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Hopsquad Brewing Co. has reopened its indoor and outdoor taproom spaces and serves food from its food truck partner, Tsuke Honten.

If you want to sip a cold, locally brewed beer while you dine, you have a couple of new options in Austin. Or maybe they should be called renewed options: At least two local breweries, Austin Beerworks and Hopsquad Brewing, have filed the necessary paperwork to allow their taprooms to reopen.

The coronavirus pandemic has landed a devastating blow to locally owned businesses across the hospitality industry in Texas. The state government required restaurants to close dining rooms this spring, then wavered on capacity limits once restaurants could reopen. While bars were briefly allowed to reopen starting Memorial Day weekend, a spike in cases led to a second closure order.

As the economic plight of restaurants and bars stirs heated public debate, a smaller but beloved segment of the hospitality industry also has been navigating what its members see as unclear government restrictions.

There are about 75 independent breweries in Central Texas. When the state on June 26 closed businesses that made at least 51% of their sales from alcohol, breweries were forced to shut down their taprooms, just like traditional bars. While they continue to sell their product to go and deliver wholesale orders to retailers and restaurants, darkened taprooms mean a significant loss of revenue for many.

But an announcement from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission in late July offered a potential lifeline.

Breweries no longer had to include their wholesale and to-go numbers as part of their sales and instead only had to calculate onsite alcohol sales. If their sales of food and merchandise kept onsite alcohol sales below 51%, the taps could once again flow. Austin Beerworks, one of Central Texas’ biggest breweries, and Hopsquad Brewing Co., a relative newcomer in North Austin, used the new math to reopen their taprooms.

TABC public information officer Chris Porter told the American-Statesman last week that a brewery needed to own an on-premises food operation in order for the food sales to count toward the brewery’s total. He clarified this week that the brewery only needs to be in partnership with the food operation. Porter suggested any brewery with questions about the regulations contact their local TABC office.

“Their regulations are vague. Even they know it, and they’re kind of letting people interpret it their own way,” said César Limón, Hopsquad’s co-founder, who also worked as an attorney before opening the brewery.

Austin Beerworks, which launched in 2011 and opened its expanded taproom about three years ago, owns Tex-Mex food truck Can-Tina, serving tacos, burritos and more at the North Austin brewery. Alcohol accounted for more than 40% of the brewery’s onsite sales last year, brewery co-founder Michael Graham said, so the brewery came up with a meal plan to help nudge its numbers over the state-mandated line.

The brewery has only outdoor seating right now and offers a meal plan that includes a beer for $4 and chips and salsa for $2. The beer usually costs $6, so patrons essentially get the chips and salsa at no additional charge, while the brewery eats the food cost.

The added food trailer orders, plus merchandise, allow Austin Beerworks to meet the state’s sales threshold. Following TABC guidance, the brewery submitted an affidavit declaring the nature of its sales to the state and reopened its outdoor taproom at the end of July. While the brewery was happy to reopen the taproom, the state’s shifting guidelines, which at one point included a Temporary Modification of Licensed Premises that seemingly allowed breweries to sell to-go beer for onsite consumption, has been frustrating for brewery owners.

“Our biggest complaint of the whole process is that the laws don’t seem to be based on data and public safety. They’re mostly based on politics. It’s frustrating to have to play games,” Graham said.

The ability to operate the taproom, open daily from noon to 8 p.m., serves as an economic boon to Austin Beerworks, which is down about 35% in sales for the year due to the pandemic. Graham said that while the taproom only accounted for 5% of the total volume of beer sold by the brewery last year, it represented 60-70% of the company’s profits.

Without the reopened taproom, Graham said Austin Beerworks, which distributes its beers widely through stores and restaurants, would likely be facing the dire fate that he fears for many of his industry peers.

“The majority of breweries really rely on their taproom. A lot of places are running on fumes right now,” Graham said. “I think without some sort of relief or allowance, the majority of local breweries will go out of business. Sooner than you probably think.”

Breweries received support for their cause last week, when U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, a Republican from Hays County, sent a letter to TABC chairman Kevin Lilly urging the agency to rethink its classification of businesses wanting to serve alcohol during the pandemic.

“It is not my view that a simple majority of on-premise alcohol sales should dictate whether hundreds of businesses survive during this unprecedented time,” Roy wrote.

Limón and his cousin, Alex Limón, have been in partnership with chef Michael Che of Asian fusion food truck Tsuke Honten since opening around the start of the year. They also have been frustrated by what they see as vague state regulations.

Hopsquad does not distribute its beers outside of its Kramer Lane location, so all of their beer sales come from their taproom. In order to make their alcohol sales numbers stay below the 51% threshold, Hopsquad now requires that patrons order a dish like chicken wings ($10) or chile prawns ($11) in order to purchase a beer for onsite consumption.

Limón said the new rules about food consumption frustrate some guests. He understands.

“I tell them we’re frustrated, too, but if they’re this frustrated, please reach out to TABC and the governor and tell them to either get out of our way or allow us to open,” Limón said.

The brewery is offering indoor and outdoor seating, and the owners built a deck around the food truck to accommodate diners. In addition to his regular menu of bar snacks, offered whenever the brewery is open, Che also serves an omakase menu indoors for eight people that sells out the day reservations go online each month.

Limón said he’s “hopeful but pessimistic” that TABC will continue to allow brewery taprooms like Hopsquad’s to stay open. In the meantime, he and his cousin have one simple but daunting goal.

“Our overarching business strategy since this started is to literally survive the year and help our staff weather the storm,” Limón said.

Additional reporting from Nicole Cobler.

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the meal deal at Austin Beerworks. The brewery is selling chips and salsa for $2.

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Reopened taprooms

Austin Beerworks. 3001 Industrial Terrace. 512-821-2494, austinbeerworks.com

Taproom hours: Noon to 8 p.m. daily

Hopsquad Brewing. 2307 Kramer Lane. 512-351-9654, hopsquad.com

Taproom hours: 1 to 7 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday

Austin Beerworks' Can-Tina food truck has allowed the North Austin brewery to reopen its taproom.