of Saint Arnold. "I don't know of another industry that has so many anti-competitive clauses in it. There is no question that only one point of view is getting heard and that is showing up in the one-sided laws that are being written. That is the frustration."
That's also why legislation similar to what's introduced in this session has gone approximately nowhere in the past.
The brewers note, for example, that if you tour Saint Arnold and take home a six-pack of something you've maybe never had before, the distributors would be cut out of the supply chain on that single six-pack. Tours are not an everyday thing for most people. The next buy for you might well be that same brew at the store, supplied by a distributor.
In this political climate it makes perfect sense that Texas should well lag behind the rest of the country in welcoming the craft and microbrewery renaissance of the last 25 years or so. Know how many commercial breweries there are in Colorado, a state of about 4.3 million? A hundred. Not exactly. It's a little apples and oranges counting micros and/or craft beer breweries, but, again, Texas has about eight.
And, inside and outside Colorado, a lot of these breweries started as brew pubs. To name just three: Dogfish Head, Bear Republic and Oskar Blues, from Delaware, California and Colorado, respectively. And today, right here in River City, you can go out and buy Dog Fish Head 60, Racer 5 or Dale's Pale. But if you want to grab a six of what Brian Peters is brewing at Uncle Billy's these days? Sorry, that can't happen. "I don't know whose fault it is for these quirks existing, but it is hampering Texas breweries," said Scott Metzger of San Antonio's Freetail Brewing Co. "Texas breweries are at an automatic competitive disadvantage with breweries in other states. Maybe the politicians just hate breweries. Maybe they don't want to see Texas breweries succeed."
"They're putting us on an unlevel playing field with those people who can have a retail establishment locally and sell their product to other locations," said NXNW's owner, Davis Tucker.
Metzger says if the law were changed to allow him to sell in stores, he'd add a bottling operation and another 50 jobs tomorrow. We're talking about more variety and choice for the consumer, more jobs, more tax revenue for the state.
And let's not forget that craft and micros are the only growing segment of the beer industry these days. Sales overall, dominated by the behemoths such as Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors, have been more or less flat for a while.
So who wins by maintaining the status quo?
"That's a good question," said Jim Houchins of Artisanal Imports and a former distributor himself. "I guess the big distributors would be the primary winners. Most of them are not all that keen on the smaller breweries anyway. Keeping them out doesn't hurt them."
But who knows? Maybe the Legislature can make this one little change to put small brewers on the same playing field as small wineries. If you have an opinion, contact your state representative. A compromise measure that would allow breweries to sell admission to tours, and for admission to include a beer sale, had a hearing before the House Committee on Licensing and Administrative Procedures last week, and Rick Donley, president of the Beer Alliance of Texas, testified in its favor.
"We had worked real hard with Rep. Farrar to craft some kind of legislation that would allow (brewers) to do some of the things they want to do without disrupting the three-tier system," Donely said. "You're not going to walk up and buy beer without taking the tour."
As for some brewers' gripe that distributors have disproportionate pull at the statehouse, Donley said: "I wish we had a tenth of the influence they think we have. The fact is the three-tier system has served the state well for many decades."
Lights, camera, Dogfish Head.
Sam Calagione, the head of everybody's favorite brewery in Delaware, returns to the Alamo Lake Creek for what's become an annual event: The Dogfish Head Off-Centered Film Festival at 8 p.m. April 3 and 4. Friday night will have Calagione guiding the crowd through 13 (!) samples, including the mind-stealing 120 and a couple that you can only get in this market - for now - when Calagione brings them. Cheese pairings from Grape Vine Market. Tickets are $45 Friday, $10 Saturday, swag included, and there's more at drafthouse.com/lakecreek. Friday will be drinking, talking and eating; the short film screenings with be Saturday.
The event comes not long after a fantastic beer dinner with Allagash founder Rob Tod. I'm still dreaming about those green chile and crab corn fritters.
Last year's fest was the subject of my inaugural column, meaning I've been drinking on the job for a year now and haven't been fired yet. Cheers!