Wim Bens was all smiles last Saturday afternoon as he meandered through a thirsty throng of people each holding out plastic cups for a tasting-sized pour of the smooth and spicy German brown lager cleverly named “Punkel” he was dispensing from a large pitcher. The lager was one of the latest releases from his family-owned brewery, Lakewood Brewing Company in Dallas.
“You’ve got to try this new release,” repeated Bens who was cheerfully making his rounds at the third annual Texas Craft Brewers Festival at the Fiesta Gardens on Austin’s east side.
A play on the classic German dunkel (dark) brown beers with a balanced dose of pumpkin pie spices, rumors of Bens’ tasty Punkel had gone viral among Texas craft beer fans long before the VIP doors were opened for festival guests at 11:30 that morning. And among the many new releases and special festival-only keg tappings scheduled from participating Texas breweries throughout the day, this particular beer was at the top of the list for tasting.
“We try to brew internationally-inspired beers that have a local tie,” said Bens, who is originally from Belgium. “We like to be creative, but the quality has to be there first. This festival is one of the few opportunities we have to really get our beers out there to people who are excited to taste something that’s uniquely Texan.”
Bens wasn’t alone. The energy was magnetic among the 39 participating breweries lined up around the park offering more than 130 beers to taste. The festival is produced each year by the Young Men’s Business League of Austin in partnership with the Texas Craft Brewer’s Guild. And this year, there was a palpable exuberance for the exponential rate by which the Texas beer industry has grown. As the second largest per capita consumers of beer in the nation, according to a 2012 report from the Beer Institute, it’s about time Texas caught up in terms of overall production. (Currently the Lone Star State ranks 42 in the country for number of breweries per capita according to the Brewers Association.)
This year’s festival welcomed thirteen new breweries, up from 28 in 2012, and eighteen in 2011. And in light of the recent beer legislation that was passed this year, there’s a lot for these breweries to celebrate. While the recent laws passed don’t solve all of the barriers to growth for Texas breweries, they do open up a few revenue streams across the board.
For production breweries such Houston’s Saint Arnold Brewing Company, Blanco’s Real Ale Brewing Company, and San Antonio’s Ranger Creek Brewing and Distilling, it is now legal to sell pints and bottles of beer for consumption on the premise of the brewery. Previously, these packaging breweries could charge for a tour of the brewery, offering tokens for tastes of beer for guests, but could not formally charge for the sale of beer as you would find in a typical bar atmosphere.
“It’s a huge step forward and got a lot of attention for the industry,” said Mark McDavid and Founder of Ranger Creek Brewing and Distilling. “We still can’t sell our beer ‘to go’ from the tasting room, you have to buy it from a retail outlet or at a restaurant, but it allows us to operate a tasting room and host events in such a way that we’re seeing a new revenue stream that we couldn’t take advantage of before.”
By contrast, breweries which are classified as “brewpubs” are typically a hybrid of restaurant and brewery that sells 25 percent or more of its beer on site. The new law now allows brewpubs to sell beer “to go” as well as distribute to off-site accounts. This little loophole enticed Austin’s Jester King Brewery to change its license to become a brewpub. “It’s more of a formality that allowed us to take advantage of a new revenue stream that we can capitalize on from the growing number of beer tourists we have visiting us,” said Jester King’s Ron Extract. “Now we can sell beer by the glass in our tasting room, but people also have a way to take our bottles home with them.”
Last weekend’s festival was not only a chance for Texas beer enthusiasts to taste a vast array of beer in one place, but also for brewers from across the state to share insight on what the new laws mean for them and how they’re using it to their best advantage.
“A lot of people are still figuring out what’s going on and how it will effect them,” said McDavid. “Even though the state law has changed, a lot of people still have to work within their own local zoning commissions to see what they’re allowed to do. Even though many people are cautious about their next steps, we’re starting to see a whole new definition of beer tourism in Texas and we all want to take advantage of that.”
One such brewery bound by local zoning laws is Austin’s Rogness Brewing Company. Originally within the Pflugerville city limits, Rogness was recently annexed into the City of Austin, which the brewery hopes will allow for more freedom in beer tourism. “Technically, our building has been in an area where we were still restricted from selling pints of beer on premise, but because of the annexation, we’re in a place where we’ll eventually be able to do that,” says Rogness brewer Dan Wheeler. “But overall, it’s the most substantial legislative change we’ve had in more than 20 years and that’s a step in the right direction.”
In a recent economic study from the University of Texas at San Antonio, the Texas craft brewing industry had a $608 million impact on the state as of 2012. With continued changes in beer laws such as the ones recently passed, the study estimates that the growth of the industry could reach $5.6 billion within the next decade.
And for a festival which has seen a forty percent increase in participating breweries in the past year alone, that’s cause for celebration. Particularly for younger breweries such as Lakewood Brewing. Having only sold beer for a little more than a year, Lakewood’s Wim Bens, who serves as the brewery’s president and head brewer reports that they have doubled production in less than a year and show no signs of slowing down. “We’re still wrapping our heads around what the new laws mean,” says Bens, who originally hails from Belgium. “We’re located in more of an industrial area so we don’t get a lot of foot traffic unless people are specifically seeking us out, but we’re starting to see that happen.”
As Bens poured the last drop of Punkel from his pitcher, he held his hand up to a the line of eager attendees assuring them he’d be right back with more. “I think Texas is making some of the best beer in the nation and we have the population to support it,” says Bens. “We’re all trying to make the best beers we can and when you work long weeks trying to make that happen, spending a day at an event like this reminds you why you’re doing it. It’s for the love of beer and sharing our passion for beer.”
With more than 130 beers onsite in a dizzying array of styles and flavors, naming a festival favorite is pretty impossible. But there were a few that remain in memory as ones worth seeking out for more: