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Crowler conundrum concluded

Finally.

Mike McKim held an empty aluminum can under a tap and pulled the handle, filling the can with Real Ale Brewery’s Helles beer. He fitted a pull tab lid on top, slotted the can into his “crowler” machine, and pushed a button. He told the story of the equipment’s origins, invented by Colorado-based brewery Oskar Blues.

Then the founder of Cuvée Coffee in Austin explained how the state of Texas took it away from him, fined him more than $30,000, kept it for months after judges told them to return it and sparked a lawsuit that cost him more than $40,000 in legal fees.

“[TABC charged us with] illegally manufacturing an illicit product,” McKim said. “Basically, brewing beer. We’re not brewing beer. We buy beer, put it on tap, and put it in a can. Who cares whether I’m putting it in this little Dixie cup or in a bottle or a can, what difference does it make? And that’s why we went to court.”

McKim’s battle with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission officially drew to a close on Thursday, when he got his crowler machine back after more than a year of separation. The coffee bar sold its first crowler since 2015 on Friday. And McKim’s story has inspired two pieces of legislation this session.

[…]

Cuvée Coffee’s story became the impetus for HB 908, which allows draft beer to be sold for off-premise consumption in both crowlers and growlers. Its author, state Rep. Ramon Romero, Jr., D-Fort Worth, wrote a letter to TABC Executive Director Sherry Cook early March this year admonishing the agency for its failure to return Cuvée’s machine months after a judge ordered them to do so.

“TABC has so many other things to worry about,” Romero said. “We’ve been working with TABC to crack down on human trafficking, bars taking advantage of women, to some degree creating environments that are very dangerous for women. We’ve been working on all these things and if it was up to me, that would be what they’re focusing their attention on — not small businesses trying to innovate.”

On Monday morning, McKim testified in support of SB 813 and told the Senate Affairs Committee he had to spend $41,300 fighting the TABC over the crowler machine. Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, said he filed the bill to give individuals and businesses the ability to sue regulatory agencies for unreasonable regulatory actions. He hopes it will deter agencies from pursuing potentially frivolous regulatory actions.

“If I’m an agency and I’m messing with a Texan, there is no downside, no risk from the agency’s standpoint,” Hughes said. “There’s nothing keeping the agency from pursuing a frivolous action. If they lose in court and appeal like they did with Mr. McKim, there’s nothing keeping them from pulling out all the stops and punishing a business owner. The idea behind SB 813 is to even things up a bit.”

See here and here for the background. This was always a ridiculous difference-without-a-distinction action by the TABC, and it’s good that they have admitted defeat. I support HB908, though I’d like to know more about SB813 before taking a side on it. The bottom line is that our beer laws and how we enforce them continue to be silly, though hopefully now slightly less silly. There’s a lot more room for a lot less silliness, if we want there to be.

A win for beer

Hooray!

All you want for Christmas is a crowler to go? It probably won’t happen that quickly, but an administrative judge’s recommendation could move the state a step closer to letting bars and restaurants sell takeaway beer in the sealed, 32-ounce aluminum cans that sparked a passionate debate last year when officials cracked down on retailers who used them.

“I’m ecstatic,” said Todd Hayden, owner of Hop Scholar Ale House in the Spring area. ” … We sold a ton of beer in crowlers.”

Until last fall, that is, when Texas alcohol regulators ordered bars simply to stop using crowler-filling machines or risk losing their sales licenses or facing thousands of dollars in fines. Seven retailers, including three in the Houston area, received written warnings.

Selling beer for off-premise consumption in growlers, typically glass or stainless-steel bottles that are capped by hand, remained legal for retailers with the proper sales license. But the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission declared the crowler machines require a manufacturing license to operate. Only licensed brewpubs that make beer and can sell it to-go were allowed to continue using them.

Hayden and others put the machines in storage, but Cuvee Coffee of Austin challenged regulators by continuing to sell crowlers. TABC agents seized its equipment in September 2015. The company eventually sued in state District Court, but it was ordered to go through the administrative hearings process first.

Round 1 goes to Cuvee. In a decision dated last week, administrative judge John Beeler sided with the retailer on all counts and recommended that TABC return the equipment and change its rules.

See here for the background. Basically, the administrative judge agreed that crowlers are not usable in a manufacturing process and thus should not be subject to this requirement. The TABC can accept this ruling and adjust accordingly, or it can file an exception in the hope of getting the judge to change some part of his ruling. The deadline for that is December 2. It may still be awhile after that before the crowler machines come out of storage, but barring anything unusual this is a great result for Texas and everyone who drinks beer. Austin 360 and the Current have more.

Microbreweries win their distribution rights lawsuit

Excellent news.

beer

A Texas law that prohibits brewers from selling territorial rights to distribute their beer is unconstitutional, a judge ruled Thursday, serving up a major victory to beer companies seeking to expand their presence in stores, bars and restaurants throughout the state.

The decision says the government has no compelling interest in prohibiting brewers from seeking cash compensation when negotiating a contract with distributors, who have almost exclusive authority to handle sales between producers and retailers.

“This law, it was written by beer distributors to enrich big beer distributors and that is not a legitimate state interest,” said Matt Miller, senior attorney and head of the Austin office of the Institute for Justice, which litigated the case on behalf of Texas craft brewers Live Oak, Revolver and Peticolas.

The law, passed three years ago, allows brewers and distributors to negotiate for things like equipment and marketing efforts, but not direct compensation. That denies brewers who have worked to build up their business the ability to “capture the value of their brand” once they are large enough to require a distributor, said Charles Vallhonrat, executive director of the Texas Craft Brewers Guild.

A cash infusion from a distribution contract also would allow smaller breweries to expand operations, hire new employees and build up marketing teams to increase sales, Vallhonrat said.

Thursday’s ruling by state District Judge Karin Crump in Austin came after both the brewers and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission sought summary judgments in the lawsuit. After considering depositions from both sides, Crump declared the law violates state constitutional protection for economic liberty.

[…]

Plaintiff Chip McElroy, founder of Live Oak Brewing Co. in Austin and one of the law’s most vocal critics, called it “unjust … unconstitutional … just plain wrong.”

“It took our property and gave it to them for free,” McElroy said Thursday.

Arif Panju, another Institute for Justice attorney in the case, said the ruling applies to out-of-state breweries as well. Miller said it protects all entrepreneurs looking to build up their businesses.

Miller said the ruling will help breweries going forward but does not address those who struck distribution deals while the 2013 law was in effect.

The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission has 30 days to file an appeal. A spokesman said agency lawyers are in touch with the Texas Attorney General’s Office and likely will appeal.

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the ruling. I hope the TABC will reconsider its inclination to appeal. This law serves no one’s interests except those of the Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas. The state should not be spending its own resources pursuing a reversal of this ruling. As noted elsewhere in this story, if the original bill that forbade the microbreweries from selling their distribution rights had been about any other commodity, it would have been laughed out of the Capitol. Surely we have better things to do than this.

More from Austin 360:

Brewers and their fans might be rejoicing their victory right now, but they’re still holding their breaths over two other beer-related cases in Texas courts.

One case involves an issue that brewers unsuccessfully pushed for in the 2013 legislative session. As a result, Dallas’ Deep Ellum Brewing sued the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission last year to try and get breweries the ability to sell beer to-go from their facilities — something that wineries and distilleries in Texas are both able to do. (Operators of brewpubs, which sell food in addition to beer, also can sell their products to the public.)

Also, Cuvee Coffee decided to go to battle with the TABC over the issue of whether retailers can sell crowlers, which the TABC argues are one-use cans, rather than aluminum growlers, that only manufacturers of beer can sell.

Both cases are expected to be resolved within the next couple of weeks.

See here for more on the Deep Ellum lawsuit, and here for more on Cuvee Coffee. Let’s hope for a clean sweep. I’ll keep my eyes open for further news. The DMN has more.

The latest example of how nuts our beer laws are

Ridiculous.

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.