Hundreds of thousands of Montanans appreciate, enjoy and support our booming craft brewing industry. And why not? Most of the Montana-made beer is produced with grains grown here by Montana farmers, shipped short distances by Montana truckers, brewed, bottled, canned and consumed by fellow Montanans. So why has the Montana Tavern Association declared war on our homegrown brewing industry with draconian legislation that would cripple or kill small breweries and the social and economic benefits they bring to our communities?
What’s giving the Tavern Association heartburn, if you believe its rap, is that bars and taverns have to purchase a liquor license to sell retail beer and hard liquor. These licenses are issued by the Montana Department of Revenue and are based on population so there are a limited number of licenses available and acquiring one can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Breweries must also be licensed, but are allowed to sell their beers on-site to the public without having to spend the money for a full liquor license.
This argument is not new. Indeed, for those who have been following the evolution of Montana’s craft brewing industry, these same arguments were used in the early and mid-’90s to stifle every attempt at providing a legal framework in which craft brewers could ply their art and practice their business.
But in the late ’90s, the Legislature finally realized that a new industry was knocking on its door, pleading to be allowed to do nothing more than work hard, produce a saleable and sought-after product, and bring their local communities the opportunity to enjoy that product on the premises where it was made.
Yet, in finally giving its approval to craft brewing, the Legislature put some of the most restrictive measures in the nation on what, when and how our breweries and their taprooms can operate. For instance, no person may be served more than 48 ounces of beer per day and taprooms may only serve beer between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. And unlike bars and taverns, the license to run a brewery does not come with an associated right to operate lucrative video gaming machines that produce tens of thousands of dollars per year per machine in revenues.
In spite of these harsh regulatory restrictions, Montana’s craft brewing industry has thrived. Indeed, it is a model of the qualities we value in Montana. Enthusiastic entrepreneurs take the risks to start breweries, invest significantly in the equipment and facilities necessary to brew great beer, offer their products to the general public and have found a willing and grateful customer base that truly appreciates the quality and variety of their local brews.
From its tiny start, Montana’s craft brewing industry has grown to a $50 million a year industry in a mere 15 years and Montana now ranks second in the nation in craft breweries per capita. They range from our largest cities to tiny places like Wibaux and Philipsburg, where locals love their brews.
Now, however, the big and ugly foot of the Montana Tavern Association is trying to stomp the breweries back into the barley dust from which they came. The bill has yet to be introduced, but the unofficial draft copy of the measure requested by Rep. Roger Hagen, R-Great Falls, LC1429, is outlandish.
For instance, a small brewery’s tap room “may not be utilized for a secondary purpose of providing entertainment or food to customers.” Entertainment “includes but is not limited to television coverage of anything other than the brewer’s product and the brewing process, dancing, live music, radio broadcasts, pre-recorded music, amusement games, arcade games, darts, pool tables and sporting events.” The food which would be banned includes “products suitable for human food consumption other than water and beer that was brewed and fermented on the premises.” No illegal peanuts or popcorn allowed with your pint at the breweries – and no music or dancing, says the Montana Tavern Association.
To cripple breweries economically, the measure also puts unrealistic restrictions on what percentage of beer may be sold in taprooms, which are often the lifeblood of new breweries struggling to afford the canning and bottling lines necessary to boost outside sales.
Make no mistake, many Montana bars have great relations with their local brewers. But the Montana Tavern Association’s foolish bill threatens to derail a growing industry, kill Montana jobs, and make enemies of Montana’s craft brewing industry and the tens of thousands of Montanans who support it.