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On Deals and Disagreements: Beer Bills Move Forward

As has been widely reported, a deal was struck late Monday afternoon between The Texas Craft Brewers Guild, distributor groups, large brewers, and Open The Taps.

The final deal includes the following bills, and here is the final version of what they do (items in earlier versions of the bills but not listed below are not part of the final bills):

SB 515:

  • increases annual production limit of brewpubs from 5,000 barrels  to 10,000 barrels
  • allows all brewpubs to sell to wholesalers
  • allows brewpubs who only sell alcoholic beverages made on-site to self-distribute up to 1,000 barrels per year from a single brewpub, and up to 2,500 barrels per year from all brewpubs owned by the same licensee

SB 516 & 517

  • creates a new Brewer Distributor permit, with a fee set at $250, which a production brewer under 125,000 barrels of annual production can obtain to self-distribute up to 40,000 barrels per year

SB 518

  • allows production breweries who are under 225,000 barrels of annual production to sell up to 5,000 barrels per year to ultimate consumers for on-site consumption

SB 639

  • codifies the 2010 TABC Marketing Practices Bulletin against the practice of “Reach-Back Pricing”, which is the practice where a manufacturer will adjust his price to a wholesaler based specifically on the price a wholesaler sells to a retailer. The new language goes on to specifically state that a manufacturer is still free to adjust prices as necessary, however it cannot be based on the wholesaler’s price to the retailer
  • outlaws a manufacturer from accepting payment specifically in exchange for an agreement setting forth territorial rights
  • sets forth language that specifically permits a manufacturer and a wholesaler to enter in contractual agreements that govern ordinary business, including but not limited to, allowances, rebates, refunds, services, capacity, advertising funds, promotional funds, or sports marketing funds
  • states the code does not prohibit a wholesaler from selling territorial rights of a manufacturer to another wholesaler

I am fully aware of the dissatisfaction of some members of our Guild at the provisions contained in the new 639, specifically “outlaws a manufacturer from accepting payment specifically in exchange for an agreement setting forth territorial rights.”

This provision of 639 came into being because wholesalers felt the practice of paying for territorial rights violated the tied-house provisions of the Alcoholic Beverage Code. TABC was asked to clarify such payments did, in fact, represent a violation of the TABC code. TABC’s response was not to say the practice was legal or illegal, but rather to say that they didn’t know and would benefit from legislative clarification. Thus, the original SB 639 contained this provision.

Recently, such payments have occurred in the marketplace and the practice is becoming more common, though certainly not the standard. At the same time, some of my closest colleagues in the industry have confided in me that they never received any payment for their distribution rights, because when they asked TABC, they were told it was illegal. It is important to stress that at no point has TABC or the Legislature specifically said this transaction was legal.

Throughout the course of the debate on this specific provision of 639, I fought tirelessly to earn the right of brewers to be able to sell the distribution rights. No one put up a bigger fight and no one took as much of a beating on this than me. Make no mistake, my position and the position of the Texas Craft Brewers Guild is that a brewer who builds a valuable distribution network through his or her right to self-distribute should be compensated for that value when he or she turns operations over to a distributor.

There was a point when it became very clear to me that this provision of 639 was going to move forward as the Legislature felt this activity should be illegal rather than specifically making it legal. This is up for every person to debate on their own, but I had come to understand with absolutely certainty that this practice was going to be outlawed one way or another. The debate was had, and the debate was lost by my side.

When that moment occurred, we immediately shifted gears to try to make this provision in 639 as palatable as possible (if it could even be done). This is where the language that sets forth other ways in which manufacturers and wholesalers comes from. While the specific payment in exchange for territorial rights was outlawed, for the first time in Texas history, we codified a series of other agreements that often occurred in the marketplace but had questionable legality.

I’m not just saying this to defend myself, but because I believe this is absolutely a true statement: without the work of the Guild, the provisions of 639 would have been a lot worse for Texas craft brewers. Not only did we curb some of the provisions in that bill, we gained rights that myself and some of my colleagues have been working on for almost a decade.

To be very clear: we did not “trade” the provisions of SB 639 in exchange for SB 515-18. Rather, we were able to greatly scale back 639 (including defeating the proposed severability language and mandated uniform pricing) while also gaining the rights enumerated in 515-18. For this, I will contend until the day I die that this was a victory for Texas craft brewers – and that first such victory since Brewpubs were legalized in 1993.

I welcome and encourage your feedback and discussion on this issue.