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Cover 03/20/2013

Winners and losers emerge in beer battles at the Texas Lege

Photo: Photos by Justin Parr, License: N/A

Photos by Justin Parr

Scott Metzger, owner of Freetail Brewing Co. and one of the craft brewing leaders

Photo: , License: N/A

"With the new laws, there would be incentive to ramp up production."

Beer drinkers, beer makers, and partisan politicians swarmed the Texas Capitol this month, wringing hands over how to modernize Texas' antiquated beer laws.

Craft brewers, two feuding beer wholesaler groups, beer-loving consumer advocates and representatives of some of the largest brewing conglomerates in the world hammered out a deal that had little to do with grains, hops, water and yeast. This was about money.

What emerged was a compromise, with a Senate committee unanimously passing tweaked versions of five different bills. Proponents and observers say this is perhaps the best chance of passing real beer reforms since the 1993 legislation that first opened the door for Texas brewpubs. The beer bills, now slated for hearing before the full Senate, would allow brewpubs to self-distribute to other restaurants, bars and stores and give microbreweries the right to sell their tap-room visitors a few pints instead of just giving their beer away for free on tours.

"We have a deal signed by all the parties involved," says Scott Metzger, one of the leaders in the negotiations for craft brewers across the state and owner of San Antonio's Freetail Brewing Co. "As long as everyone stays true to their word, this will be the law."

Meaning all parties have agreed they won't quietly deploy a lawmaker to bomb any of the five bills, inserting unacceptable amendments in the final hour that would surely kill the tenuous compromise. The same goes for actions in the House and for lobbying Gov. Rick Perry for a veto.

There is a precedent for distrust.

Five years of negotiations and three legislative sessions led to a measure that would have let microbreweries sell a few to-go bottles to anyone taking a brewery tour. By 2011, the bill looked unstoppable. Even the wholesalers gave their support, with the caveat that mega-breweries were excluded and couldn't benefit from the new law.

Then Belgium-based beer giant Anheuser-Busch InBev stepped in at the 11th hour to spoil the party, protesting the change even though AB InBev hadn't given regular tours of its Houston brewery for 15 years. With lawmakers primarily focused on education funding, it was way too late to make changes and push the measure through to a vote before the end of the session. Some observers at the time believed that the same interests who had only reluctantly supported the bill were trying to kill it behind the scenes.

Now, the slew of bills headed to the full Senate for consideration appear destined for approval, and breweries are talking about future plans as if they've already been signed into law.

As for the compromise bills, there are obvious winners and losers.

Consumers emerged the undeniable winner, since they'll soon have a greater chance of buying their favorite brewpub beer at a specialty store or bar closer to home — even in other cities — instead of only at the brewery where it was made. It could also make brewpubs a more profitable small business, which means we could see more of them.

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