Beer Is Good

Texas law stifles state's craft brewers

Oktoberfest in Fredericksburg starts with a free glass of Shiner "Helles," a crisp, golden-colored Czech-style pilsner. When the gates to Fredericksburg's Marktplatz open on this Friday evening at six, more than 100 people get in line in front of the keg stand where Shiner brewmaster Jimmy Mauric and his crew tap the ceremonial first keg of beer. It is all gone inside of 15 minutes.

Shiner has been tapping the first keg at Oktoberfest in Fredericksburg since 2000. The festival's director, Debbie Farquhar-Garner, pays for the keg and invites the public to come and talk to the brewmaster. "I wanted a Texas-German brewery to kick off the party," she says. "It's a Texas-German festival after all."

Farquhar-Garner, who runs the festival on behalf of the Pedernales Artists' Cooperative, wants to mimic the ritual opening of the original Oktoberfest, in which the mayor of Munich taps the ceremonial first keg. In 2000, Farquhar-Garner did a television interview and mentioned the fact that Shiner's master brewer would be on hand to meet the public. That landed her in trouble with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

Fredericksburg Oktoberfest director Debbie Farquhar-Garner and festival MC, Allen Spouspa.
Robb Walsh
Fredericksburg Oktoberfest director Debbie Farquhar-Garner and festival MC, Allen Spouspa.
Since 2000, Shiner has tapped the ceremonial first keg at Oktoberfest in Fredericksburg.
Robb Walsh
Since 2000, Shiner has tapped the ceremonial first keg at Oktoberfest in Fredericksburg.

"Every year I sit down with the TABC, and they tell me what we can and can't do," the Oktoberfest director says. "I found out that talking about a specific beer company is a big no-no." At Munich's Oktoberfest, the big beer companies put on the party. In Texas, it's illegal for a festival to even mention beer, and it's strictly forbidden for a beer company to donate alcohol.

Oktoberfest in Fredericksburg is the final stop on my summer beer tour of Texas. I have been drinking craft beers and visiting breweries and brewpubs all summer in an attempt to gauge the zeitgeist of Texas beer culture. When it comes to beer, Texas is a puzzling place. We are a beer-loving people, thanks to our cultural heritage, but we are also the former home of Carrie Nation and the epicenter of a 150-year-old Prohibitionist tradition. Statistically, we are among the nation's biggest beer drinkers, but our liquor laws make it ridiculously difficult to run a brewery, a brewpub or a beer festival.

There are now 70 craft breweries in Michigan and 60 in New York state. Texas has just six.

Written by defeated Prohibitionists, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code was designed to promote public temperance. It prohibits Texas beer, wine and liquor companies from offering any encouragement to drink alcohol—a silly restriction, in light of the beer commercials we are bombarded with on television every day.

At Oktoberfest in Munich, 6.2 million people consumed more than 6 million liters of beer in 2007. Farquhar-Garner can't disclose how much beer is consumed at Fredericksburg's Oktoberfest. "The TABC won't let me," she says with a wry smile. She can say that the festival has been setting new records for attendance over the past few years, thanks in part to a renewed interest in German beer traditions.

There's a new attitude about beer sweeping the state and the country. Sales of mainstream American beers are flat, while the sales of quality beers are up. "The American palate has changed, and so has the attitude about food," Farquhar-Garner says. "New tastes in beer and wine are part of it." People are coming to Fredericksburg to visit the traditional German biergartens, the artisan sausage makers, the old German bakeries and the Hill Country wineries. "Culinary tourism is a big deal around here these days," she says. Farquhar-Garner credits a younger crowd for the growing interest.

On the bandstand, the accordion player, clad in lederhosen, sings the beginning of the old Oktoberfest toasting song, "Ein prosit, Ein prosit..." The music and the dancers stop, the band members reach for their glasses, and hundreds of people sitting at picnic tables around the dance floor and in the adjoining biergarten area raise their glasses together. "Ein prosit, ein prosit, der Gemütlichkeit," they all sing. "Ein, zwei, drei," shouts the accordion player, and then everyone drinks up.

While the older folks gravitate toward the oompah music and the dance floor, the young bunch gathers at the tables beside the German beer tent, where the traditional German Oktoberfest beers are available on draft. You can't miss this gang—they are the ones with the chicken hats, the "Bier Bitch" T-shirts and the pyramids made of empty beer cups on their tables.

The control of the TABC by the industry it is supposed to regulate is well-known, but seldom does the sleazy arrangement get any public scrutiny. Last year, we got a rare glimpse inside the worm can when the TABC came up for "sunset review" by a legislative commission that periodically checks over state agencies for waste and inefficiency. A citizen appointee to the review commission was so disgusted that he wrote a scathing minority report. In it, Austin lawyer Howard Wolf, once a Fulbright and Jaworski attorney and the former president of Continental Airlines, called the state's liquor regulation "a corrupt system that no longer serves the public interest." The wholesalers' control of the system thwarts the free market and protects the industry at the expense of consumers, Wolf said. Thanks to laws that bend in their favor, the big distributors are making enormous profits.

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