The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission has quietly given up the fight on so-called crowlers, a portmanteau of "can" and "growler" that, until the agency banned them more than a year ago, had been the hip new craft beer trend at Texas bars, grocery stores and specialty beer shops.
Last month's decision by the TABC marks the end of a regulatory dustup that bar owners like Rob Martindale argue should never have happened in the first place. "This was completely brought about by TABC just making up the rules instead of enforcing them," Martindale, who owns San Antonio's three Big Hops Growler Station locations, told the Current
on Monday. Martindale says all Big Hops bars will again start selling crowlers by the end of this week.
Martindale was one of several Texas bar owners who had to stop canning beer when state alcohol regulators in 2015 settled on this brain-twisting logic: while filling bottle growlers with beer to go was perfectly legal, putting the same brew in a giant sealed can was not. When Austin-based Cuvee Coffee Bar ignored TABC's rule, agents raided the business and seized its tabletop seaming machine (an invention by the Colorado craft beer pioneers at Oskar Blues Brewery). TABC then "clarified" that the loosely-worded section of state law regarding the "packaging" of beer made crowlers illegal.
So small business owners like Martindale, who had made multi-thousand-dollar investments in crowler machines, had to give them up or pack them away. To underscore the financial hit, Martindale says that during their short-lived run, his three machines were cranking out about 75 crowlers a week for customers. "They were pretty popular," he said.
That's because, according to people who love them, the 32-ounce cans are lighter, more durable, don't require a hefty deposit and better protect your beer from air and light — making them easier for bars to sell. Cuvee eventually fought the TABC and filed a lawsuit against the agency to get its machine back. The case was later bumped to a state administrative hearing before a judge, who in a ruling last November
tore the TABC's anti-crowler argument to shreds and ordered it to return Cuvee's equipment.
Still, TABC didn't budge on the issue until mid-March, when the agency's executive director decided to adopt the judge's decision. Why? Well, the agency hasn't really said (TABC hasn't yet responded to our requests for comment). San Antonio lawyer Angel Tomasino, who represented Cuvee in its case against the agency, said regulators haven't even yet formally announced the rule change. Instead, they've only removed a couple lines from the TABC website's FAQ page that in the past had "clarified" that crowlers were illegal.
Tomasino says that's pretty much the opposite of what federal regulators with the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau typically do, which is to release revised rules and guidance whenever their position changes.
Perhaps political pressure was behind TABC's change of heart. As the Texas Tribune reports
, lawmakers like state Rep. Ramon Romero, a Fort Worth Democrat, sent TABC Executive Director Sherry Cook a letter last month chastising her agency for keeping Cuvee's canning machine months after the judge in the case had ordered the agency to return it. Tomasino told us that TABC's rule change "only occurred after Rep. Romero wrote to TABC and there was also some communication from the Governor's Office. "
Plus, as Romero told the Trib
, “TABC has so many other things to worry about” — you know, like officials who don't even abide by their own rules for proper alcohol permitting and who apparently love to party with taxpayer money
The agency finally returned Cuvee's canning machine last week.
Martindale, who leased Big Hops' canning machines to a few local breweries while the TABC ban was in effect, calls the episode a clear example of arbitrary overreach from a regulatory agency. He also called it "chilling" that a small business like Cuvee would have to spend thousands of dollars in legal fees and rally political support for TABC to finally return the property it seized.
"Shame on them for putting small businesses through that," he said.