The Thirsty Beagle: February 2016

Monday, February 29, 2016

It's 2016, and everyone loves craft beer

I have it on good authority that Oklahomans for Consumer Freedom (Tap Oklahoma/Walmart, etc.) will file its own alcohol reform initiative petition this week, and maybe even as early as today.

(UPDATE: Within minutes of posting this blog, Tap Oklahoma reached out to say that "A final decision has not yet been made about an initiative petition." I will update further if needed.)

That -- if you're counting -- would put us up to three initiative petitions and one legislative referendum on alcohol reform so far. And not even one month into the legislative session, no less!

The move from OFCF really would come as no big surprise. I blogged way back at the start of the month that the Walmart-backed group would likely file an initiative petition. The petition filed with the Secretary of State last week by the Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma probably helped grease the skids for OFCF's action.

Now, the RLAO petition is drawing a lot of attention, mostly because it would provide a lot of wins for craft beer.

Of course, it would also provide a lot of wins for existing liquor stores. Like blocking a wide majority of the state's grocery stores from selling wine. (Cue the Walmart outrage.) And stopping anyone from selling wine, or even opening their own liquor store, within about half a mile of an existing liquor store, thanks to a 2,500-foot buffer provision.

Look, I understand the plight of the liquor store in this deal. I'm on the record saying liquor store owners likely have the most to lose here. But the petition from the RLAO is just too much of an ask.

I might get run out of my favorite liquor stores for saying this, but to me, the RLAO petition is actually anti-consumer convenience and anti-business. I just don't think it's realistic to write a petition that only allows a small number of grocery stores to sell wine and essentially tells people where they can and can't open their business of choice.

But I digress, because a lot of people are seeing a lot of good stuff for craft beer in that petition.

And that is no coincidence.

Let's get wise to something here, people. Why do you think the RLAO petition holds so much promise for craft beer? It's the same reason Walmart and Anheuser-Busch are buddying up to craft beer in a big way.

But don't take it from me. Listen to what they're saying:

"The Oklahoma craft industry has already had a huge economic impact on our state. Imagine how much more it could do with updated laws." -- Tap Oklahoma/Walmart

"The government shouldn't dictate what beers should be available to you. If done the right way, modernization will bring more brands, including craft beer into Oklahoma." -- Cold Beer Now OK/Anheuser-Busch.

And I didn't have to go digging for those quotes. Those were the most recent posts on each group's Facebook page when I looked last night. Is there any coincidence they've peppered their messaging with craft beer language?

They're doing this to try and lure voters -- especially millennial votes -- and other supporters to their cause. But let's please remember what everyone's cause is. Walmart wants to sell massive amounts of $8 wine. Anheuser-Busch wants to avoid having to deal with a middle man and to keep their two-tier distribution system intact. The RLAO wants to make it pretty much where nobody else can sell wine and spirits.

I think it's important that we all know these things when it comes time to decide what you want to support. They're all going to dangle the craft beer carrot -- but they're all really looking out for themselves in the long run.

You can't blame them, but you should be wary about the non-craft-beer stuff everyone is asking for as well.

Pints and Pins

-I had an absolutely great time pouring some of my homebrew at the annual Mashed In Homebrewers Showcase yesterday afternoon. Big hat-tip to Gail White of The Brew Shop, Greg Powell of TapWerks and the COOP Ale Works team for organizing the event. This really is a gem of an event that showcases the skill and creativity of a lot of really good homebrewers -- and possibly future pro brewers. Definitely make a mental note to grab your tickets when the event comes around next year.

-Your Monday night McNellie's group pint nights are Duvel at McNellie's OKC; Black Mesa Kolsch at Tulsa; COOP Bourbon Barrel Gran Sport Porter at Tulsa-South; and Elk Valley Nemesis at Norman.

-Rahr & Sons is rolling out in Oklahoma starting today with a celebration at Fassler Hall-OKC. The event is set for 7 to 9:30 p.m., with a special menu featuring a selection of Rahr & Sons beers paired with Fassler dishes. Following tonight's shindig, a series of events are planned for Tuesday through Thursday:

Tuesday, March 1:
-5:30 p.m. at Ranch Acres in Tulsa
-7 p.m. at The Patriarch
-7 p.m. at The Pint in Tulsa

Wednesday, March 2:
-5:30 p.m. at Skinny Slims-OKC
-5:30 p.m. at Skinny Slims-Edmond
-6 p.m. at Oak & Ore
-6 p.m. at Fassler Hall-Tulsa

Thursday, March 3:
-5:30 p.m. at R Bar in Tulsa
-7 p.m. at TapWerks

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Dates set for Oklahoma Craft Beer Festival, OKC Craft Beer Week

For Oklahoma City craft beer fans, it's the second-most exciting time of the year.

The first-most exciting time of the year, of course, is Oklahoma City Craft Beer Week and the culminating celebration, the Oklahoma Craft Beer Festival.

Just slightly less exciting is the announcement of the dates for the OKCCBW and OCBF, which I'm bringing to you right now.

Mark your calendars, beer fans: Oklahoma City Craft Beer Week is set for June 11-19, 2016, and the marquee event, the Oklahoma Craft Beer Festival, will be June 17 and 18 at the Cox Convention Center in downtown Oklahoma City.
You read that correctly: the sixth annual OCBF is expanding to a two-day festival for the first time. Here are the specifics:

The event will feature a Friday night regular session, a Saturday afternoon VIP session and a Saturday night regular session. OCBF will feature more than 300 beers from more than 50 brewers, breweries-in-planning and homebrewers. Regular-session tickets will be $40, and will go on sale May 1.

You may remember that OCBF was forced into the Cox Convention Center last year due to weather. Festival organizer Greg Powell decided to keep the event inside this year, and he's secured an even bigger space than 2015. This will allow room for more brewers and for more food trucks.

You can keep up with all the OCBF news on the festival's social media channels, including on Facebook, on Twitter (@_ocbf) and on Instagram (oklahomacraftbeerfestival).

Meantime, let's not forget about the third annual Oklahoma City Craft Beer Week:

I know some brewers and venues are already lining up events, and I'll be compiling the event schedule and keeping you updated on all the news that's fit to print as far as OKCCBW goes. 

If you've got an event you would like added to the calendar, you can message me on the OKCCBW Facebook page, or drop an email to

I have a feeling this will be the best OCBF and the best OKCCBW to date. Can't wait until June!

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma files own petition

What was that I said on the blog Tuesday about numerous twists on the way to alcohol law reform?

Chalk up another turn in the road as the Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma late Tuesday announced it had filed its own initiative petition on the matter.

The measure, which would be known as State Question 785 if it were to make it on to the November ballot, would call for some similar ideas as spelled out in Senate Joint Resolution 68 and the initiative petition filed by Oklahomans for Modern Laws.

Included in the RLAO petition:

-Cold beer and wine in liquor stores
-Strong beer in grocery and convenience stores
-Grocery stores could get licenses to sell wine (I'll revisit this one in a minute)
-Oklahoma breweries can distribute their own products to package stores
-Oklahoma breweries can sell/serve their own beer for on-premise consumption or take-home growlers
-Liquor stores could hold tastings in their stores
-Liquor stores could sell grocery items, as long as such sales didn't exceed 20 percent of total sales
-A portion of licensing fees from retail outlets would be directed to the ABLE Commission and the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services

Some good things included in there, especially as far as craft beer is concerned.

Unlike SJR 68, the petition does not delve into issues of distribution. I spoke at length on Tuesday night with Bryan Kerr, owner of Moore Liquor and leader of the RLAO, and he said they felt like they wanted to leave those issues up to the Legislature and the state's distribution companies to figure out.

There's another item, however, that separates the RLAO petition from SJR 68 -- and it's no small issue.

The RLAO petition would allow companies or corporations to apply for one retail wine license, and then to purchase up to three additional retail wine licenses.

OK, let's put that in real terms: That means that Walmart or Homeland, for example, would be able to hold no more than four retail wine licenses. To take it a step further, that means that only four Walmart locations in the state would be able to sell wine at one time.

Wine would not be allowed in convenience stores.

I feel like this raises some obvious issues. For example, consumers might think it's unfair that the Homeland on the other side of town can sell wine, but theirs can't. After all, if a big part of this -- like everyone says -- is providing convenience for consumers, it doesn't really seem fair to provide convenience to only some consumers.

Kerr said RLAO believes the limit on retail wine licenses would serve two purposes: protecting public safety and protecting local small businesses.

The public safety argument, to sum up, is that less points of sale leads to less access to alcohol for those who shouldn't have it.

The local business angle is also pretty straightforward. I don't think anyone would argue that allowing every grocery and convenience store in the state to sell wine would hit liquor stores tremendously hard. They'd be losing out on a huge chunk of sales, no doubt.

The RLAO petition would clearly help protect the state's liquor stores in that regard. Kerr and I engaged in a very healthy discussion on this point. I asked a lot of questions, like...

1.) Why should liquor stores get protection that other retail businesses don't?

2.) Why should we care if liquor stores with poor selection and poor customer service go out of business?

3.) Won't liquor stores still get business from people who want a better selection of wine and beer than what the grocery store would offer, and not to mention liquor?

4.) Is it fair to tell a retailer like Walmart that only four of its stores in the whole state can sell wine?

To his credit, Kerr fielded all these questions (and to be clear, I'm not anti-liquor store. I love my liquor store people and I hope they're very successful in their businesses. I'm pro asking what I feel like are some obvious questions that people would have).

To No. 1, Kerr responded that liquor stores are playing by the rules set in front of them now, and switching up the laws would be akin to pulling out the rug. He acknowledged that there was never any guarantee that the rules would never change, but that opening the floodgates would potentially shut hundreds of stores down, thus limiting availability of good craft beer and wine for consumers.

No. 2: There are plenty of liquor stores already that have gone out of business due to poor selection and customer service.

No. 3: Liquor stores will still get business from people who, like me, want more exclusive beers and want someone to be able to explain which Shiraz is smokey and which one is earthy, etc., but they will no longer get the customer who wants Barefoot and Bud Light Platinum -- and those people make up a big portion of sales.

No. 4: Yes, they believe it is fair. Plus, stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's -- because of their limited number of locations (read: four or less) -- would likely be able to have wine sales in all their stores.

Whether you agree or disagree with the RLAO's positions, and its petition in general, my discussion with Kerr on Tuesday served to reinforce something I've thought all along: the plight of the liquor store in alcohol law reform is one of the most intriguing facets of this whole deal.

I've talked to a store owner who is worried that incurring the cost of installing coolers at the same time they have to see a big chunk of their wine sales go out the door would be a difficult pill to swallow.

On the flip side, I talked to one owner who said the bigger liquor stores would actually see boosts to their business if wine is widely available in regular stores. The theory there is that if smaller liquor stores go out of business, the remaining stores would scoop up additional customers who want spirits and high-end craft beer and wine.

Clearly there are not a lot of easy answers here, and that's why in less than a month we've already seen a legislative measure, an aggressive multimedia campaign aimed at defeating that legislative measure, two initiative petitions and two legal challenges. And I don't think it's a far stretch to assume the likes of Walmart will file a challenge against the RLAO petition before long, either.

Sit tight everyone. It appears we're in for a wild ride.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Legal challenges filed against OFML initiative petition

I'm beginning to get the feeling -- more so each day -- that the road to alcohol law reform in Oklahoma will be fraught with more twists than anyone expects.

The news last week was dominated by the unveiling of Senate Joint Resolution 68 and the reaction from Anheuser-Busch to SJR 68.

But you'll remember that right before that, came the announcement that Oklahomans for Modern Laws had filed an initiative petition seeking to get a state question on alcohol reform on the November election ballot.

Then, late Monday, we became acquainted with IRAP -- the Institute for Responsible Alcohol Policy. What do they have to do with this, you ask?

IRAP is one of two entities that has filed legal challenges against the OFML petition.

IRAP is relatively new group. It was founded and is headed up by John Maisch, the former general counsel for the state's ABLE Commission. Maisch, who may know as much or more about Oklahoma's alcohol laws as anyone, said he started IRAP when it became clear that alcohol law change was going to be a serious theme this legislative session.

"My goal is to be a voice that helps to foster productive dialogue among the public and community leaders," Maisch told me Monday night. "IRAP is not necessarily 'for' or 'against' modernization, but I do believe that if the state modernizes, it is important to do it in a measured, responsible way that doesn’t jeopardize public safety or make it easier for minors to drink."

Maisch said his many years with ABLE give him a unique perspective on Oklahoma's alcohol laws.

"As many people have pointed out, some of those laws are antiquated and can and should be updated," he said. "However, a great many of them are there for a reason, which is to protect public safety and public health. Some of them are also necessary to protect consumer choice, like the three-tier system, which ensures that craft breweries and distilleries actually have a way to get their product to market."

IRAP now consults with two of Oklahoma’s oldest, family-owned distributors, Jarboe Sales Co. and Central Liquor, as well as two nonresident sellers, Glazer's and Republic National Distributing Co.

"Over time, I'm anxious to continue to build alliances with others, including members of the mental health and law enforcement communities, as well as citizen-activists throughout the state," Maisch said. 

On Monday evening, when Maisch announced that IRAP had filed a legal challenge to the OFML initiative petition, his statement also included some language that -- to me -- spoke directly to SJR 68 and the idea of Anheuser-Busch distributing its own strong beer.

"IRAP has challenged this particular initiative petition because it not only allows brewers to circumvent important safeguards requiring beer to be distributed by independent, Oklahoma wholesalers, but is also prohibits our elected leaders from passing future legislation to curtail this potentially harmful practice," the statement reads.

"The public is best served when state legislators enact laws that ensure a strong, vibrant three-tier system intended to prevent large suppliers from exerting unhealthy influence over the distribution and retail tiers. When those tiers are allowed to collapse, it can threaten the independence of one or both tiers.

"Brewery-owned branches also present a possible threat to consumer choice and market access. Oklahoma law has never allowed brewers to distribute strong beer, and Oklahoma's craft brewing industry has thrived, in part, because of that prohibition. If (OFML's) petition were approved by the voters, Oklahoma would not only be in the minority of states to authorize these brewery-owned branches, but it could have a chilling effect on consumers' access to craft-brewed beer in many of the state's most popular outlets.

"IRAP looks forward to continuing to educate and inform legislators and community leaders as to the threats caused by efforts to undermine the three-tier system."

The statement said IRAP would prefer any wholesale change to the state's alcohol laws be reached through the legislative process. Maisch told me IRAP "would generally support wine in grocery stores and refrigerated, strong beer in grocery stores and package stores, as long as those laws are written responsibly and are supported by a majority of Oklahomans."

He said it was premature to endorse SJR 68, since the measure is still a work in progress, "but the version that came out of the Senate Rules Committee last week addressed a lot of concerns that I would think Oklahomans would want addressed."

All that comes on the heels of a legal challenge filed on Friday against the OFML petition by the Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma. The RLAO claims the petition violates the state's single-subject rule (which calls for ballot measures to cover only one subject).

For OMFL's part, spokesman Brian Howe told The Oklahoman on Monday that his group plans to fight any legal challenge.

So, who's keeping score? By my count, there are some serious heavyweights lining up on each side of SJR 68. 

In the "Openly endorsing SJR 68" column, we have the Beer Distributors of Oklahoma and LOCAL.

In the "Not necessarily openly endorsing but also not dismissing" column we have IRAP, Walmart and the Craft Brewers Association of Oklahoma.

In the "Straight up against SJR 68" column: Anheuser-Busch and RLAO.

I also have strong indications that several more groups will make their opinion known on SJR 68 in the near future, and that will include some that are opposing it.

More than one of my sources warned me that things were going to get complicated on the way to November, and it appears they were all correct in that line of thinking. The question is, just how messy will this situation get?

Even better question: Will all the varying interests throw up so many road blocks against one another that they derail the chances of anything getting done?

Monday, February 22, 2016

TapHunter a handy tool for craft beer enthusiasts

The test was simple enough.

Scroll through the TapHunter smartphone app, find a beer listed as in-stock at The Patriarch, and then head out to the bar to check out if I could indeed order said beer.

I embarked on that little adventure after the folks behind the TapHunter drink-finding app and website reached out to me recently and asked me to the give the app a test drive.

I can report that the app and The Patriarch passed the test with flying colors. And I can report the app has now found a permanent spot on my phone's home screen.

It's worth a download, especially for people -- you know who you are -- who may base the decision about where they're going on the beer selection.

For bars and restaurants that have signed up to use the app, it can provide consumers a real-time look at what's on tap, what's in bottles or cans, and what's on deck to be put on tap. Most listings contain beer style and ABV, plus some listed price information as well.

You'll notice I said it "can" provide this information. Of course the app depends on participating bars taking the time to update their menus.

The Patriarch did a great job in that regard. Everything listed on the app was on tap at the bar. I spoke to staff there, and they said they pay a modest fee each month to be listed. The time needed to keep things updated was definitely something they have to take into consideration, because it can add up.

That being said, the time put into it by bars like The Patriarch, Oak & Ore, and Slaughter's Hall -- there are nine bars signed up in the Oklahoma City metro area altogether -- was appreciated by me.

TapHunter strikes me as a great marketing tool -- I found myself scrolling through the menus of several different bars, and then thinking about when I might be able to make it out to grab certain beers.

While just seeing what's out there is interesting, once you start drilling down into the app, you find even better features.

For example, you can follow a location and opt to receive notifications when they update their tap list. Along the same lines, you can follow a certain beer and receive notifications when it is put on tap somewhere in your area.

And if you are looking for one particular beer, you can search for it and see all participating locations where it's on tap. When I checked the other night, Roughtail Hoptometrist was only on tap at McNellie's-Norman, according to the app. Meanwhile, Prairie Bomb! was on tap at The Patriarch and Oak & Ore, and in bottles at McNellie's-OKC, Urban Johnnie, Slaughter's Hall, Bricktown Brewery and McNellie's-Norman.

The app is free to download, and all in all, I'd say it's a great tool for people who are serious about their craft beer.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Budweiser responds: Use Oklahoma's existing 3.2 system for full-strength beer

Good morning folks -- hope your weekend is off to a good start. I mentioned in a post earlier this week that I had sent some questions to Anheuser-Busch concerning SJR 68 and Oklahoma alcohol law reform in general. Eric James, senior director of sales and marketing for Anheuser-Busch Sales of Oklahoma, has responded, and I wanted to share those responses with you here.

So things are clear, this was an email exchange, and I'm presenting the responses unedited. I do have some reaction and interpretations of my own on some of the answers, but I will save those for a later blog post.

Without further delay...

The Thirsty Beagle: I know you are aware of the initiative petition filed by Oklahomans for Modern Laws. Is Anheuser-Busch Sales of Oklahoma considering filing its own initiative petition? Or would you prefer to seek a legislative solution?

Eric James: We support modernization of Oklahoma’s alcohol laws, but not if it would force Anheuser-Busch out of Oklahoma and threaten hundreds of jobs. We cannot support a bill that would inhibit our ability to operate in Oklahoma.

(Blogger's note: I didn't feel like that answer specifically addressed the main gist of the question, so I asked a follow-up: Is AB Sales of Oklahoma considering filing its own initiative petition on this matter? The answer from James: "We are committed to moving forward through the legislative process. Of course, if this language continues we will have to review our options.")

TTB: I think the issue of distribution is clearly an important issue, but one that can get technical and go over the head of a lot of average craft beer fans. Could you please explain in everyday terms what kind of distribution agreement Anheuser-Busch Sales of Oklahoma is interested in establishing in a single-strength system?

Eric James: We support modernization that would utilize the existing 3.2 distribution and regulatory system for full-strength beer so it can be available to consumers in grocery, convenience and liquor stores. A single-strength system means that beer, high point or low point, would all be treated the same.

Currently, 3.2 beer distribution law allows brewers to require distributors to meet specific requirements when delivering the beer to keep the quality intact. Some of these requirements include keeping it cold throughout the delivery/sale process and pulling the product from shelves if the product has hit its expiration date. However, current strong beer distribution laws do not allow for those same requirements to be placed on strong beer (Class B) distributors to ensure product quality.

Our distribution agreement is designed to ensure that consumers are buying the highest quality beer and we will continue doing so in a single-strength system.

TTB: Building off that last question, I myself have had concerns and have heard a lot of people express concerns about ABI distributing its own products in a single-strength system. Specifically, people are fearful of ABI controlling distribution in certain geographical areas and thus limiting the types or brands of beer distributed in those areas. Is this a fair concern, and if not, why?

Eric James: In Oklahoma, there are 12 3.2 distributors and 11 Class B distributors. We only operate two distributors: one in Oklahoma City and one in Tulsa. We operate by the same laws and regulations as all other distributors in the state in accordance with Oklahoma’s three-tier system. We, just like any other distributor, purchase beer from the brewer and then sell to the retailer. There is no separate system or special rules for our business in the state.

Anheuser-Busch’s footprint in the wholesaler distribution tier has existed for more than 100 years. It is worth noting that some of Anheuser-Busch’s owned and operated distributorships are in markets that have thriving craft brewing industries, such as New York, Boston, Portland, Seattle and San Diego.

TTB: Setting distribution issues aside, what would be the main goals of alcohol reform you would like to see accomplished?

Eric James: Since July 2015, we have been supportive of modernization that allows the sale of cold, full-strength beer to consumers in grocery, convenience and liquor stores using the current 3.2 system. The goal is to provide consumers with what they want – cold, full-strength beer.

TTB: To be blunt, this is not the first time ABI has faced a situation like this, and in states like Ohio and Kentucky, I know they still sell Budweiser. Please explain why Oklahoma would be different than the other states and why a five-year window isn't a fair compromise.

Eric James: We are proud of our Oklahoma employees and operations here. We employ 700 Oklahomans, have invested $300 million in our operations, contributed thousands to local non-profits last year and put $4.2 million toward marketing sponsorships in the state in 2015. Our operations include our two distributorships and a lid plant, and these facilities provide well-paid jobs.

We also promote responsibility, which includes significant investment in responsible consumption programs and marketing. Locally, we provided more than $150,000 in 2015 to support responsible consumption through programs like TIPS training, Good Sports, We ID and water donations to disaster relief efforts.

We believe modernization and distribution ownership are two wholly separate issues. We support modernization that gives consumers the strong beer that they want. However, modernization can be accomplished without putting anyone out of business.

The role of the government is to provide the legislative framework for companies to operate within. We believe beer drinkers should pick the companies and brands they want to support.

TTB: Lastly, please feel free to share anything you would like me to share with my readers that I haven't broached here.

Eric James: We have been a long-standing business partner in Oklahoma for more than 35 years. We employ 700 Oklahomans, have invested $300 million in our operations and contributed thousands to local non-profits last year. We invest in our employees and in the community, and there is no guarantee that another business entity would have those same values. In other states where this has happened, employees have lost their jobs, their careers and benefits have been disrupted. To say otherwise is factually inaccurate.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Budweiser takes nuclear option on Oklahoma alcohol legislation

Well that escalated quickly.

Many of you went to sleep Tuesday night suspecting nothing. You woke up Wednesday to this:

And don't forget this:

This was Anheuser-Busch's reaction to Senate Joint Resolution 68, which lays out possible amendments to the Oklahoma constitution when it comes to our alcohol laws. The resolution was approved Wednesday by the Senate Rules Committee, and if it proceeds further and all the way through the legislative process, it could end up on the ballot come election time in November.

AB launched an impressive multi-media campaign in response, featuring the newspaper and website takeovers above, plus television commercials, social media presence and a super-slick website.

Clearly, AB had all this stuff ready to go. Once they saw the writing on the wall and it became clear they were not going to get their way on the language in SJR 68, they hit the nuclear reaction button.

I want to talk about that some more, but first, let's take a look at SJR 68, for those who maybe didn't keep up with the news on Wednesday.

The full measure is quite technical, and while I don't claim to be a political scientist, parts of it seem easy enough to understand. (Other parts of it are not easy to understand at all.) The key takeaways -- at least when it comes to beer -- from my perspective:

-Cold beer and wine could be sold at liquor stores.
-Full-strength beer and wine could be sold in grocery and convenience stores.
-Brewers could sell their beer out of the brewery for on- or off-premise consumption.
-Liquor stores could sell any item sold at a grocery store, provided those sales don't exceed 20 percent of the store's total sales.
-It would be left up to the Legislature to decide a number of issues, including days and hours for alcohol sales, what constitutes a small brewer, and taxes levied on alcoholic beverages (the taxes especially are not an insignificant item, considering sales tax on strong beer right now is nearly three times that of low-point beer. The question is, where will the tax rate land in a single-strength system?).
-Changes would go into effect on Oct. 1, 2018.
-Oklahoma would move to a three-tier distribution system with a prohibition on ownership interests in more than one tier at a time.

And there's the rub for AB, which right now owns the distribution channels for its low-point beer in Oklahoma. SJR 68 allows five years from date of adoption for companies to divest (read: sell off) their brewery-owned distribution branches.

AB claims in its ads this will lead to severe negative consequences in Oklahoma, including the loss of hundreds of jobs, rising beer prices and Budweiser actually withdrawing from the Oklahoma market altogether.

Not everyone shares these opinions. Zach Prichard, president of Choc Beer Co. in Krebs and of the Craft Brewers Association of Oklahoma, issued this response:

"The CBAO has been anticipating the announcement of SJR 68 for some time now. As small brewers we are focused on advocating for tap room sales and other changes which help reduce the large financial risk small brewers must undertake. Oklahoma is already fortunate to be home to many great breweries. Simple, reasonable changes such as tap room sales will allow brewers to continue to grow their business. They will also provide a great showplace for Oklahoma-made beer and establish Oklahoma as a beer tourism destination.

"We expect there will be considerable discussion concerning the specific language of SJR 68 as the resolution moves through the legislature. We look forward to being part of that conversation as we all work to grow our business in a responsible manner that all Oklahomans can be proud of."

And Brett Robinson, president of the Beer Distributors of Oklahoma, issued this statement:

"The independent members of the Beer Distributors of Oklahoma fully support SJR 68 and commend Senator Clark Jolley, Senator Brian Bingman and Senator Stephanie Bice for their leadership on this complex issue. Because of their efforts Oklahomans could have the opportunity to vote this November to modernize Oklahoma’s adult beverage laws in a fair, safe and responsible manner. Doing so will protect the independent three-tier system, provide more consumer choice, allow Oklahoma craft brewers to expand their markets and safeguard against foreign-owned brewery monopolies. Modernizing Oklahoma’s alcohol laws is a complicated process, and many stakeholders, including BDO, have participated in the process. SJR 68 is the result of that process and is a quality piece of legislation.”

It's worth noting that until recently, Anheuser-Busch was a member of the BDO. They ended their membership, no doubt anticipating the two entities would end up on opposite ends of the distribution argument.

I also have some concerns with AB's claims. I've forwarded some hard -- but I think fair -- questions to them, and am awaiting their response. (One big question: Will they now file their own initiative petition?)

Eric James, senior director of sales and marketing for Anheuser-Busch Sales of Oklahoma, told The Oklahoman on Wednesday that SJR 68 "would impact hundreds of jobs and cause significant market disruption."

"We don't feel that this is a related or necessary part of modernization for consumers," James said.

To be blunt, a lot of what they are saying comes off as pure scare tactics. AB has been forced to divest in other states, and the world did not come to an end in those states. And they clearly did not stop selling Budweiser in those states. Obviously, SJR 68 would change the AB business model in Oklahoma, and clearly they are not interested in that.

They are interested in fighting this thing out, and certainly started by throwing some money around on Wednesday. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The gloves are off: Budweiser lashes out at Oklahoma lawmaker

I must say, it was a surprise this morning to wake up and see this:

That's a full-page ad on page 3 of today's Oklahoman, where Budweiser takes Oklahoma Sen. Clark Jolley to task over Senate Joint Resolution 68.

If you're not up to speed, SJR 68 is the key document to follow as far as Oklahoma's alcohol reform goes. It's the document that spells out the ballot question that could end up appearing in the November election.

And needless to say, Budweiser is not happy about it. Here is the key section:

1. There shall be prohibited any common ownership between the manufacturing, wholesaling and retailing tiers, unless otherwise permitted by this subsection. A brewery may, following adoption of this Article, maintain or obtain licenses to distribute beer to no more than two (2) territories within the state, also known as brewery-owned branches. However, the brewery must divest itself of all brewery-owned branches within five (5) years following adoption of this Article. Any brewery-owned branch in operation on the date of adoption of this Article may not expand its distribution territory beyond the distribution territory that was in effect on the date of adoption of this Article. No other member of one tier may own an interest in a business licensed in a different tier;

Anheuser-Busch's main goal has been to be able to distribute its own beer, and this measure says they have five years to continue doing so, before having to find someone else to do it for them.

I've skimmed the measure, and I think I've identified where it specifically addresses craft breweries and/or on-premise sales -- which of course is a key consideration for craft beer brewers.

It appears in Section 3 -- which talks about the "Retail Beer License" -- of the measure that anyone who held a license to sell low-point beer would be able to sell packaged beer. To me, it also reads that sale of beer for on-premise consumption would be allowed by a retail beer license holder, "provided that such sales of alcoholic beverages by the individual drink have been authorized by the voters in the specific county where the alcoholic beverages are sold, either prior to or after the enactment of this Article."

It's early in the morning, and I'm just reading the document for the first time, but it appears to me that brewers would be able to hold Retail Beer Licenses and then be able to sell packaged and by-the-glass beer at their breweries.

I'll try to follow up more on that point to be sure I'm understanding it correctly.

There's a meeting on this measure set for 11 a.m. today in Room 535 of the state Capitol. The Committee on Rules is set to take up at least 13 various bills and measure, with SJR 68 listed as No. 12 on the agenda.

Considering Budweiser's full-page ad, and that meeting today, we should be ready for several twists and turns in the upcoming days.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Tap Oklahoma steering clear of beer distribution fight?

I brought you some reaction earlier this week from the group Oklahomans for Modern Laws, which filed an initiative petition last week to repeal and replace a portion of the Oklahoma constitution dealing with alcohol.

OFML is just one of the groups represented at the state Capitol as numerous groups attempt to negotiate language to re-write our alcohol laws.

Another group is Tap Oklahoma, which is organized by the group Oklahomans for Consumer Freedom and is working on behalf of entities like Walmart and the state's larger grocery and convenience stores.

I recently interviewed Tap Oklahoma to ask them about OFML's initiative petition, and about their plans going forward.

Their responses came from spokeswoman Gwendolyn Caldwell, an Oklahoma City lobbyist and former senior vice president of government affairs at the State Chamber of Oklahoma.

On whether they plan to file their own initiative petition:

"At this time, Oklahomans for Consumer Freedom is exploring the option of filing our own petition; however, our top priority is a legislative solution. We believe a legislative solution provides the best opportunity for all interested parties to benefit."

On their reaction to the OFML petition:

"The Oklahomans for Modern Laws petition is a step in the right direction. Our sole interest is giving consumers the choices and convenience they want. We want to see a handful of changes accomplish this: Allow the sale of regular-strength beer and wine in grocery and convenience stores and provide more opportunities for Oklahomans to purchase local craft brews and local wines."

More reaction:

"We're still reviewing the OFML petition but believe it has created a healthy discussion. However, there may be unintended consequences in their petition. Specifically, we may need more clarification so local craft brewers with products exceeding 8.99% ABV do not inadvertently fall under a distiller's license requirement. We want to be certain their opportunity to operate taprooms is not infringed."

I thought this was an interesting point, and asked for an elaboration on the distiller's license angle. As it turns out, at least one state craft brewer has raised the concern that OFML's petition changes the legal definition of any beer in excess of 8.99% to a spirit. If such wording was allowed to slide through, it could unintentionally force an additional level of licensing on brewers making beers of 9% ABV and above. Clearly, all nuances in the wording of any petition or legislation need to be scrutinized.

Moving on, we covered one additional interesting point. Oklahomans for Consumer Freedom said they are not highly interested in matters involving distribution.

"It's our understanding there are current negotiations ongoing on how products are distributed. This is not a focus of (Oklahomans for Consumer Freedom). Our primary focus is to advocate for more consumer choice and convenience."

That was a really interesting comment, because I did not specifically ask about distribution -- they offered it up when asked if they had anything else they wanted to share. We have to remember that there are two parties involved here that are intensely interested in the issue of distribution: Anheuser Busch (Cold Beer Now OK) and the Beer Distributors of Oklahoma (primarily Miller/Coors).

It seems to point to Oklahomans for Consumer Freedom (Walmart) distancing itself from what could end up being a truly bitter fight.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Oskar Blues to hit Oklahoma shelves in April

In a development that's sure to generate a huge amount of excitement on the Oklahoma beer scene, Colorado's Oskar Blues has announced distribution here at the start of April.

The move comes as Oskar Blues also announces distribution to North and South Dakota, leaving only Montana outside of its distribution footprint.

That means one of the country's more-coveted beers, Oskar Blues Ten Fidy imperial stout, should now be readily available in Oklahoma.

From a report in The Full Pint:

"Oskar blues has also signed a distribution agreement and formed a partnership with Oklahoma Beer Imports, a Non-Resident Seller, operating state-wide in Oklahoma. Since the state operates as a 4-Tier state, OBI will sell to all Class B wholesalers and will represent the Oskar Blues brands throughout the state.

"Oskar Blues plans to launch the brands in the Sooner State during the first week of April, pending final approvals from the state of Oklahoma, and will launch the full line of cans and draft offerings led by Dale's Pale Ale. In addition, Beerito, a new 4% ABV offering, will be available immediately and will be sold throughout the state in cans. As with the Dakotas launch, final details of the official launch week and event in the Oklahoma City and Tulsa markets will be released by late March..."

The Beerito news is interesting -- the beer isn't even listed on the Oskar Blues website and has limited traffic on sites like RateBeer and Untappd. Past examples of the beer were described as a Vienna lager. I could be wrong, but is this the first low-point lager brought into Oklahoma by an out-of-state craft brewer?

Either way, this is the second boost for Oklahoma beer in a matter of days, following the announcement that Fort Worth, Texas-based Rahr & Sons was beginning Oklahoma distribution at the beginning of March.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Rahr & Sons to begin Oklahoma distribution

Fort Worth, Texas, beermaker Rahr & Sons Brewing Co. has announced it will begin distribution in Oklahoma starting March 1.

The move represents yet another entry into the consistently more crowded Oklahoma craft beer landscape.

Rahr & Sons will begin with several of its mainline beers, including Rahr's Blonde, a Munich-style Helles lager; Ugly Pug, a Schwarzbier black lager; Stormcloud, an English-style IPA; Buffalo Butt, an American amber; and Iron Thistle, a seasonal strong Scotch-style ale.

Additional beers will be released seasonally throughout the year, according to the company.

To celebrate the Oklahoma launch, the brewery has scheduled a series of parties and pint nights -- featuring a commemorative pint glass -- at locations in Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Edmond.

Festivities will begin from 7 to 9:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 29 with grand launch party at Fassler Hall-OKC. A special menu will feature a selection of Rahr beers paired with Fassler dishes.

Other parties/pint nights are:

Tuesday, March 1:
-5:30 p.m. at Ranch Acres in Tulsa
-7 p.m. at The Patriarch
-7 p.m. at The Pint in Tulsa

Wednesday, March 2:
-5:30 p.m. at Skinny Slims-OKC
-5:30 p.m. at Skinny Slims-Edmond
-6 p.m. at Oak & Ore
-6 p.m. at Fassler Hall-OKC

Thursday, March 3:
-5:30 p.m. at R Bar in Tulsa
-7 p.m. at TapWerks

Plans call for the German-influenced Rahr & Sons -- founded more than 10 years ago by Fritz Rahr -- to be distributed in both bars and liquor stores throughout Oklahoma.

According to the company, Rahr and his team "look forward to serving their neighbors up north."

Answering the 8.99% question

When Oklahomans for Modern Laws filed language for its alcohol reform initiative petition last week, one item in particular stood out for craft beer enthusiasts:

An ABV cap of 8.99 percent for beer sold in grocery and convenience stores.

The obvious question: Why did they settle on that seemingly arbitrary number?

I put that question to Brian Howe, director and spokesman for Oklahomans for Modern Laws, and the answer is actually thoroughly enlightening, if not moderately depressing for craft beer fans.

First, allow me to deviate and provide a little background on Oklahomans for Modern Laws. We know from my blog post last week that there are several groups advocating publicly for alcohol reform in Oklahoma.

There's Tap Oklahoma, which is organized by Oklahomans for Consumer Freedom and backed by the likes of Walmart and Oklahoma's larger grocery and convenience store chains. There's Cold Beer Now OK, backed by Anheuser Busch. And then there's Oklahomans for Modern Laws -- the oldest of the three groups, but perhaps the least understood.

We know that Oklahomans for Modern Laws has been around for several years. In 2012, the group submitted an initiative petition to have wine sales approved for some Oklahoma grocery stores. That question survived a court challenge, but due to the legal drag-down, OFML withdrew the measure, fearful they wouldn't have enough time to gain the required 100,000-plus signatures.

Now they're back and making another stab at getting wine -- and regular-strength beer -- in grocery stores through their new initiative petition.

That's all fine, but who is backing them? Well, turns out, they're really only backed by themselves. The group consists of Howe and main investor and financial backer Sean Campbell, an Oklahoman who is independently wealthy through the oil and gas industry.

As Howe explained to me, Campbell moved from Oklahoma to Colorado for a time, where he got involved in the craft beer scene there. Campbell eventually returned to Oklahoma, but really longed to also bring New Belgium's Fat Tire back to Oklahoma with him.

As we know, New Belgium has gone on the record saying Oklahoma's lack of liquor store refrigeration, among other issues, keeps them away.

Campbell had the motivation, and he had the money, and as Howe explained, "he just wanted change." So Oklahomans for Modern Laws was formed, and to this day remains essentially a two-mean team. (It's worth noting their initiative petition, which would be State Question 783 if it were to make the November election ballot, was authored by former state Sen. Glenn Coffee, who submitted it to the Secretary of State of behalf of OFML.)

We've got all that squared away, so let's circle back to the main question: Why 8.99 percent?

As Howe explained to me, OFML would actually prefer no cap at all on ABV for wine and beer in grocery stores.

They decided on the 8.99 ABV cap number because that, Howe said, is the number being discussed in negotiations at the state Capitol as part of Senate Bill 383.

Last legislative session, as it became clear that SB 383 would become more than just the refrigeration bill, all the interested parties -- state legislators, Walmart, Budweiser, the Beer Distributors of Oklahoma and others -- began negotiations on Oklahoma alcohol reform. These same negotiations are ongoing now.

Legislators wanted to write in a cap of 6 percent ABV on beer in grocery and convenience stores, Howe said, but OFML and Anheuser Busch balked. The parties agreed to bump up the number to 8.99. But why have a cap in the first place?

Howe said the reason for that is essentially preemptive damage control. Those attempting to write the legislative referendum are trying to anticipate potential negative feedback from voters who feel uncapped beer would contribute to public safety issues or other problems.

In other words, the 8.99 cap is in place as a sort of public relations move, an effort to appease anti-alcohol voters.

It's all about polling, folks -- trying to come up with something likely to be passed by voters.

So, to reiterate: OFML put the 8.99 cap into its initiative petition because that's what will likely end up on the state question if it comes through the legislative process at the Capitol. In fact, Howe said SB 383, as it stands right now, looks an awful lot like OFML's petition.

For people who didn't really think OFML's petition did a lot for the state's craft brewers, that might not make you feel very good about SB 383.

Don't get totally depressed just yet, though. Our state's craft brewers are trying to get a seat at the negotiation table. They've hired a respected lobbyist, and I do believe there is still time to gain some wins for craft beer.

But maybe you shouldn't count on one of those wins being the ability to get Prairie Bomb! at the grocery store.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Tickets available Tuesday for annual Mashed In homebrew showcase

One of the coolest beer events in Oklahoma City is fast-approaching, and it's marking a special milestone as well.

The annual Mashed In Homebrewers Showcase is set for 2 to 5 p.m. Feb. 28 at TapWerks. The event, which will feature beer samples from up to 40 local homebrewers, is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year.

Perhaps the best thing about Mashed In is that it's free to attend. You'll need to secure a ticket, and only about 300 will be released. Those will be available Tuesday, Feb. 9 at The Brew Shop and Learn to Brew homebrew supply locations, and at TapWerks, with a limit of two tickets per person.

Gail White, owner of The Brew Shop, is the lead organizer for this year's event. She said beer fans should expect a wide selection of high-quality beers.

"We have a lot of creative homebrewers in OKC and I'm expecting some amazing and unusual beers, as well as standard beer styles brewed to BJCP guidelines," she said.

White has been involved with Mashed In since its inception, and for the past three years has headed up organization and planning for the event. She said she's seen it grow over that span.

"We usually are out of the 300 tickets in a matter of days," she said. "I think more people in OKC are enjoying and appreciating good craft beer and are wanting to experience homebrewed beer as well. We have a large homebrewing community in OKC."

For the second year in a row, Mashed In will feature an optional judged competition. Last year, the competition winners were announced at the end of Mashed In, which caused some disappointment when people discovered the winning beer had already run dry.

This year, White said, they will announce the winners mid-way through the event to give visitors a better shot at sampling the winning beers.

Pints and Pins

-You're McNellie's group Monday pint nights: Bridgeport Stumptown Candy Peel IPA in OKC; Abita Amber in Tulsa; Black Mesa Kolsch at Tulsa-South; and Lindeman's Faro at Norman.

-Oak & Ore is holding a Nebraska Brewing Barrel Aged Trio night on Wednesday, Feb. 10. They'll tap kegs of Black Betty (Russian imperial stout aged inn whiskey barrels); Fathead (barley wine ale aged in whiskey barrels); and Melange A Trois (Belgian blond aged in French oak Chardonnay wine barrels). Full disclosure: No glassware with this event, but you can order a flight of all three.

-For the java fans out there, Marshall Brewing's Big Jamoke Coffee will soon see distribution in four-packs. Currently, it's only available on draft.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Latest players in Oklahoma alcohol reform: Walmart and the initiative petition

You've probably noticed them in your Facebook and Twitter feeds the past couple weeks: slick-looking ads, graphics and videos for the group Tap Oklahoma.

So, who exactly is Tap Oklahoma?

Their Facebook page touts the group's desire to "modernize the alcohol laws in the state of Oklahoma," and posts say things like "Oklahomans deserve more convenience" and "Save time and simplify your shopping experience."

It's no coincidence that the messaging from Tap Oklahoma includes words like "convenience" and "shopping."

Tap Oklahoma is the catchy name being pushed by the group Oklahomans for Consumer Freedom, which in turn is the front representing the interests of Walmart and the state's grocery and convenience stores. 

Tap Oklahoma has been blowing up your feed since the middle of January. Another group has been populating your social media existence since July; you might be familiar with the group Cold Beer Now Oklahoma.

Same deal for them -- catchy graphics and an even slicker looking website. But while Tap Oklahoma's website at least gives a hat tip to Oklahomans for Consumer Freedom, Cold Beer Now OK yields no trace of exactly who is behind the site and social media channels.

Alas, perhaps you wouldn't be surprised to know that the entity pushing that website is none other than Anheuser Busch-InBev.

And so it goes in the journey to reform Oklahoma's alcohol laws. We're about to be hit with a huge amount of consumer-friendly rhetoric, most of it condemning Oklahoma for stifling business and being behind the times. We should all recognize where these messages are coming from, because things are about to get really muddy.

There are many people trying to get a piece of the pie here. Several high-level meetings have been underway and will continue this week involving lobbyists and organizers for the likes of Budweiser; Walmart and the state's other big grocery and convenience stores; the state's independent beer distributors represented by the Beer Distributors of Oklahoma; the state's craft brewers; those representing Oklahoma liquor stores; those representing Oklahoma's restaurants and bars; the state's winemaking lobby; and any number of other groups.

Those meetings are only ramping up in intensity now that the state's legislative session has kicked off.

While the hope of many industry insiders is that all these groups can come together and come up with compromise legislation to get a question for alcohol reform on the November election ballot, one or more of the groups is likely to hedge their bets, and they'll be doing it in the form of the initiative petition.

In fact, don't be surprised if you see an initiative petition announced as early as this week by Walmart/Tap Oklahoma/Oklahomans for Consumer Freedom. Most everyone involved would probably like to save the considerable expense required to get signatures for an initiative petition, and instead create a referendum through the legislative process. The lure of taking the initiative petition route is that it allows the likes of Walmart to take a shot at authoring its own version of the language for a state question.

Yet another group -- Oklahomans for Modern Laws -- may also get into the game. Or, get back into the game, more accurately. Oklahomans for Modern Laws has been around since at least 2012, when they attempted to get a measure on the ballot to allow grocery stores in Oklahoma's most populous counties to sell wine. That measure was ultimately withdrawn. Oklahomans for Modern Laws is still around, however, and while they may end up aligning with Walmart and Tap Oklahoma as some in the industry are speculating, they too could introduce their own initiative petition.

And what of Budweiser? I do not have information right now that they are also planning an initiative petition, but it doesn't stretch the imagination that they would end up going that way. Especially considering what one industry insider told me Monday -- that Walmart doesn't necessarily agree with what Budweiser is seeking.

So what is Budweiser seeking? That really is the main catch-point that could prevent all sides from coming to a friendly agreement. Budweiser now is allowed to own its own distributors -- for low-point beer only. They would like to still be allowed to own their own distribution chains when/if Oklahoma goes single-strength. But they are finding little traction in convincing the other players at the table they should have that privilege. 

There's more to the distribution issue, a lot of it tied up in the complex language of Oklahoma's constitution. Unraveling that and then reconstructing it in a way that everyone likes will be difficult.

Almost as difficult as knowing exactly who is blowing up your Facebook feed.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Prairie, Elk Valley score at RateBeer Best Awards

The online beer-rating site RateBeer held its first awards ceremony over the weekend in California, and Prairie Artisan Ales was the big Oklahoma winner.

The RateBeer Best Awards compiled user reviews and ratings from the RateBeer site in 2015 to come up with award winners in several categories.

In the biggest honor for an Oklahoma brewery, Prairie was named one of the world's top 100 breweries.

Prairie, not surprisingly, was also named top brewer in Oklahoma. The Tulsa brewery also took the honor for best beer in Oklahoma, with Prairie Bomb!

Bomb! and its off-shoot Pirate Bomb! also cracked the list for top 100 beers in the world.

Prairie wasn't the only winner, according to RateBeer users.

Elk Valley Brewing Co. was named Oklahoma's top new brewer, as brewmaster John Elkins continues to solidify his role as the Bill Braski of Oklahoma beermakers.

Other state winners were Pete's Place for Best Brewpub; Midtown Liquor for Best Bottle Shop; and Republic Gastropub for Best Bar.

Pints and Pins

-If you're looking to sample a wide array of Prairie beers, mark your calendar for Feb. 12. That's the date for the PrairieWerks beer event at TapWerks. This is a ticketed event featuring 25 vintage and rare Prairie beers. The $10 ticket cost gets you into the event and a commemorative tasting glass. Beers will be available for purchase in 4 oz. pours. More info and tickets are available here.

-The owner/brewmaster of Cedar Creek Brewery will be in Tulsa for a meet-and-greet on Thursday. The event is set for 6 p.m. at the original McNellie's.