Beer Is Good

Texas law stifles state's craft brewers

The advent of television advertising in the 1950s brought about the rise of national brands like Coke, McDonald's and Budweiser. The beer industry contracted violently. There were thousands of breweries in America in the 1870s, but by 1970, there were only 90 left.

Texas breweries once had considerable political clout. But when they disappeared, the political vacuum was filled by the middle tier of the three-tier system, Texas liquor distributors. Two lobbyists, nicknamed "The Booze Brothers," keep Texas liquor laws under industry control.

On the beer side, there's Mike McKinney, a former appointments secretary to Governor Preston Smith who represents the Texas Wholesale Beer Distributors. And on the wine and liquor side, there's Butch Sparks. Known for their generous campaign contributions and ability to arrange favors, the Booze Brothers hold sway over almost every politician in Texas.

Copper tanks at the Shiner brew house.
Robb Walsh
Copper tanks at the Shiner brew house.
Jimmy Mauric bets you can't drink just one Bohemian Black Lager.
Robb Walsh
Jimmy Mauric bets you can't drink just one Bohemian Black Lager.

Did he just say, "Budweiser American Ale?"

The first time I saw the television commercial announcing that Budweiser was coming out with an American Ale, my jaw hit the carpet. It's hard to find, but there are some beer experts who have tried it. Most of them found it surprisingly good.

Budweiser American Ale is an amber ale with more malt, more hops, more color and more body than anything else Budweiser makes. And a six-pack of it will sell for $1.50 more than Budweiser's traditional lager, which will put it on a par with craft beers.

Scott Birdwell, owner of De Falco's Home Wine & Beer Supplies and a leader of the Houston beer geek scene, e-mailed his comments. "I'm not a fan of Anheuser-Busch—neither their products or their iron fist when it comes to Texas liquor laws. And I had very low expectations since Anheuser-Busch seems to brew to the lowest common denominator. But I was somewhat pleasantly surprised.  Don't get me wrong, this is not Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, but it wasn't bad. The body was fuller and the malt flavor richer than I expected."

"I am delighted that Budweiser has started making ale," says Brock Wagner of Saint Arnold. "I think it validates what we've been doing."

Budweiser has been trying to get into the craft beer business for a long time. Anheuser-Busch already makes Ziegenbock to compete with Shiner in Texas and a beer called Pacific Ridge Pale Ale to compete with Sierra Nevada in California. It was only a matter of time before they went national with a specialty beer.

"The market for craft beers has been growing at around 12 percent a year for the last few years, while the market for mainstream beers is flat," says Tony Formby, managing partner of Rahr & Sons brewery in Fort Worth.

Everybody is trying to get in on the microbrewery action. A new crop of craft breweries is popping up all over the country, and while dozens of craft brewers and brewpubs opened in Texas in the 1990s, most are gone now. The brewpub laws were so restrictive, almost none of them could make it. The smallest of the microbreweries couldn't get adequate distribution; the biggest were bought up by mainstream brewers.

"Our brewery has been around for four years. We almost went under once, and we are just now beginning to see a profit," Formby says. "We're lucky. Most craft breweries don't make it because of Texas laws." (See "Want More Beer? Change This Law!" page 19)

Bill Metzger, who publishes Southwest Brewing News, agrees. "Better beer laws are sorely needed in Texas," he says. "Texas is falling behind the rest of the country."

Texas beer drinkers are making Texas beer distributors very, very rich. Take Dallas Miller distributor Barry Andrews and his wife, Lana, for instance. Their mansion in La Jolla, California, starred in Steven Soderbergh's Oscar-winning 2000 movie Traffic. The Andrews mansion poses as the swankienda of Catherine Zeta-Jones and her drug lord husband. It's a posh pad—and it was paid for with our beer money.

Changing the liquor laws to let small breweries eke out a living by selling a few cases of beer direct to the public wouldn't break wealthy distributors like the Andrewses nor would it have much effect on the big beer companies. But it would help Texas culinary tourism, the Texas artisan food movement and the Texas restaurant scene. And as Brock Wagner has pointed out, "We are talking about less beer than the Anheuser-Busch brewery in Houston spills in a week."

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