Boycott Big Sky Brewing? No Way!

By BOB WIRE

The internet. It has brought us amazing game-changers like YouTube videos of a slim Linda Ronstadt, or the ability to anonymously subscribe your high school principal to Barely Legal Biker Magazine (mailed directly to the school).

But the 800-pound, one-billion user gorilla of the internet is, of course, Facebook. It’s an astonishing thing to have an instant potential connection with more than a billion people. Every few days some issue catches fire. Over the last few days you’ve watched your newsfeed morph as most of your friends (or if you’re Lamar Alexander, your “prolly lesbo” granddaughter at UCSB) have changed their profile pics to a pink “equals” symbol on a field of red. This happened virtually overnight, and is intended to show support for the right of gays to marry (each other, I presume); a show of strength against the disputed DOMA, which would put cram the SCOTUS firmly into the social and religious fabric of our country, where the federal courts do not belong.

But the shocking speed at which Facebook can make an issue go viral is also its worst enemy. In Montana, HB616, the so-called “brewery killer” bill, has had the social networks buzzing like a 105-pound college girl after three pints of Double Haul IPA.

An earlier version of the bill never got off the launch pad, but the Montana Tavern Association found a willing soul in Roger “I am for a hands-off government without burdensome business regulations” Hagan from Great Falls to trot out this latest version. Essentially, the bill claims that Montana’s microbreweries have taken advantage of the $200 brewery exemption license (proposed in 1999 by the same MTA), which allows breweries to sell onsite samples of their beers, to become so successful as to cut into the action of Montana’s full-service bars. The bill proposes several new rules designed to level the playing field, and in the process, they claim, open up opportunities for existing and future breweries to expand their marketing possibilities.

Don't boycott Missoula's Big Sky Brewing, Montana HB616, Brewery-killer Bill

Don’t hurt the one youlove.

I’ve read the bill. I don’t claim an intimate knowledge of the bill’s intent, being that my first language is English. But as I understand it, the latest version would require any brewery producing more than 500 barrels of giggle soup per year (up from the original 300) would be required to sell 60% of their product through retail and wholesale venues. This is where the “brewery killer” language comes from. Opponents claim that this restriction would prevent “mom and pop” breweries from succeeding if they had to undergo the expensive process of retooling for wholesale sales.

And it IS expensive. A brand-new empty keg, for instance, costs about $120. If a bar agrees to pour your brewery’s Hop On This IPA, they require five kegs on hand for each tap. You can see how the wholesale end would add up quickly. And packaging? A canning or bottling operation will run into the six-figure neighborhood before the first six pack rolls off the line.

Those of us who are fans and supporters of Montana’s craft brewing industry did not like this. Problem is, thanks to Facebook, a lot of people took the bill at face value, not bothering to look beyond the “brewery killer” buzzword. The bill includes a way to get around the 60/40 restriction by offering a $100,000 license that would not only allow a brewery to sell beer onsite, but would also take away the 10:00-to-8:00 hours of operation and the 48-oz. per person per day limits. Yes, a hundred large is a crap-ton of moolah. But it’s a viable alternative for several reasons:

1) Taproom sales of <500 barrels annually should bring in $300,000 per year, enough to pay off  the license quickly.

2) The $100,000 figure is at the top end, for the larger cities like Missoula, Bozeman, Billings, and possibly Helena. Smaller markets like, say, Philipsburg, could procure the license for as little as $400.

3) The latest version of the bill has lowered the fee to $75,000, and upped the compliancy window from two years to three.

The largest brewer in the state, Big Sky Brewing in Missoula, has no tap room. They can’t. They’ve been operating for 17 years and have not sold a single pint from their brewery. They had already outgrown the restrictions set up in 1999, and can only give their beer away. And they do. They give away more than $200,000 worth of product each year. They would love to have a brewpub to showcase their beers to a thirsty fan base, but under current laws it is not possible even to set one up off-site.

During the Facebook, um, brouhaha over HB616 this week, Big Sky stated their support of the bill, as a means to allow them to have a tap room. Facebook went nuts. People immediately called for a boycott on Big Sky Brewing, a knee-jerk reaction to a perceived alignment with the dark overlords of the MTA. As with most volatile isssues, this one is convoluted. It’s not as simple as the MTA vs the MBA.

I spoke with Bjorn Nabozney, co-founder of Big Sky Brewing, and he said he is confident that if people knew what they bill actually said, they would see that it’s a reasonable position for them to take. Big Sky has no interest in stifling the growth of the brewing industry.

“The better one of us does, the better all of us do,” said Nabozney. “Put some mathematics to it and this bill makes sense.” Although the bill is not ideal, he said, a lot of breweries in the state are in favor of it.

It’s complex industry. “I’ve spent twenty years trying to figure it out,” said Nabozney. It’s a complicated business with a lot of gray area around alcohol production, consumption, liability, taxation, regulation, and things like whether or not to print a message on the under side of the bottle cap. But everyone wants fair regulations and a level playing field. Big Sky just wants to be able to have a tap room like all the other brewers.

What can you, a beer enthusiast and just plain fan of doing what’s right, do about it? How about jumping OFF the boycott bandwagon and looking a little further into the issue? Why would you boycott one of Missoula’s biggest success stories, and one of our city’s biggest supporters? Big Sky Brewing provides around 40 jobs, jobs with benefits and a higher than cost-of-living wage. The company has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to dozens of nonprofits over the years. Look around. Try to find a fund raising event that doesn’t involve Big Sky Brewing.

Their summer concert series is a good example. Last year, according to Nabozney, they raised $40,000 for Youth Homes and Ride For Tanner. “We make nothing off these concerts,” after paying the bands and promoters.

Brennan’s Wave. MOBASH skatepark. Glacier Ice Rink. Big Sky Brewing gives more money back to Missoula than pretty much any business of its size. “I’m excited about this stuff,” said Nabozney. “It’s a privilege.”

In the end, according to local brewmeisters, the bill is a moot point anyway. As worded, it just doesn’t have the support and will not pass. This doesn’t mean all hope for a reasonable solution is lost. HJ18, an unrelated bill, proposes bringing the involved factions to the table over the next two years in order to craft a compromise, a set of rules and requirements that will be equitable to Montana’s bars, brewers, and beverage distributors.

So don’t join or encourage a boycott of Big Sky Brewing. They’re not the bad guy here. Politicians and lobbying outfits who want to manipulate the law into favoring one business over another are the bad guys. That ain’t how we roll in Montana.

So don’t join or encourage a boycott of Big Sky Brewing. And take down your misguided rage from their Facebook page. Let’s get together over a tall, cold glass of Missoula microbrew and figure out a way to keep their hands off our tap rooms.