Texas Beer Bill Dies With a Whimper, But Saint Arnold Founder Vows to Keep Up the Fight

Categories: Hophead
saint arnold tour.jpg
Daniel Kramer
Looks like Texas legislators still don't want you bringing souvenirs home from Saint Arnold brewery tours.
Sadly and all too predictably, House Bill 602 was never put to a vote as yesterday's deadline for House bills expired. Texas lawmakers found time to legalize catfish noodling and criminalize falsifying the weight of a fish caught in a tournament, but somehow just didn't get around to voting on a measure that could help small businesses in a growing industry as well as bolster state tourism.

HB 602, you'll recall, would have allowed Texas breweries to charge for tours and then allow tourists to take home up to a 12-pack worth of beer (or "Ale/Malt Liquor," in Texan-speak, for any beer stronger than 5 percent ABV, but that's another rant). It was a sort of wink-wink way to get around the three-tier system, which bars breweries from selling directly to consumers. You wouldn't have been buying beer at the brewery, you'd have been paying for the tour and then getting a free souvenir -- beer! But the Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas (WBDT) perceived this as a threat to the three-tier system and demanded an amendment so that the bill would only apply to breweries producing a maximum of 75,000 barrels annually, which excluded Anheuser-Busch InBev. Never mind that Anheuser-Busch does not offer tours.

Saint Arnold founder Brock Wagner helped Representative Jessica Farrar author the bill, and has pushed for similar legislation in past sessions, was disappointed, to put it mildly: "HB602 is dead. So close. Thanks to all who helped push it this far. Cause of death: pissing match between A-B & distributors," he wrote today on his Twitter feed.

He wasn't much more diplomatic in a phone interview Thursday afternoon, either. "We are not seen as any kind of powerful interest group," he says. "Good legislation doesn't get passed because it is good legislation."

The bill got further than any past attempt at similar legislation, but nonetheless died when Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst refused to recognize Senate sponsor Eddie Lucio Jr. to bring it to a vote, Wagner said.

"I worked on the bill a bunch late last week and up till Tuesday when it got completely shut down by all parties," he said. "We were negotiating from a weak position. You can tell them it's the right thing to do, that it needs to happen, that it would be good for the state, but it wasn't to be."

The way Wagner sees it, the small breweries that would have benefited from the legislation were stuck between the distributors and AB-InBev, even though neither party would have a stake in it.

"Even though the big brewers don't do tours, and wouldn't do tours, the distributors were concerned about keeping the [75,000 barrel] cap on the amended version," he said. "It's no skin off their nose. Neither one of those would have been affected."

Surprisingly, though, Wagner still supports the three-tier system, calling it "critical for the existence of craft brewers."

"But that doesn't mean it can't be tweaked in a way that makes for a better environment," he said.

The fight was a disheartening one, and one can't help but wonder if AB-InBev agreed to be the bad guy this time after WBDT fought to kill beer-friendly legislation in the past, and if the production cap wasn't an intentional sabotage of the bill. At his appearance at the Gingerman last week, Wagner shared concerns that a possible amendment to HB 602 could threaten smaller breweries' self-distribution. WBDT was pushing for HB 602 to be rewritten in a way that if it were found unconstitutional, he said, the bill itself would not only become null but also nullify the current right for breweries with a volume of less than 75,000 barrels a year to self-distribute. The bill made it out of the House clean, but discussion of whether to proceed with such an amendment or give up proved divisive -- which is probably what WBDT intended.

Wagner plans to take some time off from thinking about legislation. "None of us get into the beer business because we enjoy dealing with anything political," he said. "But after a period of time you understand you have to get involved."

But for now, he'd like to focus on the success of Texas Wheat replacement Weedwacker, the return of Divine Reserve 9 pumpkin stout October 15 as The Pumpkinator and the August launch of Santo, which he is still trying to keep a secret. Sort of. "I can't tell you it's a black kölsch, and who knows what a black kölsch even is, since it doesn't exist?" he joked.

Eventually, though, he will come back to thinking of new ways to let breweries enjoy the same direct-sales rights that wineries have.

"What bothers me is that beer tourism is growing," he said. "People come to Texas and visit breweries. We're going to get 100,000 people through our building this year. It would increase sales, it would make it a better experience for the tourists, and it would be good for the Texas economy in so many ways. It's very frustrating when you're stymied."

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Breweries in California don't NEED to worry about any dumb "three tier" system. So we can tour our local breweries (and wineries) all we want and bring home the goods if we like 'em. Just seems more logical, doesn't it?

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