Battle for the breweries 

A long legislative road leads to a mostly happy ending

These days Montanans think nothing of walking into their neighborhood craft brewery, finding an awesome selection of taps facing them, and knocking back a pint of some incredibly fine, locally produced beer. But it wasn't always like that. Way back in the '90s, the legislative battles for the breweries were hot and heavy and, sometimes, rather nasty.

Back in the day, beer came in cans or bottles and had names like Olympia, Pabst, Miller, Budweiser, Coors or Schmidt's. There was a time when Coors was thought to be a high-end brew and was actually coveted if and when someone brought a few six-packs back from Colorado. The other much-desired brews came from Canada, where an icy-cold Kokanee on a hot summer day was considered pretty much being in heaven.

Those days are long gone and not much missed by anyone who drinks our good local beers. Oh sure, you can still find those same brews filling grocery shelves, but nowadays they're your last, not only, choice.

Thanks to the microbrew revolution that swept the nation in the last two decades, virtually every state has at least a few local breweries kicking out their foaming treasures—even Utah, which is not known as a great place to get a drink.

Craft brewing, however, didn't immediately spring to life here in Montana. Instead, much like the cappuccino craze, it began in places like California and Seattle and slowly spread across the country.

Those who know Montana history will rightfully recall that Big Sky Country had a veritable treasure-trove of local breweries during its early years. Butte, Great Falls, Helena and even Virginia City, among others, had breweries that were primarily started by immigrants who missed the foaming repast of their former homelands.

But then came Carrie Nation with her ax, a very stupid national policy called Prohibition, and all those great little breweries simply faded away—although in many places, you can still see their signs painted on our old historic buildings.

Prohibition also faded away—but not before making millions for notorious bootleggers, setting up enormous criminal ventures, and enabling gang control of the liquor business. Unfortunately, it was during the post-Prohibition era when many of Montana's liquor control laws were written, and it's safe to say the urge to divvy up the profits was paramount to setting up a reasonable, working system of supply and demand.

Montana has what is generally known as the antiquated "three tier" system whereby we have producers, distributors and retailers. Woe be to those who should ever suggest that the three be in any way changed—which is exactly the policy morass in which the fledgling microbrewers found themselves in the '90s.

Session after session brave legislators brought forth bills to allow microbreweries to operate legally in the state. And session after session, the Montana Tavern Association and the distributors killed those bills like baby seals on Newfoundland's ice floes. The problems, at least as the tavern, distribution and Department of Revenue lobbyists told legislators, were straightforward.

Bars are licensed to sell liquor at retail and heavily regulated by the state's Liquor Control Division. Distributors are licensed and regulated to take liquor from either the state's warehouses or wholesalers and deliver it to bars and restaurants. The pie was already cut into neat pieces and, surprise, surprise, no one wanted to share their slice with upstart microbrewers who not only wanted to produce beer, but wanted to sell it at retail to customers in their tap rooms.

Further complicating the issue was the state's quota system for liquor licenses, which produced a significant commercial value often running in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and bar owners didn't want that license value reduced by more retail outlets for beer. That problem was exacerbated when the Legislature foolishly decided to tack gambling licenses onto liquor licenses, further increasing their value. And with at least one bar in every town in Montana, when the Tavern Association said "No," the Legislature heard the message loud and clear from their local bar owners.

To make a long and somewhat grisly tale a lot shorter and sweeter, the Montana impasse went on for years while the microbrewing industry continued to thrive and flourish throughout the nation. Eventually, it became obvious that even the entrenched interests couldn't hold back the tide of change—to say nothing of public demand—and the Legislature finally, in the late '90s, passed a bill allowing small breweries with under 10,000 barrels per year to produce beer and sell it in their own tasting rooms in limited quantities and with restricted hours of operation.

The solution, as many craft brew aficionados will tell you, is far from perfect. Right now the law allows craft brewers to sell or give away up to 48 ounces, or three pints of beer per day, to individuals in their tasting rooms. They may also fill growlers—large glass jugs that hold about a half-gallon of brew—without limitation. They can also fill and sell various sized kegs and barrels for sale at retail outlets, but have limitations on their ability to self-distribute. Hence, most breweries still pay their silver and go through the middleman, the distributors, to get their ales to bar room taps.

The system is okay, but not great. There are still many who find it inconvenient to be unable to serve the fly angler a foamy tall one after an evening of fishing, since the law demands that tasting room taps stop flowing at 8 p.m. And there are those, both brewers and customers, who find the "three pints and you're out" limitation both a hassle and an unnecessary restriction on the personal choice of legal adults.

Overall, though, Montana's craft brewers have grown into a respected industry that works hand-in-glove with our grain growers to produce some of the finest beers in the nation—and I'll tip a foam-topped pint to that!

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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