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Beer gardens get jerked around

First, we had this.

Saint Arnold Brewing announced Monday that it will temporarily close its beer garden and restaurant. The reason? Gov. Greg Abbott’s office ruled it is a bar, not a restaurant, and therefore should close according to the latest coronavirus shutdown guidelines.

As a response to the surge in virus cases in Texas, the governor backtracked on his reopening plan, ordering bars to close again on June 29. As most restaurants sell alcohol and most bars sell food, the state’s delineation between the two is a “51 percent rule”: if a venue’s alcohol sales make up 51 percent or more of its total revenue, it is considered a bar.

Brock Wagner, Saint Arnold’s founder and brewer, got a call from a local Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) agent on Friday, saying they had received a complaint that Saint Arnold had reopened in violation of the current pandemic orders. When calculating the brewery’s sales breakdown, the governor’s office took into account the beer Saint Arnold sells to its distributors. In addition to its on-premise operations, the Houston brewery has a solid retail presence across Texas and in Louisiana, producing about 70,000 barrels of beer last year.

“According to that, we are the world’s biggest bar,” said Wagner. He believes this ruling defies common sense, as it does not distinguish beer sold to distributors for retail purposes from a beer sold at the restaurant to a customer.

Wagner tried to appeal the decision and contact the governor’s team over the weekend, but was unsuccessful. The brewery announced the closure on Monday. (The governor’s office did not return a request for comment by press time.)

Saint Arnold is back to doing curbside and drive-through sales only; the shutdown of dine-in operations will result in lost jobs.

“They claim that they want to be opening Texas and keeping people at work,” said Wagner. “Instead there’s decisions like this, which are going to eliminate 75 jobs if we don’t get this reversed.”

That story was from July 13. We’re familiar with the plight of the bars that serve food but not enough food for them to be classified as restaurants. This is an arbitrary distinction, one that doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it’s having a bad effect on a lot of craft breweries. But then it looked like there was a breakthrough last week:

You still may not sit down in a bar for a drink, but you may be able to get served at a Texas brewery or other retail alcohol establishment and then sit down at an outdoor patio to enjoy your drink, provided social distancing is followed.

In a decision issued with little fanfare late last week, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission began allowing retail and the manufacturers of alcohol beverages, like breweries, to reopen their outdoor patios to service again.

Community Impact Newspaper in Houston reported that TABC’s decision follows a direct appeal from St. Arnold’s Brewery, which had been forced to close its beer garden under Gov. Greg Abbott’s late June order that shut down all bars that generate more than 51% of their profits from alcohol sales.

TABC did not notify the news media of the change or make a public announcement about the new order. It has apparently also not been available to answer questions from owners who are confused about qualifying for change.

Still not a reprieve for the bars that had to close their dining rooms, but something. Unfortunately, it didn’t last.

Late Wednesday night, the Texas Alcohol Beverage Commission reversed a recent guideline change that would have let the state’s breweries reopen their patios for service.

The move is an abrupt about-face from last week, when the TABC signaled that brewers could pour product for patrons, so long as they quaffed their beers outside. Under that rule, breweries would have been clear to temporarily modify their licenses to exclude patios and beer gardens from their on-site premises, the Houston Chronicle reports.

However, in the latest turn, the TABC amended its guideline to say that modifying a business premises as unlicensed doesn’t exempt it from Gov. Greg Abbott’s June 26 executive order closing bars and other drinking establishments.

This is ridiculous. If we’ve decided that it’s safe for restaurants to operate at limited capacity, then it surely makes sense for outdoor patio restaurants, which is what these beer gardens are, to do so. Making a certain amount of revenue from alcohol sales should not prevent a restaurant from being treated like any other restaurant. We’re so in thrall to these ridiculous ancient laws and the all-powerful lobbies that keep them on the books that we’ve lost the plot. It just makes no sense at all. Like many businesses in Texas right now, craft breweries are having a rough time. Let’s not go out of our way to make it rougher.

UPDATE: And the pendulum has swung back in favor of beer gardens, though there are still issues with the 51% rule and the overall ability of small brewers to do their business. But it’s at least something.

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5 Comments

  1. HeightsDrinker says:

    I wonder how much of this is nefarious. The Brewers Guild signed a contract last session stating that they wouldn’t do any lobbying for its members. Now the Guild has gone in to full lobbying mode after TABC directed by the Governor said no to the temp waiver. This could be a push by distributors and large restaurant groups to ensure they get the $$$ from people and keep the first tier in its original place, manufacturing.

  2. David Fagan says:

    Those 75 people can go apply to the fire department, according to the chief they are hiring 280 people in the month of July.

  3. Joshua ben bullard says:

    The concern with ” brock wagner” i have is a) – he sells beer on site for 5$ more than the store according to him ” i want to remain loyal to my retail”i moved back confused ” if people drive to the supplier thats below retail, that was the intent of the legislature allowing sells on site” wagner ” not here – we sell everything over retail price – i yelped him a good one , he felt it , trust me . last problem with brock – he intentionally solicits ” Free” meeting rooms in his building so long as the event planner doesnt tell the audience they’ll have to pay for their beer – he tries to give off the impression of a beer fest or the event will pay for beer but oh no theres brock charging 5 bucks over retail . Saint arnolds may need new leadership – i would have fired brock a year ago maybe sooner .

  4. Ross says:

    Fire Brock Wagner? Doesn’t he own the place?

  5. brad says:

    Josh,

    “Free meeting room” = free meeting room. Now if it said “free meeting room + free beer” that would be something else altogether.

    As for his draft beers at the garden, yeah you are absolutely paying more $/ounce than a retail can of beer. You are either in an awesome beer hall/meeting room/garden which has a cost.

    Brock is a class act and a good local corporate citizen in our community and has been since he started St Arnolds back in the early 90’s.

    Not sure what your beef is, but it appears that you had a bad experience/misunderstanding at St Arnolds. Was it with Brock directly or one of his employees? I recommend giving him a call to resolve.