HB616 & How I Came To Forgive Big Sky Brewing

Big Sky Brewing LogoFor those that know me, they know I’m passionate about beer; probably more so than any other topic.  You may also know I’ve recently been embattled in the politics surrounding House Bill 616, a proposed Montana bill that significantly alters the the abilities and limitations placed upon our brewers within our state.  I’ve talked to a half a dozen brewers personally, I’ve sent letters to every brewery in the state, I’ve actively engaged in furthering a grassroots mobilization strategy and I’ve engaged the committee responsible for it’s future determination on at least three occasions.

Once they get around to it, Montana’s politics move FAST.  It was only two weeks ago today that I was actually able to lay my eyes on the actual text of the bill.  It went to first hearing and House committee vote last week.  As I write this, for all intents and purposes, the bill is now dead.    And I suppose you could say, we the people, have been responsible for determining that bill to be dead on arrival.  A representative on the committee said they received more communication about HB616 than any other legislation before them this year.  My hat is off to all those that actively spread the word and encouraged action.

If you’ve actually read the bill, though, you also probably have conflicted thoughts on the legislation.  On one hand, it did offer a new (and better) way to for breweries to compete and could directly result in benefits to both the selection and variety in providers of craft brews available on the market.  On the other hand, there were a few (seemingly intentional) language choices that had sweeping impacts upon the industry and threatened to force an entirely new game on current breweries and potentially curtail the future growth of the industry completely.

It was for the latter reasons that I opted to combine my interests in beer and politics to work against this bill.

With about seven days notice upon publication of the bill, people quickly took to their sides with this legislation.  For the most part, the people sided on behalf of the breweries.  We love our craft brew and we’re willing to take a second out of our day to write a committee to tell them that!  The problem was, as it turns out, there wasn’t a universal stance for the breweries.

When it was discovered that Big Sky Brewing testified FOR and promoted the passage of HB616, things got heated.  We took this as an assault against Montana’s beer culture, and from what the average observer could possibly know, it could be considered just that.  Almost immediately after their testimony, hundreds of us from across Montana swarmed Big Sky’s Facebook and declared everything from a personal boycott, to extreme discontent all the way the act of pouring out and pissing on their beer.  I was one of those people, but I in no way support pissing on beer.

If you look at my logo at the top of this page, the first descriptor I use for myself is “truth seeker.”  There’s always two sides to every story, as they say.  Big Sky was gracious enough to offer interested homebrewers, like myself, to come down to their facility and hear their side of the story.  I jumped at the opportunity and spent three hours with my fellow Missoulian homebrewers hashing out our issues over the matter.  I couldn’t have been in better company, most of us were impervious to having rainbows and puppy dogs blown up our butts and we came prepared with hard questions.

There is no doubt that Big Sky Brewing showed us homebrewers an honorable welcome.  Big Sky insured the owner and almost every single one of the key players within the company was present for the after hours meeting.  They prepared a presentation that essentially went through their own analysis, which also provided relatively detailed industry statistics within the State so we could clearly see which (and how) breweries across the state would be affected by the law.  It was far more than I could have expected for being simply a lowly customer, homebrewer and craft beer enthusiast.

Most of us, however, wanted to drill straight to the point.  Question after question, we addressed the primary points of contention based on our understanding of the legislation.  For almost an hour and a half of discussion, we aired our concerns and questions.  Big Sky Brewing was prepared, with the data and knowledge, to answer these questions.  Where we struggled to find agreement (or at least understanding), however, was on the specific mechanisms that killed the growth of the industry.  This was our primary concern as homebrewers, since it’s some of us that might someday want to ascend in their craft to own a brewery.

Specifically within the bill there is a two year compliance period, where if a brewery exceeds the limits found in the bill (300BBL), they must obtain a license for up to $100K within that two year period.  The problem was that, according to our understanding, we understood this two year grace period to start on the bill’s enactment, therefore not permitting new breweries the same opportunity to become more profitable before purchasing a license.  This would effectively mean a NEW small brewery would have to start limiting their production if they approached this limit, purchase a $100K license immediately (when it’s not entirely profitable to do so) or immediately insure that only 40% of their production is sold from their tasting room and the rest, distributed by either bottles or kegs to taverns.

My summation of the “ah ha” moment of this discussion, where all of us pretty much turned, was when we were told that there was a cost for Big Sky’s support of HB616.  Up to this point, this has not been publicly stated or acknowledged by Big Sky, and to my knowledge, anyone else.  But, there was back room deal (by Big Sky) to insure this two year grace period would be extended to three, and also would apply to all breweries in the future as well.  Future brewery killer mechanism?  Deactivated.

The unfortunate thing in all this is that none of this was public knowledge.  Most of the breweries, the MBA and we the people had to make a fast decision on this bill.  There was no time for negotiating amendments or the results of an impact analysis to occur in the court of public opinion.  There was not time for education or clarification of specific intent.  But, there was time for one last thingFor Big Sky to singlehandedly deactivate the “brewery killer” mechanism as a negotiation for their support of the bill.

While some of us walked away from the meeting with an “agree to disagree” point of view on some of the negatives, like the 300BBL limits versus a higher one, these are civil disagreements that aren’t treasonous.  Based on Big Sky’s data, a 300BBL brewery should just crest a profit level of about $100K.  I think that’s a bit high, personally…but it’s close enough, anyway.  Regardless, it’s probably unreasonable to expect a new brewery to invest that $100K into a license immediately, when there could very well be more important investments that need to be made at that stage of the business.  However, if new breweries (at any time) were afforded three years to become compliant from the time they hit the limit, they could grow their business, save money and figure out the best strategy for them.  If they opt to purchase a license, they stand to extend their profits, can satisfy their customers their customers until 2AM if desired and don’t have to observe the current 48 ounce limits.  Seems like a decent deal to me and the math works out.

There is also the outstanding issue where, if a cabaret license is NOT available in a given city, once the two year offer on “guaranteed” cabaret licenses for existing breweries has expired.  There isn’t a good answer for that, but essentially, the letter of the law in HB616 would force a new brewery to limit production or pursue distribution in this case.  Regardless, these are matters well outside the realm of Big Sky’s control since the entirety of the MTA would undoubtedly oppose such a loophole in Montana’s prevailing liquor license quota system.

In the end, I’m glad we were able to kill this bill.  It changed the game significantly for the majority of Montana’s breweries and they weren’t given the time to truly assess the situation.  Big Sky’s story is nearly unprovable at this point, since it’s likely we’ll never see any of the amendments that were a result of their negotiation.  Yet, why wouldn’t I take their word?  It took them almost two hours two tell us what we really wanted to hear.  That they were looking out for their fellow brewers and the few of us who might someday want to own a brewery.  That’s not rainbows and puppy dogs, that’s some hard digging.

If there is an enemy to be had here, it could be considered the MTA.  They played a forceful hand by bringing this bill VERY late in the session with virtually no time to navigate, and it didn’t have to be.  Had accurate information been known more than five days in advance of the bill’s committee vote, who knows what the outcome may have been?  There could have been a coalition of breweries that might have supported a diffused and more reasonable approach within the same construct with a few minor amendments.  The MTA failed to realize that with a few key adjustments, they may have just been able to garner themselves another compromise that “evens the playing field” as it were, but is still sensitive to the growth of the industry.

Sadly, I don’t think we’ll see it.  The mood on this bill is that it’s dead, although it’s officially voted on tomorrow.  The bill was tabled by the sponsor of the legislation on 4/3/2013, so it is effectively no more.

Big Sky indicated to us that this whole fiasco has pissed the MTA off and future negotiations are pretty much off the table.  I don’t quite understand this “taking my toys and going home” approach just yet, but as long as it means they leave us alone, I’d be OK with that.

At this rate, I don’t have high hopes for HJ18, a bill that commissions a study of our liquor licensing laws from the many different interests and relationships involved, and will generate recommendations on how to best handle the situation.  It’ll only work if you have a modicum of faith that if Montanan’s sit together in a room, we will find our common ground.

I rescind my personal boycott of Big Sky Brewing company and will encourage others to do so.  Respectfully.








Big Sky Brewing Betrays Montana’s Small Breweries

BetrayalFor those of us in the know of Montana’s beer scene, today marked a peculiar event.  It was the culmination of a month’s+ worth of work to build the ground game necessary to defeat HB616 in committee.  HB616 is a wide sweeping bill that aims to change the face of Montana’s breweries as we know it.  March 26th was the day where this potential bill was heard by the Business & Labor Committee of Montana’s legislature, a critical first step for a bill to become law.

Today’s story, however, turned out not to be about HB616, the Montana Tavern Association’s efforts or even the success or failure of our grass roots or Montana’s breweries.  No.  The topic at hand is how Montana’s largest brewery, Big Sky Brewing, took to their own interests above that of their industry as a whole.  Essentially, they opposed nearly the entirety of Montana’s brewing industry and instead, sided with the Montana Tavern Association to support HB616.  (See 48 minutes, 25 seconds of this video for their own words.)  As a result, Big Sky Brewing has inserted themselves into a controversy that only could occur in Montana.

Now, before I begin, Big Sky truly did act in their own interests.  Of all the Montana breweries, Big Sky Brewing has been punished the most by our current archaic and restrictive laws within Montana.  Due to the fact that they furnish the Western United States with well over the 10,000 barrel limits found within current Montana laws, this ultimately prevents Big Sky Brewing from having a tasting room that we commonly would recognize within the state of Montana.  The truth is, they give their beer away, for free, and this expense is greater than over 40 barrels (approximately 1,260 gallons) per year.  This has been, up to this point, at their own expense and choice in order to comply with the law and promote their products.  From my own experience, and the experience of many others, these “free” giveaways result in a considerable amount of sales when it comes to growler fills, merchandise, bottles and other offerings they provide.  Personally, I can’t account for actual numbers, but I am certain it reaches into the hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars over the years.

They would certainly stand an almost unfathomable opportunity, within the construct of HB616, should they put their minds and resources to it.  But the truth is, those mechanisms are in place today, should they choose to do it.  Yet, they’ve been happy putting their bottles on our grocer’s shelves and shilling out free beer by the truckload at their tasting room.  Today, it became clear that they seek to compete not by sheer popularity, growth and agility…but rather by an incestuous attempt to limit their “competitors” through the heavy fist of law.

For those that are not aware, Big Sky Brewing pulled their support from the Montana Brewing Association (MBA), the state lobbyist for Montana’s beer industry, years ago.  This trend has been followed, more recently, by our state’s other largest breweries, Kettlehouse and Bayern Brewing, also located in Missoula, Montana.  As far as I can imagine, there are two possible justifications for the lack of support of the brewer’s state lobbyist organization.  The first is that the big three don’t see as much value from their investment into the MBA.  The second, and potentially more sinister, is that they disagree with the MBA and are actively seeking legislation the MBA would not support.  In either case, the motivations for their decisions are not public knowledge.  This recent situation, however, is giving circumstantial weight toward the latter.

That sets the stage for today’s events.  Essentially, what happened at the committee meeting, was Big Sky Brewing aligned with the Montana Tavern Association and spoke in support of HB616, a bill that is interpreted by smaller breweries as a direct threat to their business.  And for good reason.  The bill makes little disguise of it’s intent.  It aims to force breweries into a single tier, $100,000 license and/or the primary pursuit of tavern/bottling distribution.  It gives virtually no room for an upcoming brewery to satisfy their local population’s needs and is a move which is both ill-sighted to the potential and detrimental to breweries that have yet to establish themselves amongst Montana’s highly competitive landscape.  Thus, it directly curtails the ability of our craft brewing industry to grow, yet it clearly allows larger and established breweries to grow their businesses well beyond the current limitations.

My interpretation of the event that went down in Helena today was Big Sky Brewing was believing, perhaps testing, their ability to act as their own political interest organization.  Surely, with their significant profits and following, they have the ability to sustain a certain amount of political abrasions and still stand on their own two feet.  If I were standing in their same shoes, I would consider an expense to a state lobbyist organization against my own ability to use those same funds to represent my own interests.  And they have done just that.

It was interesting to watch Big Sky play their own hand in politics.  Simultaneously, they supported both HB616 and HJ18.  To be clear, HB616 is the “brewery killer” bill and HJ18 is a call to take pause with the current legislation and introduce a larger set of information and discussion on how to modify our liquor licensing laws.  It appears that they are supporting both sides, two opposing concepts about how to handle the current situation.  It’s one thing for Josh Iverson, lobbyist for the MTA, to very reluctantly agree to a study, since it would appear insane to not support this.  It’s another, however, for a brewery to enthusiastically and simultaneously champion both a rash, controversial, and anti-small brewery bill AND a study to determine if that is the best course of action at the same time.

You can’t play both sidesEven Josh Iverson knows that.  He had to rise as an opponent to HJ18, but said he would support a study that brought more information and interests to the table.  After all, the mood of the hearing revealed the complexities of the situation, the interests involved and the many ways in which HB616 was shortsighted of the situation.

So, is the point of all this to pillage and take what you can, while you can…and then determine if it was right or wrong after the fact?  Was this Big Sky’s “compromise” and “compassion” to the skinned cats, the brewers and people who had to muster a defense against HB616 with barely five days notice of actually seeing the text of the bill?   Is Big Sky uncomfortably settled as an MTA poster child that fears being seen as completely traitorous by their true roots?  Or was it all just an inexperienced play?

The unfortunate unintended consequence in this matter, however, is that Big Sky Brewing has miscalculated the disposition of the people in their action.  We, as their customers, love our craft breweries and we are not solely dependent upon, or exclusively loyal to, Big Sky Brewing within the boundaries of Montana.  We, the people, have an interest in seeing this industry grow through many different breweries, many different tastes and many different providers of those interests.  Big Sky Brewing is but one of those many providers, choices which we opt to make on a beer to beer basis, as we see fit.  Big Sky, as it would seem, has failed to understand this basic precept of their Montana based supporters.

As it stands right now, less than 12 hours after their testimony to the Montana State legislature, an almost innumerable number of people have called for a personal boycott of Big Sky Brewing.  Individuals across Montana have posted to Big Sky Brewing’s Facebook showing their discontent.  I have little doubt, as the word gets out about their actions, that this trend will continue and Big Sky’s support will dwindle, albeit only slightly.  They, unfortunately, have put their own interests above the interests of their customers, and we’re smart enough to realize this.  In today’s world of social networking, the reaction to a poor choice is both swift and furious.  This miscalculation will hurt Big Sky Brewing in the end, although I doubt with their extensive sales across the Western US, that our efforts are much more than a fraction of their total sales.

More importantly, though, the Big Sky brand has taken a hit.  Some of us will remember.  Some of us can hold grudges for a very long time.  Absent some sort of reparations, some of us may choose to forgive these misgivings, yet others may be vocal about them for years to come.  Ultimately, I believe, that until Big Sky makes an effort to reconcile their relationship with me, a craft brew enthusiast – and you as well – that our dollars are better spent with companies that support Montana as a whole, including their potential competitors.

Our breweries, if they realize nothing else, must understand that no one man can act as an island, especially in Montana.  It is my hope, through Big Sky’s soon-to-be realization, that our state’s other largest breweries, Kettlehouse and Bayern Brewing, will take note of the public backlash.  These two breweries cannot afford a boycott from their Montana based constituents – we are their sole bread and butter.  If they know what’s good for them, they won’t bite the hand that feeds them.

With such an inflammatory opinion, contrary to the desires of the people, Big Sky Brewing would have been better served to just stay out of the fight.  They would have been wise to at least listen to the MBA’s opinion on the matter (even as a non-member), seek their own customer’s input or at least tapped a few other breweries for their opinion.  They should have seen the public outcry against HB616 and more carefully weighed their choices.

But, until Big Sky Brewing realizes the overall importance of the craft brewing industry within Montana, publicly apologizes for their actions and will take steps to repair the relationships with their fellow brewers and customers, I will no longer support them.  While this loss, and even those that feel the same way, will hardly affect their bottom line, there is a significance in that the very people responsible for their growth have turned against them.  Big Sky Brewing is not too big to fail, nor is it an island in Montana.

The MBA has publicly stated that they do NOT support a boycott of Big Sky Brewing.  Trust me, I don’t want to see it, but I don’t feel this is just a bump in the road that Big Sky Brewing’s supporters should turn a blind eye to.  We are not courting Big Sky as a potential customer or ally and therefore our choices are pure and undivided.  We have a right, and some may say a duty, to communicate with the company when we don’t agree with their policies or actions.  Especially when they hold an opinion that many of us interpret as harmful to our own interests.

Bottom line, I don’t support eliminating my fellow Montanan’s because I want more property or food.  And if I did, you’d probably have an issue with me too.

UPDATE:  On 03/27/2013, Big Sky Brewing issued this statement on the controversy.  In this note from Neal, there is hardly any mention of how HB616 would negatively affect Montana’s small breweries, only benefits to their business.  Nor is there an apology present for their customers, many of whom feel betrayed by their decision to support the MTA.  They simply seem to be reiterating what we all ready know and are starting to reveal a consistent stance against Montana’s smaller breweries, while at the same time, not saying a word about it.

As to Neal’s comments about how his fellow brewers were cordial and supportive?  Yeah, I wouldn’t want to take on the 300lb gorilla in the room either.

UPDATE:  On 4/2/2013, Big Sky hosted a meeting with Missoula’s homebrewers to discuss the implications of this bill and why they supported it.  I have provided my analysis of this meeting and have rescinded my personal boycott.

For Montana.


Montana’s LC1429 / HB616 – An Independent Analysis

brewerycopperFirst, I want to clear the air.  I have no skin in the game as far as Montana’s breweries go.  I don’t own a Montana brewery, I don’t have any controlling interests in them and my one and only interest in these matters is to protect the interests of beer connoisseurs and Montana’s soon to be beer connoisseurs.

That said, I’ve been awaiting the new legislation – LC1429, now known as HB616 – with baited breath.  I was prepared to fight the good fight (and here) for Montana’s breweries, the ultimate interest being my own and those who enjoy great, local craft brews.  I was against LC1429/HB616 based on hearsay, well before my eyes had even graced the legislation.  It has been my intention from the beginning, though, to represent the interests of Montana’s beer drinkers first and foremost.

Last night, I spent my late evening perusing a draft copy of this new legislation.  I wanted to hate it.  After all, the Montana Tavern Association was behind it, and based on previous experience, I had every reason to be against it at every level.  I truly expected the worst.  This morning, that very same draft legislation was published on our legislature’s site, and at this point, I have no reservations about sharing my absolute opinions on it.  And that is the purpose of this commentary.

I have to say, after reading the bill twice now, there are a quite a few things I like about it.  I give my kudos to the Montana Tavern Association for bringing about a reasonably sensible bill that wasn’t all about protecting their own interests.  As I read through the text of the bill, I found myself both surprised at the potential for opportunity and relieved that it didn’t go overboard by calling out specific practices (like music, food, etc.) that the MTA interpreted as an “unfair” business practice.

First and foremost, LC1429/HB616 provides a mechanism for growing breweries to shed their stigmas and compete at a new level.  By that, I mean that it permits an individual to obtain both a brewery license and a cabaret license, as the same person.  This has been a point of contention for a long time, where if a brewery exceeds 10,000 barrels, they were either forced to close their local tasting room or pursue their distribution interests.  This proposed bill alleviates much of this contention.

Additionally, it provides a mechanism for those who own a beer & wine license to become breweries!  Such a thing would permit the expansion of our beer culture, further expanding the opportunities of business owners to bring us Montanan’s great, fresh beer.  What a thrill!  Can you imagine our local restaurants having their own brewery in the back and serving their own craft brews?   There’s a few other things that I truly like about the bill, that are probably worth mentioning, but I feel an overwhelming desire to get to my point.

I STILL think we need to be against this bill and I’ll explain why in a moment.  Despite the unexpected good that comes from LC1429, there’s a few major exceptions that I take with the legislation.  They are as follows:

  • LC1429/HB616 is clearly and unequivocally aimed at curtailing the ability of breweries to serve beer, either paid for or not, out of their tasting room.  It’s primary purpose is to force breweries into a traditional beer/wine license, which admittedly will remove limitations currently placed on tasting rooms, but will ultimately force investments on private businesses that they may or may not be able to sustain.
  • This bill will force any patrons out of a brewery, for those that have not paid for a beer/wine license, at 8PM sharp.  There will be no socializing after a beer, there will be no deciding where to go next.  You will get your 2AM treatment at 8PM from a brewery that either cannot afford a beer/wine license or does not feel that is the appropriate avenue for their business.  I have, not ONCE, ever witnessed a Montana brewery neglect the law and serve beers past 8PM.  We don’t need these kinds of absolutes that ultimately affect the customer’s experience, when the industry is more than willing and capable of upholding the law by their own means.
  • This bill will prevent new breweries from becoming established businesses and the growth of the industry within Montana will essentially plateau by force of law.  The unfortunate mechanism is that after 300 barrels of production, a brewery will be forced into either bottling & distribution and/or a significant portion (60%) of their sales must be tied to tavern distribution via kegs.  While I’m not entirely opposed to this concept, the 300 barrel limitation is FAR too low.  As a homebrewer, I could produce 300 barrels a year in my garage, albeit not legally, but the point is that I (as an individual who isn’t running a professional brewery) could exceed this limit with a little bit of dedication and effort.  For me to support these limits, this limit should be closer to 5,000 barrels of production, a far more reasonable point where a brewery could be expected to have the profits that allow them to pursue a beer/wine license, product distribution and/or have a competitive edge that is enough to allow them to succeed at selling their product outside of their taproom.
  • The bill takes a particular exception to define that a growler sale is defined as a sale within the tasting room, therefore these sales do NOT contribute to a brewery’s overall distribution efforts.  This means that a brewery cannot expand past 300 barrels of production unless they pursue other distribution means.  I personally believe that these off-site consumption sales should be considered to count towards a brewery’s external sales and therefore would permit them to serve more beer within their tasting rooms.  I understand that this contradicts conventional distribution concepts, and it by no means grants rights to individuals to distribute alcoholic beverages, but I think a brewery should optionally be able to track off-site sales as distribution by their own means.
  • This bill will certainly cause turmoil within some breweries that have no intention at this time of marketing their beers across (or outside of) our state, at least without significant investment that a small brewery may not be able to afford.  Once they hit the 300BBL limit, they are nearly forced into a $100K license, and after two years, the license will go up to market value.  (Up to $1M in some areas.)  Again, this will curtail the growth of the industry and provide disincentive to small business owners to provide a boon to local industries.  This will negatively affect our grain growers, our electricians, our plumbers, our distributors and countless other industries that the craft brewing industry directly supports.

It is for the above reasons, and the following all-too-import reason, that I continue to oppose LC1429/HB616.  We can have hope to amend the bill in order to correct some basic flaws that are shortsighted of the industry.  But the truth is, this matter is less than a week’s time from a committee vote and less than a few month’s time from hitting our Governor’s desk.  We don’t have the time, the resources or the means to amend the (rather decent) legislation, such that it could be a true melding of the minds between taverns and local breweries.  Even if the MBA (Montana Brewery Association) was on top of their game, this wouldn’t be a practical time frame to organize a concerted, well intended debate about how to fix this legislation.

It is very likely that an owner of an established, profitable and successful brewery might look at this legislation and see a lot of opportunity.  But, the measure of our legislation is whether it would, or would not, permit you to recreate a business’s circumstance.  If you look at this bill, and in reflection see how you could not have recreated your business as it is today, then that is the first bit of proof that the legislation is not right for us.  It is my belief, without doubt, that any of Montana’s existing breweries would not be what it is today with HB616/LC1429 on the books.

If we allow this legislation through and become soft to the good it provides, we will ultimately be left with poor legislation that further harms an industry that provides great benefit to our local economies.  This leaves us, the breweries and the people who enjoy great local beer, with little choice but to oppose this legislation.

I have come to the conclusion that we are close to a better solution, but this matter will have to wait until at least 2015 to be resolved.  At that point, I would hope that the MTA, the MBA and Montana’s breweries have improved their relationship enough such that we could use LC1429/HB616 as a basis for overcoming some of the major challenges that face our taverns and breweries alike.  We truly need a bipartisan, open opportunity to craft sensible legislation that gives way to a business’s capability and provides for rapid and universally beneficial growth.  This shouldn’t be about Montana’s Taverns versus Montana’s Breweries.  This should be about making great beer, attracting tourists that want to try our great beer at our local establishments and ultimately boosting our economy in every way we can.

We are Montana.


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Montana Breweries Vs. Montana Tavern Association 2013 (LC1429)

Beer-ImageAs a long time fan of craft breweries, commonly known as the makers of microbrews, I tend to keep up on the happenings in the scene.  I can’t say for certain just how many of these “nectar of the Gods” have hit my pallet, but I know the number of beers that I’ve either sampled or drank outright reaches into the thousands.  I’ve supported breweries since I could legally drink.  I hold them supremely responsible for my current state of beer knowledge, where I’ve shed every bit of beer racism (judging beer by it’s color) and have broken down all preconceptions of what I do and don’t like as far as malted beverages go.  They continue to challenge my pallet and they keep it as exciting as it is diverse.

Fast forward to my life in Montana.  At first glimpse, we have a thriving beer scene.  Within an hour’s drive of Missoula, I have access to almost 10 breweries and the state supports an ever growing number.  Seems every trip I take, I encounter a new brewery.  Great!  But, unless you keep up on the scene, you’re at risk of not knowing just how vulnerable this beer scene is.  Ever since I stepped foot in this state, I’ve watched the Montana Tavern Association (MTA, state lobbyist for taverns) go at it toe-to-toe with the breweries and the Montana Brewers Association (MBA, state lobbyist for breweries.)  You would think that Montana, one of the largest beer grain producers in the world, would generally have it’s shit together in these regards.  Hell, you’d think way up north here we could just drink and be left alone to nobody’s business…the rest of the world probably thinks we’re a bunch of drunks anyway.  (We are home to the #1 seller of Pabst Blue Ribbon in the entire country after all…)

You see, there’s a dark side to all this.  We have one of the most terrible liquor licensing structures that I have ever witnessed come out of a state.  While I don’t want to get into all the mechanics of the law, here’s what you need to know.  On one hand, the laws are inviting to new breweries and make it possible for brewer-Joe to relatively inexpensively obtain a brewers license.  This license only allows the brewery to sell 48 ounces per day/person and they must only operate between 10AM and 8PM.  On the other hand of general liquor licensing, our legislature rules with a heavy handed fist.  They only allow a specific number of liquor licenses (and thus taverns or even restaurants) to operate on a beer/wine license in a given area, and that number is tied to the population of that area.  This “magic” number of licenses is essentially determined by a bureaucrat, who knows nothing of the business, what the market will support and is absent of any studies for a given demographic.  Combine that with our legalized gambling and you have a recipe for high profits, low supply and insane demand.  Consequently, we’ve seen MILLION dollar liquor licenses be sold in this state.   With costs like that, a new-to-be brewery that just wants to make and sell beer would be bankrupt before they even opened their doors.

This brings us to the great MTA/MBA battle of 2013.  I’ve been awaiting the official introduction of LC1429, a proposed law that would “generally revise the laws” in regards to a brewery license…essentially pertaining to what can and can’t be done within the four walls of a typical brewery establishment.  Introduced by the MTA and a few select legislators, it was preceded by LC0653, which aimed to take a similar route of restricting the on-site sales capacity of a brewery, but at this time, appears even less aggressive than LC1429.   LC0653 has currently been withdrawn, but may still rise up by attempting a good-old 1-2 punch should LC1429 fail.

The text of this new bill has been withheld during the drafting process and so far, we’ve heard nary a peep from the bill’s drafters.  We’re hearing crazy talk like, “a brewery can’t provide popcorn,” and “there shan’t be any wicked devil music played at these locations.”  (Yes, you heard that right, the MTA may be advocating we drink and drive on an empty stomach.)  We also suspect that it will be even more draconian, potentially limiting on-site sales to a certain portion of a brewery’s entire production.  Again, these percentages will be a number determined solely by a bureaucrat and the MTA’s “imperfect” guidance, not any official demographic studies or input from “the competition”…the breweries themselves.  Such a thing would KILL small town breweries who can’t as easily gain a state-wide share amongst a highly competitive industry and it forces prohibitively expensive, ill-timed bottling equipment investments on small growing businesses that live and die by their local population.

A curious development in the story, and the motivation for explaining all this to you, came to my attention today.  The MTA has all ready taken to the defense and is proactively campaigning for this legislation.  They KNOW it’s a highly controversial bill and I’m certain they’re feeling the heat from constituents and breweries alike.  In this letter to the editor, the MTA literally complains about jukeboxes, an on-site game and the dimensions of an “appropriate” sized tasting room.  It falls short of criticizing the art work on the walls, peanuts being served to patrons and installing doors that allow people to enter the building.  They even went so far to defend the insanity of our liquor licensing laws, the very thing that creates all these problems to begin with.  Surely, I didn’t read them say that NOT ONE other state in this union might have some better ideas about modern liquor licensing than we do now?

I am the first to agree that yes, our breweries are probably siphoning off some business from local taverns and that sucks.  But, it would seem that the MTA won’t be happy coexisting with breweries until they’re forced into being cold, damp and dark outbuildings, with no bathrooms and extra licensing fees required to provide heat to patrons in the middle of winter.  I jest, but that’s really what this is about, isn’t it?  Breweries have become popular because they create inviting environments that focus exclusively on local craft brew.  They participate in their communities, create interesting events and work to draw every bit of traffic they get into their doors.  They’ve embraced social media and stay in contact with their customers.  The catch, for all of us, is that when it’s 8PM or you’ve had your three brews, you’re done.  Taverns have just as much opportunity to bring the competition, without any of the limits, but they’ve yet to realize that they can be successful if you serve a lot of local brews and don’t focus significantly on gambling.  (e.g. The Rhino, Tamarack Missoula, Flathead Missoula.)  There’s a lot of potential for a tavern to try and get a contract with Neptune, Carters, and/or any number of the excellent breweries in central and eastern Montana and try to bring their beer local to Missoula.  Do this both ways and you have a thriving industry that can become competitive enough for the national scale.  This benefits our grain growers, our farm workers, our servants, our business owners and not to mention, the people who enjoy great, fresh beer.

But instead, the MTA conspires in secret and threatens the very lively hood of small, local businesses that support Montana’s agriculture and supply decent paying local jobs.  In practically every way, this legislation has received zero input from Montana’s breweries and is exclusively designed to favor the powerful members of the MTA.

The bottom line is this.  I believe that our current liquor laws, while they certainly provide some good, create artificially inflated regulation expenses and generally harms Montana’s local industries.  We can point to 49 other states and say, “their laws are imperfect, too.”  Or we can take the first step to acknowledge that what we have isn’t working and needs ground up replacement.  We need to craft legislation with input from both tavern owners and modern breweries that benefits both taverns and modern breweries.  Our state’s liquor laws are in such a predicament because tavern owners and restaurants have spent ridiculous amounts of money on artificially inflated liquor licenses.  We need to protect these significant investments, that we created, to a certain degree.  The only practical way to overhaul this is to establish a sliding scale, over a period of 5-10 years, that eventually evens the playing field and still invites small business owners to step up to the plate by starting a new tavern or brewery.

I, for one, have read the legislation in other states and there’s a LOT we can learn from elsewhere.  That said, we have some unique challenges.  We have a need to accommodate gambling.  We need to recognize the significance of Montana breweries supporting Montana’s primary agricultural product.  We need to understand that the attitudes and preferences of today’s drinkers need to be accommodated to remain competitive.  But this nonsense of limiting local business growth and leveling complaints about a boom box, has to stop.

But hey, at least the local politics keeps me awake.  Want to do something about all this?  NOW is the time.  Next month, it will be too late.  You have to choose how you will be governed, or these choices will be made for you.

Please visit this page for information about what you need to do!  Time is of the essence!

UPDATE:  03/20/13 – Please read my updated analysis of LC1429 / HB616, which provides insight into the bill’s mechanics – the good, the bad and the ugly.  It also explains why, despite the good found in the legislation, we need to continue to oppose this legislation.

For good beer!


Get Your Big City Laws Off My Small Town!

It’s the end of an era.  Today, Missoula, MT followed the lead of big-city madness and has now made the use your cell phone while driving illegal.  Only hands-free from here on out.  The punishment…somewhere between a hundred bucks and a judge-defined five thousand bucks!  This type of law might make sense in large cities…but here, where there’s barely 65,000 of us?  That’s a hard sell to this critical thinker.  Allow me to explain.

Some might say, “Good riddance!”  But here, in Montana, it’s a fair bit ridiculous.  This is not Chicago where you have 8 lanes of traffic with imaginary lines that do little other than suggest where your vehicle should be at all given times.  This is not the land of stop and go traffic, other than that created by our poorly timed traffic light systems.  Our biggest “traffic jam” might be 50 cars in one direction and that usually only lasts for a 1/2 hour a day.  We have no freeways within city limits and the speed limit of much our road system is 35MPH or less.  We average less than 1,000 accidents per year and I’d bet half of those are brand new Californians snow-sliding into a parked cars whilst hunting their newest i-thing at a big box store.

I know that some people talking on a cell phone while driving become utterly stupid and lose their entire ability to drive.  I’ve seen it…right here, in fact.  I can recall one instance that genuinely concerned me, and that was some chick texting at 45MPH.  She didn’t look up for almost 10 seconds.  That’s downright reckless driving.  I think any police officer would see it that way and would give that person a stiff reminder to operate their vehicle safely.  For the rest of us, though, that can actually pay attention to more than one thing at once, our freedoms are once again limited.

No, this is hardly about safety.  This is entirely about our liberal city council being unable to afford the programs they initiate and fulfilling the gap they can no longer take out on our property taxes.  It’s a bad habit tax.  I’m certain that someone, somewhere in our city looked at the economic statistics of cities with this type of law and came to the bright conclusion that they can make tens of thousands off our desire to stay connected.  For those of us who haven’t adopted the near constant presence of a communication device in our ear, it’s a cash crop.

Don’t worry.  You can still mow down a cheese steak sandwich, fries and a milkshake while you plow into the beyond.  Your kids can be bouncing between front and back windshields with nary a concern.  You can even french kiss your rat hair terrier whilst ripping down Reserve at 45MPH in the rain.  You can still do your hair and makeup on the way to work.  Hell, short of knocking back a fifth of Jack Daniels and doing lines of coke off your dash, you’re pretty much free to create any other levels of distraction within your vehicle without heavy handed regulation.

It’s not all forgone, though.  Chatting up your friends while ripping down the freeway at 75MPH is still legit here in Montana.

Drive on!

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