Beer Battle: Montana Taverns Versus Montana Breweries

UPDATE: The bill LC1429 has been renamed to HB 616 and is now scheduled for discussion on March 26 at 8:30 AM in room 172 at the Montana State Capitol Building in Helena. 


If you have enjoyed a pint of Montana beer in your favorite bar or brewery recently, chances are you have heard about the legislative “slug fest” playing out in Helena this session. At the heart of the battle is bill LC1429, which has been put forth by the Montana Tavern Association (MTA) and is carried by Rep. Roger Hagan (R-Great Falls). So far, the bill has been called by a host of different names, from the “60-40” bill, to the “brewery-killing” bill, depending on what side of the fence one falls.

Citing the desire for breweries to “play by the same rules” as taverns, the MTA wants breweries to purchase a “beer license MCA 16-4-104” or an “all beverage license MCA 16-4-201” to the tune of up to $100,000* and thereby get all the privileges associated with that license. Owning this license will allow breweries to sell more of their beer in their taprooms. Currently, breweries that produce less than 10,000 barrels of beer per year can only sell up to 48 oz. of beer in their taproom each day, and they must close by 8 PM.

Under LC1429, breweries that produce less than 10,000 barrels per year can only retail sale in their taproom 100% of the first 300 barrels they produce and then only 40% of barrels 301 through 10,000. Breweries producing more than 10,000 barrels a year (which today only applies to Big Sky Brewing, though Kettlehouse and Bayern are at that limit) would be allowed to purchase a license and sell beer onsite, even past 8 PM.

If passed, new and existing breweries will have two years before they have to comply with the new taproom limitations. Local beer blog, Growler Fills, notes that two potential sticking points to this bill, from a brewery’s perspective, is that any brewery that opens after two years from the bill’s effective date would have to buy a license on the open market, and it’s this open market of licenses that some feel led us to these battles in the first place (Ever try to buy a liquor license in Montana? Some have sold for $1 million).

Another point made by Growler Fills is that the “100% of 300 bbl” limitation includes beer sales for off-premise consumption too, so every growler that walks out the door counts toward that 300 barrels, forcing some breweries to potentially limit how many growlers they can sell to balance what they can serve their in-house customers. Currently, a brewery can sell 48 oz. to a customer and still fill growlers for them to-go.

In response to LC1429, the Montana Brewers Association (MBA) has put forth its own bill (HJ18), which is being carried by Rep. Christy Clark (R-Choteau). This bill would require a two-year study that examines the state’s overall alcohol licensing process. The study panel would include representatives from multiple stakeholders, including taverns, breweries, wineries, distilleries and distributors.

So who benefits, in the end? If LC1429 passes, one could argue that the smallest breweries and largest breweries benefit the most. Small breweries can sell in-house up to 300 barrels a year, or sell about 900 barrels per year and still have *most* of that sold in-house, thus keeping that “neighborhood feel.” Large breweries that produce, or will soon produce, over 10,000 barrels now have the option to buy a license and start selling beers in their taprooms, which previously they were not allowed to do.

But what about those in between? It would mean some breweries need to fork over the funds for a potentially expensive license or they have to rethink their entire distribution model. And what could the impact be for future breweries in Montana? Could setting up a brewery look less appealing? Not all these questions can be answered immediately.

One thing is certain, however, there is an important discussion happening right now that will affect brewing, beers, and bars in this state, and our legislators need to hear from us on this issue, whether you are for or against these bills. Because even if nothing passes this session, there’s always 2015.

NOTE: LC1429 is set to go to the House Business and Labor Committee on March 25, and some insiders have said the MTA believes they have enough votes to get it out of committee.

*According to the MTA, licenses for the Billings, Bozeman, Helena, Missoula, and Kalispell markets will likely run around $100,000, though in smaller markets licenses can be as low as $400. In most towns, however, beer and wine licenses average between $40 and $60k. 


Thirsty for more? Missoula’s beverage expert, Ryan Newhouse, has plenty on tap: The Best in Missoula for LibationsFamily Friendly Fridays at the Top Hat, and Meet Missoula’s Serious Scotch Gals.

Looking for a local bar or pub? Check out our Missoula Restaurants and Dining and Missoula Nightlife sections.

   Visit the Drink It Missoula archive.


Ryan Newhouse tips one back.

Ryan Newhouse has lived in Missoula since 2002 and has tipped his glass in most of the town’s establishments. He is (in no particular order) a full-time writer, husband, and parent, and a part-time zymurgist. He makes a mean hard cider and pairs his cocktails with dishes from his blog, Cooked Animals: Recipes for Wild Game.His latest concoction is Montana Beer Finder.