The board members of Open the Taps at the Bay Area Mashtronauts’ annual competition, Lunar Rendezbrew.
Written by Dana Guthrie for yourhoustonnews.com
To force political change, you need either big money or a big voice.
Where the Texas beer industry is concerned, big money has the biggest voice. But one group of craft beer consumers, Open the Taps, is gaining ground and hopes to bring about a shift of power in Austin.
Craft beer is no longer a fledgling industry in the United States, but here in Texas, state laws protect big beer distributors and make it difficult for smaller breweries to be successful.
For example, a brewery can sell its beer from a restaurant or distribute beer to bars and retail outlets, but not both. That’s why you can’t bring home a six pack after the St. Arnold’s brewery tour.
Freetail Brewing Co. in San Antonio operates a popular pub where you can enjoy a nice meal and get your favorite brew on tap, but no matter how successful the brewpub becomes, you won’t find a bottle of Freetail Ale on the shelves at Spec’s. That’s just not allowed in Texas.
On Monday (Oct. 24) Jester King Craft Brewery, which distributes beer in the Texas Hill Country, announced that it is suing the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission over laws that prevent the brewery from placing certain information on their labels.
“Under the code, we are not allowed to tell the beer drinking public where our beer is sold,” Jester King said in a press release. “We are also not permitted to use accurate terms to describe our beers. We are often forced to choose either to label them inaccurately or not to make beers that we would like to brew.”
Jester King also contends that breweries, like wineries in Texas, should be able to sell beer directly to the public, and that the state should remove a requirement that each individual out-of-state brewery obtain its own license to distribute beer in the state.
“Foreign wineries and distilleries are not burdened by this requirement,” Jester King said. “They may simply sell their products in Texas through an importer that has one license for all the wine and spirits it brings into our state.”
The craft beer industry has made several attempts to get more equitable legislation passed in Austin. But it takes a lot of noise to bend the ear of the state legislature, and to date, craft beer’s influence has not been sufficient to overcome the financial power of the large-scale distributors.
That’s where Ted Duchesne and his growing community of craft beer enthusiasts come in. Open the Taps is a nonprofit organization designed to give the beer consumer a voice in Austin.
And consumers should care, Duchesne said, because restrictions on small breweries aren’t just bad for the breweries — they limit choice for the consumer, keep prices high and prevent the economy from growing to its full potential. In Texas, craft beer accounts for 5 percent of sales, but small breweries hire 50 percent of the workforce, he said.
Duchesne’s first goal is to mobilize consumers to take a stand against large-scale distributors, then begin an education campaign to get legislators interested in changing state laws.
“During the last legislative session, there were bills aimed at giving breweries and brewpubs similar rights to Texas wineries, but these bills never even made it out of committee,” Jester King said.
Part of the problem, Duchesne believes, is that the majority of legislators don’t know or care what is going on with Texas breweries. With the next legislative session a little over a year away, public education will be Open the Taps’ main focus in the near future.
“I’m hoping that at some point, the amount of votes I have will weigh more than financial influence,” Duchesne said.
If the group raises enough money, Open the Taps will also hire lobbyists to speak for consumers in Austin, he said. He hopes the group will have an impact on the 2012 legislative election.
History seems to be on Duchesne’s side — grassroots organizations in several other states — Raise the Pints in Mississippi, Pop the Cap in South Carolina and Free the Hops in Alabama — have already found success in pushing through legislation. (Hurry up, other states, the creative beer organization names are running out!)
“If it can work in Mississippi and Alabama, why can’t it work in Texas?” Duchesne said.
But it can only work if Texans sign up. So what if you don’t like beer at all, or you’ll drink Bud Light but have never heard of an imperial IPA? You should care about this anyway, because small businesses are good for Texas.
State legislators already know that — campaign season is just beginning and I’m sure we’re going to hear a lot about how great this state is for business. Some Texans are even using that slogan on the presidential campaign trail.
“The real drivers of job creation in Texas are our small business owners, the bold entrepreneurs who risk their future pursuing the dream of owning their own business,” Gov. Rick Perry said in February of this year. “This session, we must take the necessary steps to preserve the competitive economic climate that allows these businesses to thrive by keeping taxes low and making the small business tax cut passed last session permanent.”
If these bold entrepreneurs are truly Texas’ top priority, our legislators should have no problem standing up to the big beer distributors. Let’s make sure Texas consumers show up to hold their representatives accountable in 2013.
How to Sign Up
Open the Taps offers two levels of membership on their website, www.openthetaps.org.
For a $35 donation, you’ll get a membership t-shirt and you’ll be added to the active membership list.
Open the Taps is also forming a core group of 100 members in each of Texas’ major metropolitan areas – Houston, Austin, San Antonio and Dallas. 100 for $100 members will be invited to participate in focus groups for Open the Taps initiatives and will be called on to represent the organization as needed. Other cities in Texas are also invited to form 100 for $100 campaigns.
Other donations, whether it’s 50 cents or $5, are also accepted on the organization’s website.