Lone Star Gazing - September '98
Have you heard the one about the collapse of the craft beer industry? If not, you probably haven't been reading the papers lately. From USA Today's glowing Augie Busch profile to the LA Times' recent obituary for homebrewing, all I've been hearing is that this little craft beer "fad" is just about over, and before long we'll all be back drinking megabrews like we're supposed to.
Pour me another Live Oak Pilz so I can cry into it, willya?
The view from my barstool isn't nearly so bad. Maybe because I live in Austin, which has become one of the best beer cities in the U.S. Maybe because I've been doing a lot of traveling lately and the things I've seen have made me overly optimistic about the state of Texas brewing. Or maybe I'm just wearing my beer goggles. Whatever the reason, I think that the craft beer "fad" is far from over. In fact, I'm willing to go out on a limb and say that here in Texas, the best is yet to come.
I think Texas brewing is in good shape for a couple of reasons. First, because of our weird alcohol laws, Texas was a late entry in the craft beer race. We've always had breweries here, but it was 1994 before we got our first legal brewpub, and brewers still have to jump through a lot of hoops to sell their beers both by the glass and by the bottle. This means that brewers couldn't - and can't - support slow bottle sales through strong brewpub receipts, or vice-versa. This means Texas brewers have to have an almost messianic belief in the quality of the beers if they're going to fight for shelf space with the like of Bud, Miller, and Coors, and the market will coldbloodedly prove them right or wrong. As a result, Texas brewers are committed, obsessive, and utterly dedicated to making good beer as opposed to coming up with a clever label that they think will sell a lot of crappy beer. So instead of having a lot of marketers flooding the market with nondescript, contract-brewed swill, Texas has a lot of real craft brewers turning out real handcrafted batches of beer. In the long run, this is the kind of beer and brewer that has staying power. Just look at Anchor, Sierra Nevada, and Rogue.
Second, Texas is seeing a massive influx of people from California and the pacific northwest who know, like, and want craft beers. That's about the only good thing I can say about this immigration, but it's a boon for craft brewers. The newcomers are used to having a brewpub or two in their neighborhood, and to having a pretty good selection in the beer section of the local supermarket. And even I know that where there's demand, supply will soon follow. For example, I live within a mile and a half of at least four brewpubs here in Austin, a higher concentration than I found in downtown Seattle - famous for its beers - when I was there recently. I can't say this is a direct result of Austin becoming a high-tech Mecca over the past 10 years, but I have my suspicions.
Put 'em together - great brewers making great beer and people who are looking for good, craft-brewed beer - and you have the makings of a pretty bright future.
Not a perfect future, though. There are a few things that Texas needs to do to ensure a healthy craft beer industry.
Number one, the legislature needs to relax the laws concerning on- and off-premise sales. This would not only allow brewpubs to consider getting into the bottling business and bottlers to open brewpubs, but it would set the stage for a truly great Texas Brewers' Festival that could compare with Oregon's legendary fest. As it stands now, festivals have a hard time in Texas because of the on/off-premise laws that restrict where and how brewpubs can sell and serve, so you never get to see the full array of Texas-brewed beers at any given festival. Changing this would increase beer lovers' knowledge of and enthusiasm for the incredible range of brewing going on here. And need I point out the economic bonus Portland gets every July when 80,000 beer lovers swarm in for the three-day Oregon Brewers' Festival? Why not Austin or Houston?
Number two, and this is where we come in, Texas needs a champion. We need somebody - or some people - who trumpet Texas beer and Texas brewing as loud as they can, as often as they can. Seattle has Charles Finkel, Portland has Fred Eckhardt, England has Michael Jackson, Canada has Stephen Beaumont. Wherever there's a great brewing scene, there's somebody to tell the world about it, and it's time we have a Texan step up to the microphone.
Okay, I volunteer. Now gimme another Live Oak Pilz.
Back to the Presidential Library...
Back to the Capital of the Republic.