In the latest episode of the Fun Police, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission has kept one of the most coveted beers of the year from being sold in Texas.
Stone Brewing Company's Vertical Epic, which has a once-a-year release and is part of a very important beer plan, was sitting in a warehouse in Houston waiting to be sent to stores, according to Austin Tefteller, a beer manager at Spec's.
That's when TABC agents stepped in and decided the beer had to be shipped back to California. (See update below.)
The problem, according to Tefteller, was on the label. The Vertical Epic contains more than 5 percent alcohol (quite a bit more), and in Texas, you can't call that a beer. And somewhere on Stone's label, it said the word "beer."
"You can still get it in other states," Tefteller says. "It's just a TABC thing."
This should be particularly disheartening to Houston beer connoisseurs, because Houston hasn't been lucky enough to land a batch of Vertical Epic each year since it was first released in 2002.
If you wanted a bottle, you had to get it in another state -- Stone is based out of California -- via road trip or the Internet, and it's been listed on eBay for up to $300.
Lieutenant Harry Schreffler, an enforcement officer with TABC, tells Hair Balls that something like this happens maybe once a year. Whoever imported the beer to Texas, Schreffler said, should have approved the shipment first.
And since it wasn't approved, and brought in for resale, the importer technically broke the law. Schreffler wasn't sure if the importer was cited in this instance, but he said since the beer was never sold, probably not.
"Unless we found the stuff in the cars of seven dead people, we probably didn't go hard at them with guns blazing," Schreffler said.
Update: We talked to Jason Armstrong, a regional manager for Stone Brewing Co., and he has some good news and bad news: Vertical Epic is in Texas to stay. But only in keg form. He tapped the first one in Waco last week, and another shipment landed in Dallas on Friday. The kegs should make it to Houston sometime next week.
"TABC never had a problem with our liquid, which is good," Armstrong says. "It's always a label issue, if we have an issue."
Still disappointing, Armstrong says, because, of course, the ultimate point of the Vertical Epic is to save a bottle of each year's batch and eventually have a true vertical tasting experience.
As far as the Vertical Epic bottles being at a warehouse in Houston, Armstrong says that shipment was always meant for another state. The TABC denied the Vertical Epic label long before the beer -- wait, ALE -- was shipped out. (Brewers have to submit to TABC two bottles featuring the proposed label, and one in electronic format, Armstrong says.)
On each bottle, Stone includes a short description of the beer, written by Stone's founder, Greg Koch. On the popular Arrogant Bastard Ale, for example, it says, "This is an aggressive beer. You probably won't like it. It is quite doubtful that you have the taste or sophistication to be able to appreciate..."
In a similar description of this year's Vertical Epic, it included "beer," and that's what the TABC didn't like.
It's not the first time this has happened to Stone in Texas. The Double Bastard Ale never gets approved because the label includes the word "masturbatory."
"The official response from TABC was that isn't an approved word for Texas," Armstrong says.
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And since Stone silk screens its labels onto bottles, it would be, as Armstrong puts it, "a logistical nightmare" to create a special label for Texas.
"That's the reason a lot of craft brewers don't come to Texas," Armstrong says. "There are some amazing Belgium beers that don't come to Texas. You can get them in Louisiana, you can get them in New Mexico, but not Texas. What brewer or monk is going to change his label he's had for 500 years?"
Armstrong says, however, TABC might make an easy target, but its not their fault. In the last two years especially, he says, the label approval (or denial) process has improved from about three months to two weeks. And even though agents aren't always consistent, they are just trying to enforce the laws, albeit antiquated, on the books.
"I wish I knew how to change [the law], but someone has to be on board from the legislature," Armstrong says. "It's disappointing, but it is the law, and we have to abide by it."