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Beer Crusaders

Fighting for the fourth tier: New craft beer advocacy group is on a consumer-driven suds mission

When House Bills 660 and 602 were killed (or died of inertia) in the last legislative session, Texas craft beer lovers were disheartened, but not defeated.

Although craft breweries and industry leaders had banded together with organizations like Texas Beer Freedom, distribution companies and pig-headed proponents of the unadulterated three-tier system managed to stall the measures, which would have alleviated what some call Texas' restrictive atmosphere for small brewing businesses.

Now, for the first time, a consumer-sided advocacy group has been born. Founded by a collection of Houston craft beer activists including Lushtastic's Leslie Sprague, Ted Duschesne of the beer blog Barley Vine, Cathy Clark Rascoe of the beer blog Brewtiful and home brewers Chris White and John Speights, Open the Taps aims to unify consumers, tackle restrictive legislation and affect change at the polls.

I met up with Sprague and Rascoe at a Ladies of Craft Beer happy hour at the Ginger Man to toast to long-term goals and gauge the response so far.

OTT's goals are many, and they're ambitious: To legalize dock sales, to knock down the limitations on brewpubs' production, to allow brewpubs to sell their wares on store shelves, to reform labeling laws for easier access to out-of-state brews, and ultimately, to hire a lobbyist to make all these things happen.

"Before the next legislative session, we want to know what representatives are for us and who are against us," says Sprague, who is handling OTT's communications and social media and whose phone has been blowing up since the non-profit debuted on July 16.

Sprague said she had worried about the level of support outside the close-knit, somewhat insular craft beer community, but she's not worried anymore. "It's insane who is showing and how many people have shown support," she says.

Both Sprague and Rascoe tell me that their hope is to hear from Texas consumers, grow membership and determine their priorities as a group. Still, each have their pet causes. For Sprague, who works in market research by day and runs the popular blog Lushtastic by, well, rest-of-day, it's about seeing more out-of-state brews become accessible in Texas markets.

And if lawyer-cum-beer-week-organizer Rascoe had her pick, the wall between breweries and brewpubs would come down and there would be more open competition between distributors (among a host of other changes).

"The new breweries I've talked to want to self distribute," Sprague says. "That says something."

And although craft breweries fought with distributor lobbying groups in the last legislative session for a freer business atmosphere, they still relied on them to get their product out and turn a profit. "We can take a fight to the distributors, because we're not beholden to them," Rascoe says of the benefits of consumer-driven advocacy.

But first, they've got to grow. Base membership will run around $35 dollars and include voting rights in the group and a T-shirt. OTT is also working out the details of a 100 for 100 program, through which it will identify leaders in other Texas cities who will get 100 people to donate $100 dollars, drawing inspiration from similar programs at organizations like Alabama's Free the Hops and Mississippi's Raise Your Pints.

Sprague says OTT has heard from some advocacy groups from other states and would love to hook up with more and work toward a common goal. "It's about Texas, but at the end of the day, it's not. It's about craft beer," she says.

After establishing its legislative priorities, the group plans to compile a list of state representatives and their positions on craft beer issues to distribute to members and other interested parties online and through happy hour and fundraising events.

Open the Taps launches officially Saturday at 4 p.m. at Moon Tower Inn. Come by for some craft beer and learn about membership options.

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