Texas Wants Beer!

Our state is the top beer market in the country, so why are we falling behind in the microbrewery movement?

Wolf had run into the liquor lobby before, when he served on the Tax Reform Commission. Seeking to reduce property taxes and prevent a state income tax, the commission looked for additional sources of revenue. Wolf was shocked to discover that Texas liquor taxes are among the lowest in the country and haven't been raised since the 1980s. The tax on beer in Texas is 20 cents per gallon versus the national average of 26 cents. Texas wine producers and importers pay 20 cents a gallon, compared with a national average of 79 cents. Liquor is taxed at $2.40 per gallon, compared with a national average of $5.52.

When Wolf brought up the idea of raising the tax on beer, wine and liquor, a move that could easily generate millions of dollars, he was told to forget about it. Such a measure would fail to gain legislative support, officials told him. In other words, our state representatives would rather hike our property taxes than risk offending the liquor lobby.

The constant presence of the lobbyists in the gallery during the TABC's sunset review prompted an especially amusing passage in Wolf's report. "Poised like lions on a patch of high ground in the Serengeti, occasionally swishing their tails so their presence would be noted, the lions of the lobby watched at hearings to ensure that no Republican elephant or Democratic mule would dare stray from the prescribed path," he wrote.

The crowd lines up early in front of the Saint Arnold's brewery for the Saturday tour.
Daniel Kramer
The crowd lines up early in front of the Saint Arnold's brewery for the Saturday tour.
The tour guide at Saint Arnold Brewing Company in Houston explains how beer is made.
Photos by Daniel Kramer
The tour guide at Saint Arnold Brewing Company in Houston explains how beer is made.

Wolf was barred from voicing his complaints by the commission chair, but he issued his minority report anyway. Shortly after the vote, the wholesale liquor distributors reported donating $1.38 million to the campaigns of more than 150 state officials, including most legislators and Governor Rick Perry.

After standing in line for 15 minutes at Saint Arnold's brewery on a Saturday-afternoon tour, I finally got a draft of "Fancy Lawnmower," Saint Arnold's ­German-style Kölsch beer. Kölsch is made with unusual yeast — an ale yeast that ferments at lager temperatures, giving the beer a clean, fruity flavor. The beer is also made with German hops that give it a delicate floral aroma.

The "Fancy Lawnmower" name is an inside joke for beer lovers, explains Brock Wagner, Saint Arnold's founder. When you open a beer geek's refrigerator, he says, you see bottle after bottle of unusual and expensive craft beers and imports from around the world. Hidden way in the back, behind all the good stuff, you'll also find a bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon or some other cheap American brew. If you ask about it, he'll say, "Oh, that's my lawnmower beer, the stuff I guzzle on a hot day after mowing the lawn." So the name "Fancy Lawnmower" is Saint Arnold's way of saying, 'This is our unassuming, easy-drinking beer.'

I drank my Fancy Lawnmower standing up. There were a dozen or so picnic tables in the tasting room, but they were already packed with beer drinkers. When the doors opened for the brewery tour and tasting at 1 p.m., there were already 100 people or so in line. An average of around 550 people typically show up. The tour is conducted by a guide who explains the brewing process and recites the gallon capacity of various steel tanks. But few in the crowd pay any attention to him. First there is a mad dash to claim the picnic tables, and then the lines to get a beer start to grow.

The Rahr & Sons brewery in Fort Worth used to host a free tour on Saturdays followed by a tasting, but they changed their policy. In an attempt to cut down on the throngs of college students who were only interested in the free beer, they now charge $5 for the tour.

There's a $5 charge for the Saturday tour of Saint Arnold's brewery in Houston too. But it hasn't cut down on the number of college students. They arrive early carrying elaborate lunch provisions and get in line to claim tables.

On the Saint Arnold tour, you get a souvenir glass and four wooden tokens good for filling it up. The trick is to buy one of the half-liter steins in the gift shop, a guy standing in line with a Subway sandwich and a half-liter glass volunteered. The tokens are good for a fill-up — but you can hand them any size Saint Arnold glass you want.

The guy with the glass had driven all the way from College Station just to hang out at Saint Arnold's this afternoon. And he said he'd taken the tour a half a dozen times before — a lot of trouble to go through to drink some beer.

"But it's really good beer," he said.

At the brewery in Shiner, I took a tour with a half dozen people. The copper tanks, the automated bottling line and the old brewery building were impressive. So were the stories and photographs of the worldly entrepreneur who started it all, Kosmos Spoetzl.

Jimmy Mauric has worked as a brewmaster at Shiner for 31 years. Outside the brewery, he handed me a glass of Shiner's citrusy Hefeweizen, a wheat beer made with orange peel and live yeasts. I love hefeweizens, but I had never had Shiner's before. I was shocked by how good it was.

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