The latest flashpoint between Texas beer lovers and state beer law is a 32-ounce aluminum can that bars and restaurants fill with beer and sell to be consumed off-site. The can, called a crowler, is praised for its convenience and ability to keep beer fresh for longer than traditional to-go packaging.
The problem, state regulators say, is that the law prohibits retailers who do not have a manufacturing license from operating the filling machine.
On Tuesday, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission made its most forceful statement to date, sending in agents to seize one from a bar that failed to cease operations after being ordered to do so.
The Cuvee Coffee Bar in Austin recounted the event on social media, giving it a Twitter hashtag of #crowlergate and setting the stage for another potential legal fight in the ongoing effort to change the alcohol code in Texas.
The friction began in late spring, when regulators heard about the growing popularity of crowlers and began investigating, often undercover. Several bars and restaurants were told to stop crowler sales and seven, including three in the Houston area, received letters threatening fines and a suspension of their beer and wine licenses.
They were given 30 days to remove the machine, which retails for $3,600.
In announcing Tuesday’s seizure at Cuvee, the TABC acknowledged the likelihood of a legal challenge.
“We know this issue is important to craft beer retailers and their customers, and we support all citizens’ right to petition the Commission, the Legislature or the courts if they feel a provision in the Alcoholic Beverage Code is unfair,” assistant chief for audit and investigations Dexter K. Jones said in a statement.
“However, we do not support the continued violation of the law just because a retailer disagrees with it. Cuvee Coffee ignored our repeated warnings and discussions, and that conduct resulted in TABC seizing the illegal equipment and subjecting its permit to a civil penalty. Other retailers who engage in illegal canning risk similar consequences.”
Local bar owners say crowlers have several advantages over growlers, the glass or metal containers more commonly used for to-go sales. Sealed cans keep beer fresher by insulating it from oxygen and any sunlight, they say, and they are convenient because customers don’t have to plan ahead and bring a growler with them when they go out.
This was the latest chapter in this story, but the first shots were fired back in July, and got heated up earlier this month. At its heart it’s a question of semantics – is a sealed one-use can fundamentally different than a reusable glass bottle? – but however you look at it, the bottom line is that our current laws make something that ought to be allowed illegal. This needs to change, partly because we’re not in 1933 any more, partly because the state allows wineries and distilleries freedom to operate that breweries and brewpubs don’t have, but mostly because it’s a bad deal for consumers. There’s already litigation over the state of Texas beer laws – it’s unclear whether this action will turn into a separate lawsuit or not – and I suppose there’s always hope for further change from the Lege. But one way or the other, this needs to change. Austin 360 and Eater Austin have more.