Keg cost dispute affecting Houston bars not an issue in Austin

Texas’ complex three-tier alcohol distribution system, made up breweries, distributors and retailers, has in recent years received criticism from some in the industry who say that it’s stifling the brewery business. Add something new to the long list of complaints: the rising cost of kegs bars and restaurants must pay distributors to receive.

It’s not a problem that’s reached a boiling point in Austin, but the issue is certainly affecting Houston breweries and beer drinkers. Although today is the release day of the tenth beer in Saint Arnold’s venerable Bishop’s Barrel series, many craft beer-focused bars there, like Petrol Station and Hay Merchant, won’t have any of the special bourbon barrel-aged barleywine because they are boycotting — at least for now — the distributor who delivers it and a lot of other suds from craft breweries, including Houston’s Karbach and 8th Wonder and bigger national brands like Sierra Nevada and Firestone Walker. Silver Eagle Distributing, according to the Houston Chronicle’s Ronnie Crocker, is Houston’s biggest distributorship.

Photo by Rodolfo Gonzalez / American-Statesman. Beer kegs are at the center of a dispute between Houston bars and the city's biggest distributor.

Photo by Rodolfo Gonzalez / American-Statesman. Beer kegs are at the center of a dispute between Houston bars and the city’s biggest distributor.

The Houston bars are currently refusing to carry Silver Eagle beers thanks to a $10 increase in keg costs, up from $50, that the distributor announced unexpectedly. That’s a price hike that could “tie up thousands of dollars,” according to Crocker’s recent article about the keg price hike. As a result, the bars paying the higher prices are fighting back.

As Crocker noted in his story, some bar managers are “considering other ways to carry beer from those breweries, by such means as purchasing them in bottles and cans that do not involve deposits and providing Silver Eagle with firkins.”

Two local breweries, Round Rock’s Bluebonnet Beer Company and Leander’s Bindlestick Brewing, might have an additional solution for them: one-use kegs. These two nanobreweries are so far draft-only — and the kegs they self-deliver to the handful of bars around town that tap their beers don’t just look a little different than the standard metal canisters most breweries, distributors and retailers typically handle.

Bluebonnet and Bindlestick’s light plastic kegs, made from the same hardy material as many soft drink bottles, are recyclable. That means a price dispute like the one in Houston wouldn’t even happen, as “there shouldn’t be any deposit for single use kegs,” Bluebonnet’s David Hulama said via email earlier today. These amber-hued containers come from Petainer, a packaging company whose foray into the kegging business could prove to be a fruitful one.

Hulama sees a future with them, noting when I visited his nanobrewery earlier this year that they “offer a number of advantages.”

“They’re super light, for one thing, and 100 percent recyclable,” he said.

He added that they’re single-use, so bars don’t have to worry about keeping up with them (except to recycle them when they’re empty). They also have light protection to preserve the beer.

“We’ve had tremendous success with them,” he said. “Bars and restaurants love them. We love them. We won’t be the only ones using them for long.”

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