Posted: Mar 26, 2013 7:27 PM by Marnee Banks - MTN News
Updated: Mar 26, 2013 7:32 PM
HELENA - Breweries are upset over the Montana Tavern Association's attempt to change the way breweries operate in the state.
The license holder of Doc's OK Corral, Kris Jukpa, says breweries are virtually indistinguishable from her bar in Lewistown . She says that's not the way it's always been.
"The [breweries] bars take up more space than their brewing operations," Jupka told the House Business and Labor Committee on Tuesday. "Many sample rooms look and feel like other nearby licensed establishments."
Representative Roger Hagan (R-Great Falls) is carrying House Bill 616 for the Montana Tavern Association (MTA) in order to try and bring fairness to a system they say has become flawed.
Right now most breweries in Montana not only make their own beer, but they also sell it directly to customers, who sit and drink it in their taprooms.
Bar owners claim this was never the intent of the current alcohol licensing laws. They say taprooms were never intended to be bars. Instead, they were supposed to be places where people went to taste microbrews and in return went to a bar and ordered up their favorite beer.
House Bill 616 limits the amount of beer a brewery can sell to 40% of its total business. If they want to serve more than that, the brewery would need to purchase a new license ranging in price from a few hundred dollars up to $100,000.
Kelley Christensen just opened Desert Mountain Brewing in Columbia Falls. She says if this bill passes her business could shut down.
"HB 616 is at its core a job killing bill. This bill will greatly reduce the likelihood of brewery startups in an already difficult market to start a small business," Christensen testified. "This bill discourages entrepreneurship. It's anti competitive and anti small business."
"I submit to you that on the open market the product demand will determine who succeeds and who doesn't in the brewery industry," Hagan said justifying the bill.
Helena attorney and self-proclaimed beer fan David Hull says this isn't about fairness, because breweries already abide by different rules than bars do.
"The brewery has limited hours, limited amounts you can drink, free popcorn and a guy playing the guitar in the corner on Sundays," Hull explained. "[Bars] have 18 hours a day, unlimited consumption. They have beer, they have wine, they have hard liquor, they have fancy mixed drinks. They have music, dancing and food."
While most bars support the bill and most breweries oppose it there are a handful of establishments stuck in the middle.
Big Sky Brewery is the largest brewery in the state and right now because of the size of their operation current law prohibits them from selling their beer directly to customers. So they end up giving it away in their taproom.
Founder Neal Leathers said HB 616 would give them an option to expand their business. The bill now sits in the hand of the committee.
Evan Bowser of Bowser Brewing Company in Great Falls says if the bill passes it could close his brewery doors within six to nine months; he says the tavern association has boycotted him, so he only distributes 5% of his beer, and says that 95% of his profit comes from his tap room.
Bowser said, "If I could distribute more, I would, but there's not enough taps in the state to handle 60% of the beer that all the breweries can produce, so it's just not logical."
Robert Haffner of the R & R Casino in Great Falls says that seven of his 12 taps are Montana-brewed. He says this bill should not be portrayed as one that pits bars up against breweries, but one that instead demonstrates that Montana taverns have the numbers to boost brewery business even more.
Haffner said, "As a marketing venue for Montana beers obviously that's a much greater animal than the taps that are available in the 40 or so breweries...I think it's better that we unify and allow those beers to push out and break down any kind of bad feelings or ill will that's built up between the two industries."
The decision on the bill could come as early as tomorrow morning.
According to the National Brewers Association, Montana ranks third in breweries per capita, only behind Vermont and Oregon. There is one brewery for every 31,000 residents.