Thursday, December 31, 2009

Montana Beer Laws 101: Dude, Where's My Pint?

If you've ventured into a Montana tap room, you've probably read the signs or otherwise been informed of the limited amount of beer you can purchase to consume on site. Or perhaps you wondered why there's no food for sale. Or, to your horror, discovered at 8:01 p.m. that the taps were shut off until the following day. The hows and whys are a product of the complexity of Montana's alcohol laws and the culture that has risen up to protect them.  That Montana has these crazy laws regulating tap room sales at all is a product of compromise within and without this culture. Among these laws are wonderfully encouraging phrases like "It is the intention of this section to prohibit brewers and beer importers from engaging in the retail sale of beer." (16-3-213(1), MCA). I won't pretend to delve deeply into the details, but can have a little fun describing the basics.  For this post, we'll take a look at tap room sales.

Like other states, if you want to sell beer or other alcohol in Montana, you've got to have a license - and there's a variety of them. At some point, I'll put together a list. The system is heavily regulated and represents a fascinating insight into decades of legislative wrangling.  When breweries started popping up again in the 1980s, selling pints at the breweries wasn't allowed. That didn't come along until 1999 (gasp!).  Here's the current text in the Montana Code (Sec. 16-3-213 (2)(b), MCA) providing for the on premise sale of pints:
A small brewery may, at one location for each brewery license, provide samples of beer that were brewed and fermented on the premises in a sample room located on the licensed premises. The samples may be provided with or without charge between the hours of 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. No more than 48 ounces of malt beverage may be sold or given to each individual customer during a business day.
There's a bunch of information in these three sentences. First, the beer doesn't have to be sold. It can be given away to your favorite beer bloggers (hint, hint). In any event, it can only be sold between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. and there's a limit of 48 ounces per person per day. The picture accompanying this post is Kettlehouse's method of keeping track of your state mandated limit.  Note that sales can only happen in a "sample room" located at the brewery. The Department of Revenue has interpreted a "sample room" to include a deck or a patio as long as it "is immediately adjacent to the brewery sample room and can only be accessed from the sample room."  (42.13.601, A.R.M.) The deck or patio must also "be enclosed in such a manner as to restrict its access and view from the general public on the street or sidewalk." See, Bayern's, Glacier's and Blacksmith's patio spaces, to name a few, look that way for a reason.

Lastly, you might be wondering what a "small brewery" is. A small brewery is "a brewery that has an annual nationwide production of not less than 100 barrels or more than 10,000 barrels."  (Sec. 16-3-213 (2)(a), MCA.) If you've thought it was odd that Big Sky Brewing in Missoula doesn't sell pints at the brewery, there's your answer.  Whether they would like to do so or not, they can't, given their annal production of more than 10,000 barrels of beer. Which raises an interesting issue. We reward the success of our Montana grown breweries by cutting off a popular and profitable outlet for their beer. 

In the next installment: Montana Beer Laws 102: Cheeseburger anyone?


  1. Hi! Google directed me to your blog as I was searching for more information on two MT breweries.(Bozone & Neptune...specifically brewery hours esp. for the filling of growlers purchased at said breweries) We're just passing through on a move across the country and like to collect growlers (full of beer, obviously) from places we visit...

    But reading this post leads me to believe that you can't actually purchase a filled growler from a brewery? (Am I reading this and inferring correctly?) If that's the case, where do you fill your growlers and/or how does one go about doing this in MT?? (I'm assuming you must, given the name of your blog!)

    Thanks for any tips you can give! Great blog too, by the way!

  2. Kim,

    I have no idea why your comment just now popped up for me, but I'm just now seeing it. Weird. I apologize for not getting it earlier. I hope your move across the country went well. As you probably discovered as you passed through Montana, you can indeed purchase growlers and get them filled in Montana's breweries. Some, like Big Sky, even have plastic and metal growlers/containers which work well for taking great craft beer on the rivers for a fantastic float (glass is illegal on the rivers).

    Neptune is one of Montana's breweries I've not yet made it to and I'm curious what you thought of it. If you make it back through Montana I can sure give you some great tips on more beer adventures.