Texas beer bills get another go

Small Texas breweries have been asking the state Legislature for one thing since 2007: the right to thrive. And for three sessions in a row, that right has been denied, angering not just those with small businesses at stake, but also a fast-growing market segment of consumers of craft beer.

On Feb. 12, District 1 Sen. Kevin Eltife, a Republican from Tyler, filed bills that served as the opening bell in the biennial beer brawl. It's a battle that has never made it off the undercard of the committee to the main event of the floor of both the House and Senate, thanks to better prepared and cash-ready lobbying groups that would like to see all this talk just go away.

Eltife introduced four bills to modernize alcoholic beverage laws in Texas. All of them include an upside for distributors, who have mostly fought it, and all preserve the intent of the three-tier system in place since Prohibition while giving small breweries a chance to hire and make their beer available to more people.

Senate Bill 515 ups the amount of beer that brewpubs like San Antonio's Freetail Brewing Co. or Blue Star Brewing can make a year to 12,500 barrels from 5,000. It also would allow brewpubs to sell up to 1,000 barrels a year off premises to bars, restaurants and stores in state and out of state. Right now, they can only sell at the brewpub itself.

SB 516 and 517 would allow microbreweries to make up to 125,000 barrels of beer a year and still self-distribute, without a middleman, up to 40,000 of those barrels.

And SB 518 takes a bit of a different twist on past microbrewery bills by allowing the brewery to sell beer to the consumer on site at its own tasting room. Microbreweries in Texas are the reverse of brewpubs in that they can only sell off-premise and have to give the beer away during tours and other events at the brewery. Most now charge for a tour and a logo glass and give away the beer.

"Government shouldn't be involved in picking winners and losers in private industry.  Texans believe consumers make the best choices about products in the free market," Eltife said in a written statement.  "These four bills will level the playing field for the small business segment of Texas brewing industry."

In 2011, a House bill that died after it went to the Senate asked for the ability to sell beer to tour patrons to tote home, something not included in Eltife's bill.

San Antonio Democrat Rep. Mike Villarreal sponsored the brewpub bill last year, but consumer and business voices seemed ignored and it was never voted out of committee.

The thing the current bills have going for them is a Republican author in a Legislature controlled by that party and buy-in from powerful Republican and Democratic senators from around the state, including San Antonio's own Leticia Van de Putte.

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