State Gets Involved In Hotly Debated Local Brewery Bill
The bill that would have allowed breweries to serve beer on site until 10 p.m. drew dozens of supporters and detractors to Helena last week. Beer makers and enthusiasts cheered the bill, but tavern owners said it was unfair for breweries to serve alcohol at night without buying liquor or cabaret licenses. Some bar owners in Bozeman have gone as far as to stop selling beer made by Montana Brewers Association members.
HELENA — Emotions frothed over at times as lawmakers pondered whether to let taprooms stay open till 10 p.m. as beer makers and bar owners went head to head on the proposal.
Continuing a debate that's been playing out in the press for several months, supporters of the bill said it would bolster the burgeoning microbrew industry in Montana.
"The questions we always ask in this state are, 'How do we grow the manufacturing base? How do we grow the agricultural base? How do we grow the tourism base?' This is a perfect opportunity to hit the trifecta," said Paul Marshall, a partner in a microbrew startup in Missoula.
But bar and restaurant owners, including several from Bozeman and Belgrade, said taprooms in Montana have turned into de facto bars and that the bill would allow the breweries to expand their retail business without buying liquor or cabaret licenses.
And bar owners continued to warn that the law if passed would create a rift between beer makers and the bars that are now their biggest customers.
"I'm not going to support people who are in competition with me," said Richard Ogle, owner of J.R.'s Lounge in Belgrade.
The bill is being brought by Sen. Ryan Zinke, R-Whitefish.
Sen. Joe Balyeat, a Bozeman Republican and chairman of the Senate Business and Labor Committee that heard the bill, quipped that it may be easier for Zinke to pass a bill that would change Montana's time zone, given the opposition his bill faces.
"What were you drinking when you agreed to sponsor this bill?" Balyeat asked Zinke.
After the hearing, Balyeat said his comments were in jest and said he couldn't tell how the committee was leaning on the bill. He expected the committee to vote on the measure Friday.
State law now allows brewers to serve 48 ounces of their beer on premises until 8 p.m. Law also prohibits beer makers from purchasing a cabaret license in order to operate as a bar until 2 a.m.
Testimony revealed that the Montana Brewers Association and the Montana Taverns Association had discussed changing restrictions on breweries buying serving licenses, but those negotiations broke down.
Breweries proposed creating another class of serving license that would be stripped of the gambling and other provisions that are now standard with serving licenses. Tavern owners balked at that, their representative said, saying that it would still give brewers an unfair advantage because the license would be cheaper than what bars and restaurants must buy to serve alcohol.
The fracas between bars and breweries came to a head in Bozeman last month when the owner of the Pour House and Spectators stopped serving beer made by Montana Brewers Association members.
Other bar owners in Bozeman have reportedly joined the boycott, though none could be confirmed Thursday.