Austin has three main geographical beer scenes inside the city limits. All have been determined by previously existing building types and somewhat conducive zoning allowing for the brewery/brewpub use to occur (though not always easily).
1. The Domain/North Burnet Gateway
2. East Austin
3. St. Elmo/Burleson
Some hot craft beer locations exist outside these areas, but they are somewhat disconnected from the others. At my last count 54 breweries and brewpubs exist (or are in planning/under construction) in the Austin Metro area. The majority of breweries actually exist outside of city limits for a variety of reasons, but certainly the difficulty of development in Austin is a large contributor. An interesting review of these locations shows that only 6 (barely 10%) are located where our city zoning actually pushes or suggests the brewing industry belongs… industrial zoning as it exists in Austin today. Many of our industrial areas are largely devoid of breweries because of geography, building quality/type, existing uses, or a combination of all of the above.
So here’s the problem facing brewpub growth in Austin:
Many would agree the greatest opportunity for growth in the brewing industry in Austin (like many cities) is in smaller brewpubs, not production breweries. If that’s true, then we have a bottleneck preventing this from occurring.
Austin development regulations today limit alcohol sales for onsite consumption to 3 scenarios:
1. Breweries with tasting rooms in industrial zoning, a.k.a. LI Zoning, and in some special district areas where LI is permitted by right.
2. In cocktail lounges (CS-1), which is entitlement overkill for a brewer who isn't trying to sell spirits or be open until 2am.
3. In restaurants where you are required to have 51% food sales in order to have <49% alcohol sales. Not everyone wants to set up a kitchen to be a brewer.
Some brewers have willingly or reluctantly pursued options 2 and 3 to open in non-industrial areas. However, many others have been left scratching their heads as to how exactly to be the quintessential neighborhood brewpub, crafting their own small batches near the markets they want to be a part of and serve.
Our codes are treating breweries like typical bars, or even as cocktail lounges as far as “negative impact on neighbors”. Microbreweries need to be better understood for what they can offer a community. Our codes have yet to figure that out. Currently, CodeNEXT (our upcoming new city code in the works) is utilizing a TABC classification of 50,000 barrels a year as part of its rules for zoning and land use for microbreweries. This confuses an unnecessary level scale with a market type that isn’t trying to match with that size.
If we want the true local neighborhood brewpubs with their own character serving different areas of Austin, brewpubs that are integrated into the community on equal footing with local restaurants, we need to better understand how we can make this happen. We know small brewpubs, perhaps those making less than 1,000 barrels a year, do not need a large footprint, and they certainly don’t have a large distribution or commercial loading impact. The nuisances they present can be often easily mitigated.
I recommend the following if the Austin brewing community wants a better foothold in establishing microbreweries by right in all locations where restaurants could open. Currently in effect and what is proposed in the new code is the uncertainty of going to Planning Commission and requesting a Conditional Use Permit to be allowed to operate in “restaurant friendly” locations. While not an impossible task, this presents unknown variables and injects additional costs into the process. Often, the end result is some limitation on size, hours of operation, noise (decibel levels), and amplified sound restrictions. Let’s bake these restrictions into our code as a minimum point of entry. Meet these restrictions and you can submit your building plans for permit and open without the extra hurdles. Saves time, money, headaches, and confusion.
If there’s support for such restrictions in the code, there is considerable opportunity for the local guild and brewing community to support these conditions to be written into our new development regulations. This could allow significant new opportunities for the Austin brewing community to better serve untapped markets throughout the entirety of the city.