It doesn't matter which taproom you walk into anymore — all Texas breweries now can sell you beer to go.
Since 2013, the last year of major legislative reform for the state's beer industry, beer producers with manufacturing brewery licenses could sell beer to drink in their taprooms. Loved that lager and wanted to take some cans home with you? That wasn't legal. But a new law passed during this spring's legislative session went into effect Sunday, and it allows visitors to any manufacturing brewery in the state to buy up to one case of beer to go per day.
Taking home beer straight from the source is something customers have wanted and expect, Austin Beerworks co-founder Adam DeBower said. They have been able to do it in the 49 other states in the U.S. already. Plus, brewpubs such as Pinthouse Pizza have been able to sell beer to go for years, but the average taproom visitor might not make the distinction between such licenses.
"On any given week, we (had) to explain hundreds of times to our guests that, 'No, you can't buy beer to go from us, and yes, we understand that you were able to do it at Pinthouse, but we have a different license than them, and no, we can't switch,’” he said. "It's exhausting, but more than that, it's intensely frustrating for our consumers."
That has changed completely with passage of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission sunset bill. Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin — one of the Legislature's biggest beer-to-go proponents — successfully added beer-to-go sales as an amendment to the bill in an eleventh-hour effort to get it heard in April.
A couple of months later, Gov. Greg Abbott signed the sunset bill into law at DeBower's brewery. On Sunday morning, the day it went into effect, area legislators who were key in passing it ceremoniously bought the first cans of beer: Rodriguez at Zilker Brewing and state Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, at Real Ale Brewing. Rodriguez visited other breweries in his district, including Friends & Allies, throughout the day.
State Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, was the designated first customer at Austin Beerworks — snagging a six-pack at 10 a.m., the time at which Texas breweries can open their taproom doors on Sundays — but consumers weren't far behind her or the other legislators in line.
The second customer at Austin Beerworks was craft beer fan Andy Macfarlane, who bought a case of beer that included the popular Flavor Country Hoppy Pale Ale. He showed up a full hour early, at 9 a.m., with an umbrella and a camp chair and waited with a couple of other guys, wanting to show solidarity to the brewers who have been lobbying for beer-to-go sales for six consecutive legislative sessions. By 10 a.m., the small group of early birds had swelled to 20 to 25 people. Ten minutes later, about 100 people had gathered inside the taproom.
"Most of the craft brewers in town, their customers are their friends. We were happy for them," he said.
Now a retired lobbyist for an internet company, he had once advocated for consumer choice at the Texas Capitol — a central argument during the fight for beer-to-go sales. Macfarlane said any laws that might "limit customer choice are not a good thing, in my opinion."
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Canned beer sales included the Post Pro Pilsner, a lager brewed to celebrate the Sept. 1 change, DeBower said. Eventually, the pilsner, limited bottle offerings and the four canned beers that make up Austin Beerworks' year-round offerings, including Flavor Country, might be joined in the beer-to-go coolers with other, taproom-only options.
What sells offers valuable insight for brewers, who often use their taprooms as testing grounds for upcoming releases.
"Our taproom is like the front porch of our brewery. It's our opportunity to directly interact with our fans and to get direct feedback on the new and experimental beers that we're producing," he said. "I'm excited about this opportunity because we can then take that consumer feedback and use it to direct which beers will be brought to the greater market."
Beer to go is also important to breweries that don't have much distribution beyond the taproom.
Uncle Billy's Brewery & Smokehouse switched from a brewpub to brewery license a couple of years ago and had relied on a contract brewing operation at Celis Brewery to get cans of beer to the local market — until Celis' bankruptcy this summer. The legalization of beer to go couldn't have come at a better time for the Barton Springs Road brewery and restaurant, said head brewer Stephen Wagner.
"We will be able to put more brands in more people's hands than we have in a while, and with all the foot traffic and tourism nearby, we're anticipating a solid boost as we head into the fall and the ACL Festival season," Wagner said.
Curiously, a section of state code has allowed many breweries to open as early as 10 a.m. on Sundays since 2013, though many didn't have the impetus to do so without beer-to-go sales. A bill last session that sought to permit grocery store sales of beer and wine on Sunday mornings ultimately failed.
"Manufacturing breweries can open at 10 a.m. on Sunday and offer beer both for on-premise consumption (without food) and for to-go purchase at that time," DeBower said. "This means that the 105 or so Texas manufacturing breweries will be the only place where Texas consumers can legally purchase beer to go before noon on a Sunday."