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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."

While this was primarily a business issue, it drew support from craft-beer lovers who want to see the industry grow and bring the diversity that states like Colorado, Oregon and California have enjoyed. Open the Taps, a 2-year-old consumer group, raised more than $25,000 from about 600 memberships ranging from $35 to $100, T-shirt sales and sponsorships. They pooled the money to hire their own lobbyist, someone unbeholden to any of the players.

"That's what we said we'd do from the very beginning," says Leslie Sprague, one of the founders Open the Taps who testified on the bills this month at the Senate Business and Commerce Committee hearings.

Some senators were shocked, Sprague says, to hear her frame beer choice as an important consumer issue. "They just get jaded and cynical because they're used to people being there because of money," Sprague says. "I think that surprised him (Senate Business and Commerce Committee chairman John Carona, R-Dallas) more than anything — that we didn't represent a moneyed interest."

In fact, comments from consumers flooded Carona's and other committee members office's before the bills even got a hearing.

"We have had more feedback on craft beer than we've had on windstorm insurance (one of the biggest issues the committee is tackling this year and of great importance to Gulf Coast counties)," says Steven Polunsky, a spokesman for Carona. Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, had a similar experience when he carried the craft bills in the House two years ago.

A Texas Public Radio panel discussion on Texas beer laws last month drew a packed house, with some 300 people paying $10 to listen to and sample from the state's brewpubs. A pro craft beer rally two years ago drew hundreds to Main Plaza for political speeches and free beer.

This year, even after the compromises, brewpubs scored a major win. They will now be able to produce up to 10,000 barrels of beer a year, something most Texas brewpubs would be hard pressed to do. The typical small brewing system, the kind crammed into the back of a restaurant, generally churns out five to 10 barrels a batch and brews just a few times a week.

With the new laws, there would be incentive to ramp up production. Brewers would be permitted to self-distribute up to 1,000 barrels each year per brewery location to other outlets. If a brewpub has more than two locations in the state, they are capped at a total of 2,500 barrels a year of self-distribution. If they sign on with a distributor as middleman, they can sell even more beer off site.

For some brewpubs, that doesn't fit with their casual restaurant business model. Still, others will pursue expansion, becoming microbreweries and retailers without many of the restrictions placed on facilities with a Texas microbrewery license.

"It's not so much of an economic driver" to be able to self-distribute from a brewpub, Freetail's Metzger says. "It's more of a sales pitch to distributors to show them people want my beer."

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