Brew-ha-ha 

Taprooms and taverns tussle over turf

A bill supported by the Montana State Brewers Association (MSBA) sputtered and died in the Legislature faster than a frazzled lobbyist can suck down a pint at 5 p.m. on a Friday. Currently, Montana’s brewery taprooms must stop selling pints at 8 p.m., and customers are limited to 48 ounces, or three pints, daily. Rep. Tom Facey’s House Bill 315 would have extended microbreweries’ hours until midnight and eliminated the three-pint limit. The bill, though, died at a Jan. 28 committee hearing.

“This was basically a turf battle between craft brewers and tavern owners,” says Facey, D-Missoula. In committee, he says, the bill received just four votes out of 18. “That means it’s deader than a doornail.”

Some brewers believe the bill was preordained to die an early death.

“The deck had already been stacked against us,” says Tim Bozuk, owner of Bitter Root Brewing in Hamilton. Bozuk also serves on the Montana State Brewers Association’s executive committee.

Bozuk says he received a call the day before the bill was scheduled for its first hearing. A local tavern owner alerted him to the scuttlebutt: Some tavern owners planned to pull microbreweries’ tap handles in protest.

The day of the hearing, Bozuk says, he was warned: “We were told we better drop this thing or we’ll lose every tap handle in the state.”

Bozuk declines to name the source of the threats.

“We did lose a handle and maybe more,” says Tim O’Leary, owner of Missoula’s Kettlehouse Brewing Company. While O’Leary says that handles revolve regularly, due in part to seasonal brews, the tap he says was removed was “gone last week, pretty much [at] the time we testified.”

Bitter Root Brewing’s Bozuk has lost “at least three that I know of and I’m sure there’s plenty more.”

Big Sky Brewing Company, which offers samples but does not sell pints, does not support or oppose the bill. Bayern Brewing’s Jurgen Knoeller, asked if any taverns have recently discontinued his beer, says, “I’m not going to answer that question.”

Compared with MSBA, the Montana Tavern Association is a giant, representing roughly 800 taverns, compared to MSBA’s 20 microbreweries (of which just 11 have taprooms, Bozuk says). Montana Tavern Association attorney and lobbyist Mark Staples did not return multiple calls for comment. MTA Executive Director Diana Koon says she had no knowledge that some tavern owners opted not to serve local brews as the hearing approached.

“The MTA wouldn’t have had anything to do with that,” she says.

But, she says, “That’s an individual business owner’s decision.”

The association opposes the bill on a number of fronts. First of all, Koon says, MTA has already compromised where microbreweries are concerned. Montana has a three-tier system: manufacturing, distributing and retailing. Small breweries, though, were allowed an exception at a previous legislative session, she says.

“The small breweries have been given allowance to be able to not only manufacture the product but distribute their product and sell their samples to customers,” Koon says.

Removing the restrictions on the amount of beer microbreweries can retail, Koon believes, would place microbreweries in direct competition with tavern owners.

“It’s their job to brew the product and it’s the retailer’s job to sell their product,” she says.

Paul Gatza is director of the Brewers Association in Boulder, Colo. In most other states, he says, microbrewery taprooms are treated like restaurants: Hours are comparable and servers use their discretion to determine whether or when to cut customers off.

Bozuk says he already cuts customers off—the lightweight who acts tipsy after just two drinks, for instance. He wishes he could serve a fourth pint to the 300-pound dude, or serve customers who occasionally get off work early, drink their limit and then return after dinner for more.

If breweries are allowed to serve past 8 p.m. and pint limits are eliminated, Koon says, “I imagine [taverns] will [lose customers] to some degree.”

Microbrewery owners, on the other hand, insist that the clientele they serve aren’t the folks who frequent the taverns.

“These are not your customers,” Bozuk says.

Microbrewery customers are typically looking for a smoke- and gambling-free environment, microbrewery owners say.

“It’s an entirely different atmosphere. And that’s something that I’m told regularly,” Bozuk says.

He says that his business is dependent on both its on-site retail sales and wholesale to the same taverns that pulled—or threatened to pull—his taps. “I did over $100,000 in wholesale last year. I can’t afford to lose that,” he says.

But lost revenue aside, what concerns Bozuk and O’Leary most is that the bill seems to have pitted one small business against another.

“Generally, we work together for the common good,” O’Leary says. “We just got a little off track here.”

Now, he says, “We’re trying to make friends again.”

“The stupid thing is these [bars] are places that we frequent,” says Bozuk, who eats lunch at local taverns three times a week.

“I’m right here in town,” he says. “We’re neighbors.”

MSBA plans to meet later this month to regroup. Brian Smith, co-owner of the Blackfoot River Brewing Company in Helena, says one route may be to change state statute to allow brewers to purchase a limited number of the on-premise licenses now sold to restaurants and pubs. A citizens’ initiative to expand hours and eliminate ounce limits is a possibility, too, Smith says, but that route would likely prove difficult and expensive.

In the meantime, breweries wait for the dust to settle and the taproom/tavern relationship to return to normal.

“What do you do?” Bozuk says. “I’m just trying to make a living here, for crying out loud.”

kszpaller@missoulanews.com

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