Texas State Capitol

Texas brewers’ legal victory significant for more than obvious reasons

mask-of-silenus-avatarThis week, Texas craft brewers claimed something rare for their industry in this state. They won a legal victory.

The drama began three years ago with what was then known as Senate Bill 639. Introduced into the 2013 state legislative session by Dallas state senator John Carona (who subsequently lost the next election), the bill stated its intent of “protecting the independence of distributors” by eliminating compensation for craft breweries for territorial distribution rights of their products. Essentially, it stripped small breweries of the right to make money by selling their brand—something the distributors still had the privilege of doing once a distribution agreement was signed.

Craft brewing has the same rights of identity as any other industry operating in this state.

In an unprecedented action, three Texas craft breweries took the state legal code to task in December 2014. Two North Texas breweries, Peticolas Brewing of Dallas and Revolver Brewing of Granbury, jointly filed suit with Austin’s Live Oak Brewing and the Institute for Justice against the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) to have the new law overturned as a violation of the state constitution. For small businesses like today’s craft breweries, the ability to make money selling their distribution rights can be a big revenue source at start-up, not to mention that they would receive no benefit or compensation should a contracted distributor strike a later deal. It was a blatant and vulgar power-grab by the wholesalers lobby, and challenging it was the right thing to do.

District Court Judge Karin Crump agreed this week, finding no compelling state interest in such a law. Although consumers may not see any tangible benefit from such an esoteric lawsuit, it will only contribute to the improving health and strength of craft brewing in Texas (which ultimately benefits consumers). However, more has been achieved with this decision than simply rolling back biased regulations or defending the pockets of small brewers. This decision may be a truly significant turning point for the brewing industry in Texas.

First significant legal challenge in Texas craft brewing

The craft brewing industry has made monumental advances in Texas brewing laws in recent years, probably the largest favorable gains since legalization of brewpubs back in 1993. They have struggled tirelessly to change laws both state and municipal; they have fought zoning, distributors, retailers, even conservative anti-alcohol groups who have no interest in craft beer. They face down the TABC and lobbyist groups every two years when the legislature meets in Austin.

What makes this result any different? This was a legal challenge to an existing law enacted in 2013, not a state-wide popular movement for incremental change. This was not grass-roots anything: these were some of the most knowledgeable, seasoned professional brewers this state has to offer taking on an unjust law forced upon their industry by a much more powerful special-interest group.

And the judge agreed with them. This giant is not as invincible as we once thought.

Intellectual property matters, even for breweries

What also sets this struggle apart are the stakes over which it is being fought. Of course, every legal matter regarding business and regulation can usually be boiled down to money and, truthfully, this decision is no different. Laws are enacted to win economic power and either project it or protect it. The parties behind laws are always fighting to control bigger pieces of their respective pies.

However, this lawsuit was not explicitly about commerce or access or territory or financial advantage over a competitor. The lawsuit just won was brought over control of a brewery’s intellectual property, the ownership of their fundamental rights as a business at the point of distribution and thereafter in future transactions. Too long has craft brewing been singled out as an industry, operating under a legal double-standard not even shared with wine and other alcohol manufacturers. Craft brewing has the same rights of identity as any other industry operating in this state.

Craft brewers can collaborate on more than just beer

Collaborations are nothing new for the craft beer game. If not simply a business partnership for a combined venture, genuine friendships develop and result in new and inventive beers. Brewery X will meet Brewery Y at a common event like the Great American Beer Festival and decide to collaborate on a flashy, co-branded product. The industry is embarrassingly amicable to direct competitors, even those in the same market, and these ventures usually result in a win-win-win for both parties and consumers.

But this collaboration is a brand-new animal. Texas craft breweries have now demonstrated that they can band together not only for a united front for change before lawmakers; they can also work together to fight for a focused, tactical purpose on behalf of their entire industry. Craft brewing is no longer a domain of hobbyist businessmen selling in a boutique marketplace. This was a grown-up lawsuit, and we walked away with the W. SD

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