In the span of 24 hours this week, nearly 200 people signed an online petition to boycott Big Sky Brewing Company. Commenters took to Facebook to call out Big Sky as a "traitor" and a "Judas" in Montana's craft beer industry. There's even an internet meme: The word "shame" stamped across the Big Sky logo.
All that vitriol began within minutes of Big Sky co-founder Neal Leathers' testimony March 26 in favor of House Bill 616, the so-called brewery killer bill. The measure would revise laws affecting brewery taprooms, requiring brewers to either purchase a potentially back-breakingly expensive state license or agree to sell no more than 40 percent of their product on-premise. Leathers' testimony was direct: He just wants to be able to sell pints like the other 40 breweries in Montana, rather than be limited to offering free samples.
"We're being painted with a brush that I don't think really fits us," Leathers told the Indy shortly after his return from Helena. "We were simply saying if this bill passed and we were under the rules and regulations as all the other breweries in Montana, that'd be a good thing for Big Sky."
Problem is, what's good for Big Sky isn't necessarily good for every other craft brewer in the state. Leathers contends HB 616 will ultimately benefit most breweries by lifting the current limitations on business, even if it forces those breweries to buy into the state's licensing system. That doesn't come cheap, though, especially for brewers in markets where beer retailer and all-beverage license quotas are already met. Of the 40 small breweries statewide, 29 would have to pay the full $100,000 licensing fee—benefitting the state's general fund to the tune of $2.9 million by 2015.
Leathers says that if HB 616 were a true "brewery killer," Big Sky wouldn't be supporting it. But Big Sky is the only brewery standing alongside the Montana Tavern Association as a proponent, which alone says plenty.
Big Sky is Montana's greatest success story when it comes to craft brewing, and while breaching the 10,000-barrel production limit has already made them an outcast of sorts, the brewery and its beer still occupy a special place in this state. That's exactly why Big Sky's stance, and the backlash it's prompted, are such bitter mouthfuls to swallow.