Saturday, February 14, 2009

Texas Brewers Parity Amendment

It is illegal for breweries in Texas to sell you beer.

Let me state that once again: It is prohibited by current Texas law for a brewer (large or small) to sell beer directly to the public. If you take a tour of one of our state’s microbreweries, you can sample their beers for free and buy as many branded tee-shirts or pint glasses as you like, but you cannot purchase a single bottle. The one product they make, they are not allowed to sell.

In a relic left over from Prohibition known as the three-tier model, breweries are only allowed to sell to distributors, and distributors are only allowed to sell to retailers (bars, stores, restaurants, clubs). The original purpose of the three-tier system was a sort of monopoly-buster, a system of checks and balances to keep any portion of the brewing industry from having too much power.

Unfortunately, the three-tier model does not work. Over time, the parties involved have shifted, with major commercial brewers spawning their own distribution networks (legally separate on paper) that today hold almost total sway over the retail market. Large breweries have constructed the distributors to be largely dependent upon them and them alone, radically skewing the balance originally intended.

Some U.S. states have subsequently modified or eliminated laws surrounding this post-Prohibition thinking. But unlike many other states with blooming brewing industries, the brewer in Texas is still restricted from selling directly to the consuming public. The only legal means of selling beer in Texas is at the mercy of a distributor, but a bill currently before the State House wants to change that.

The Texas Brewers Parity Amendment, or formally HB 1062, was introduced in February by Tarrant County Representative Lon Burnam. (A similar version was also introduced into the State Senate, SB 754, and another compromise bill, HB 2094, followed that one.) What it asks for is rather modest: Brewers “may sell ale… manufactured or bottled on the permitted premises to ultimate consumers… in unbroken packages for off-premises consumption in an amount that does not exceed 35,000 gallons annually.”

Similar legislation has been attempted in the past but has always been defeated. Two years ago, Saint Arnold’s Brock Wagner spearheaded a comparable bill that never saw the House floor. Strong opposition is generally raised by distributors and retailers, who fear direct sales will only cut into their bottom line as people go straight to the source for the sale.

But these fears are unfounded and paranoid. Consumers are unlikely to forgo more convenient retail outlets to patronize a brewery only open a few hours each week. Our nine Texas microbreweries are located so far apart that business “stolen” from distributors will hardly be measurable. No one is driving from Dallas to Houston just to buy a beer they can get at the local supermarket.

And counter to any arguments against this compromise is the real-life example of wine. Winemakers won the same rights several years ago for wine sales on-site at vineyards (Texas alcohol laws are annoyingly specific to the type of alcohol they cover) with no impact on anyone’s sales. In fact, many winemakers claim an increase in sales because of the change.

Visitors on a brewery tour usually want something to take home with them. Being able to purchase a six pack will only generate more business for distributors and retailers, as the beer tourist is converted into a beer consumer. Customers will return to the nearest store for more beer instead of returning to the brewery each time.

What can we do? If you live in Texas, contact your state representative and your state senator and express your support for our local Texas microbrewers and for this legislation.

No comments: