Brewing bill gets traction 

For Rep. Adam Hertz, R-Missoula, encouraging growth in Montana's already-booming craft beer industry just makes sense. He's got two breweries in his district, Big Sky Brewing and Missoula Brewing Company, and he sees the state's longstanding 10,000-barrel production limit as an arbitrary hurdle in the path to success. It doesn't hurt that carrying a proposal to raise that cap pits him against "ingrained and powerful special interests" in Helena.

"I always like taking on a battle like that," he says.

Hertz is the sponsor of House Bill 541, a measure that would allow breweries to produce up to 60,000 barrels a year without having to halt the sale of pints in their taprooms. The idea isn't new. Former Missoula Rep. Doc Moore carried an identical bill in 2015, only to watch it die in committee. What's different this time is the traction Hertz's bill has gained. HB 541 not only made it out of committee, but passed on the House floor Feb. 27 on an 85-14 vote. It's now scheduled for a hearing before Senate Business, Labor and Economic Affairs on March 16.

A simple barrel-cap increase is exactly what the Montana Brewers Association has been pushing for years. Ahead of the 2015 session, however, the organization joined with the Montana Tavern Association and other industry groups to draft legislation that would sidestep long-held concerns among retailers about competition with taprooms. According to MBA Executive Director Matt Leow, similar discussions broke down ahead of the 2017 session. "My understanding is that rather than waiting for the coalition to be able to come to an agreement, these legislators took it upon themselves to move this ball forward."

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HB 541 still faces strong opposition from tavern owners and distributors. But those voices appear to be vastly outnumbered by proponents. Draught Works co-owner Paul Marshall testified that his brewery's current expansion project would enable it to hit the 10,000-barrel mark. Philipsburg Brewing co-owner Noland Smith believes his operation, which began canning just over a year ago, could hit the existing barrel cap by 2020. The Montana Farmers Union testified that increased craft beer production would, in some small way, help Montana barley growers who recently saw their contracts with Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors cut.

Rep. Ellie Hill Smith, D-Missoula, originally requested the draft before handing it off to Hertz in early February. She attributes HB 541's success to level of exposure rural Republican lawmakers have had to the industry. "People get it now," she says.

Hertz dismisses critics' argument that increasing the barrel cap would put tavern owners at a competitive disadvantage. If anything, he says, the production limit puts Montana brewers at a competitive disadvantage regionally. Leow takes the point a step further.

"If we were able to grow Montana's brewing industry so we can export more beer," he says, "every one of those six-packs on a shelf in a grocery store out of state is like a mini billboard for Montana."

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