More a traveling circus than a "traditional" beer fest, the Texas Brewers Festival is beginning its fifth year of existence stronger and more popular than it's ever been. The Texas Brewers Festival was actually born in 1993, at the Hill Country Brew-Ha-Ha Austin, which was attended by some 1200 beer lovers, raising $9000 for the Hill Country Foundation. The Brew-Ha-Ha, primarily a homebrew competition/street party, benefited from excellent timing, coming just after Texas had legalized brewpubs for the first time since Prohibition and not long after the Celis Brewery had put Austin on the world beer map.
The following year, 1994, saw the first Texas Brewers Festival, organized in Austin by Brew-Ha-Ha veterans Dave Bone and Larry Warshaw, along with Rick Westervelt (then the head brewer at the Bitter End) and Chip McElroy. The Festival incorporated the Brew-Ha-Ha homebrew competition and street party, but added the participation of fledgling Texas micros such as Houston's St. Arnold and San Antonio's Yellow Rose, as well as more established breweries as Celis and Shiner. Attendance grew, as did the Festival's charitable fund raising, which climbed to $10,000.
The success of the inaugural Festival - and a lack of better ways to spend their time - led organizers Warshaw and McElroy, along with Eric McQuaid, to the notion of taking their show on the road. Texas, they reasoned, was and is too big a state to expect a single beer festival to do the job, so in 1995, Dallas and Houston joined Austin as sites for Texas Brewers Festivals. The Dallas and Houston events, unlike Austin, were not charitable fund raisers, but all three were rousing successes. Over $9000 was raised in Austin for local charities, an estimated 8000 people turned out for the Houston TBF, and 13,000 came to the Dallas fest, marking the TBF as a "must-do" event for Texas brewers, as well as Texas beer lovers.
Two major decisions made 1996 the true watershed year for the Texas Brewers Festival. First, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) agreed to a new interpretation of the state's beer distribution laws, and allowed local brewpubs to serve their beers at festivals within their counties (see sidebar). Second, the Texas Brewers Festival settled on a (so far) final schedule of events, with spring festivals in Dallas and Houston, and fall festivals in Austin, Ft. Worth, and San Antonio. Less dramatic, at least for the TBF, was the departure of Chip McElroy, who left to start Austin's Live Oak Brewery. McElroy's shoes were filled by John Segrest, and the TBF continued to roll, raising over $11,000 for charity at the Austin event.
In 1997, the five Texas Brewers Festivals saw more than 40,000 people come out to sample, despite wickedly cold weather for the first day of the Austin festival and a blue norther that chilled (and dampened) the San Antonio crowds. Near-perfect conditions prevailed in Houston, however, where more than 15,000 turned out to Market Square. Each of the five festivals offered attendees more than 50 Texas-brewed beers to taste, including Great American Beer Festival medal winners from Austin's Waterloo Brewing Company ('96) and Copper Tank ('96), Dallas' Yegua Creek Brewing Company ('96) and Copper Tank ('97), Ft. Worth's USA Brewing Co. ('97), and, naturally, Celis ('96 and '97).
In 1998, the Texas Brewers Festival should continue to bring Texas breweries and beer lovers closer together. Over the past years, Brewers Festivals, Inc. (the entity formed by McElroy, McQuaid, and Warshaw in 1994 to organize and operate the Texas Brewers Festival), have built a solid foundation for the Festivals, working with attendees on both sides of the serving tables and the TABC to make the events safe, enjoyable, and legal. The inclusion of local brewpubs in the festivals, largely a result of the organizers' work with the TABC, and the organizers' determination to keep the Austin festival "now and always" a charitable event are evidence of their commitment to Texas' beer community.
Perhaps the most confusing aspect of the Texas Brewers Festivals is who can and can't participate at the events. Depending on who you're talking to, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code is anything from "quirky" to "Byzantine" to "utterly incomprehensible," and therein lies the rub.
According to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code, Title 3, Subchapter A (Temporary Wind and Beer Retailer's Permit), Sec. 27.01, "The holder of a temporary wine and beer retailer's permit may sell for consumption on or off the premises where sold, but not for resale, wine, beer, and malt liquors containing alcohol in excess of one-half of one percent by volume but not more than 14 percent by volume. The permit does not authorize the sale of those beverages outside the county for which it is issued." And to my understanding, this is the key point when it comes to brewpubs and beer festivals in Texas.
Because of the above law, Texas brewpubs can participate in festivals, etc., only in the county where they have a wine and beer (the two are paired in the Texas code) retailer's permit and brewpub permit. In other words, a brewpub from Austin (which is in Travis County) can't travel to a Ft. Worth (Tarrant County) festival and serve beer. It's confusing, even after repeated readings of the TABC code, but it's the law.
The ray of hope is that, as brewpubs grow in popularity across Texas, and as brewpub operators and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission continue to work together, the Code may again be reinterpreted to allow brewpub participation in counties outside the one where they do business. After all, until '96, brewpubs couldn't even participate in beer festivals in their home counties, but that law has been changed and the republic still stands. So there is hope.
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