It was slightly overcast at the Jester King Brewery outside of Austin on Saturday, but for the crowd of some 200 people, it was not just a normal afternoon of drinking beer: a band played on the porch, people played cornhole on the lawn, and folks swigged plenty of beer suds.
Saturday was Zwanze Day.
For those who are not obsessive beer nerds, Zwanze Day is the one day per year when Brasserie Cantillon in Brussels, Belgium, releases a special beer at various locations around the world, one of which happens to be Jester King.
Jeff Stuffings is the founder and owner of the brewery.
“It’s kind of their special beer, where they depart from that traditional process of Lambic and Gueuze and Kriek and Framboise to do an experimental creation,” Stuffings says. “Every year it has a different inspiration and philosophy.”
Brasserie Cantillon is known by many beer enthusiasts as a rarity, especially by fans of the brewery in Texas, where the beer is not normally distributed. That’s why over 2,500 people signed up for a ticket lottery, in early September, which merely gave them a chance to buy a ticket.
Brad Ward from Plano has attempted to win tickets to the event for the last couple years to no avail, so he enlisted the help of a friend.
“I’ve been trying to win this drawing for the last, I think, four years,” Ward says. “Never been drawn, never been chosen, and this year I emailed all my friends, texted them and said ‘Hey listen, you get chosen, I’ll pay for your ticket.’ And my buddy got chosen and I’m paying for his ticket, but I’m so glad to be here.”
Although everyone was having a great time drinking hard-to-attain Belgian beers, Zwanze Day also serves another purpose –fundraising money for the legislative team of the Texas Craft Brewers Guild.
“Every penny that’s made after cost, we’re going to donate to the Texas Craft Brewers Guild to try to affect beer reform change in Texas,” Stuffings says.
According to their website, the guild exists for the purpose of promoting Texas craft beer, educating the public on craft beer, and advancing the common interest of Texas craft brewers.
As it stands, it is hard for breweries like Cantillon to come to Texas because of high licensing fees that are required by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.
A two-year license for a brewery can cost between $4,000 and $7,000, which is a hard cost to pay for most small, artisan brewers.
“Most of that money will go to lobbying, it’s just the name of the game on Capitol Hill,” Stuffings says. “It’s going to go to a lobbying firm to represent our interest on the hill.”
Stuffings says it is also hard for breweries based in the state to sell their own brews.
Jester King can get away with selling their beer on-site because they’re technically considered a brewpub, but that’s not the story for some other well-known breweries in the state.
“You go to our friend’s at Real Ale down the road, who are the one’s who taught us how to make beer, they can’t sell you any beer to go,” Stuffings says.
It’s also a problem Texas wineries and distilleries don’t necessarily have to face.
“You can go to a Texas distillery and buy distilled spirits to go. A Texas winery and buy wine to go. Go to a Texas brewery, you’re out of luck, it’s illegal,” Stuffings says. “So we’re trying to level the playing field with the rest of the alcohol industry.”
Stuffings thinks it has to do with how the number of breweries in the U.S. dropped dramatically after prohibition ended.
“When we went from 4,000 breweries in the United States down to 40, beer became very, very centralized and the three-tiered system kind of put a lot of power into the middle tier, the distributors,” Stuffings says.
The three-tiered distribution model – used not only in Texas but throughout the U.S. – is also seen as a problem by some in the craft brewing community. After prohibition was repealed, the system that goes from producers to distributors to retailers has become the status quo.
“They’re still wanting to say we’re in the seventies where no-one gives a [expletive] about beer and all beer goes through us,” Stuffings says. “That’s unfortunate and we’re wanting them to change with the times.”
No matter whether the legislative team of the Texas Craft Brewers guild is immediately successful, Stuffings says Jester King will continue to raise money for the reform of state beer laws. For now, Zwanze Day isn’t going anywhere.
“Hopefully 30 years from now we’re still doing Zwanze Day in Texas, that’d be pretty cool,” Stuffings says.