And the turf war rages on. The Montana Senate's Business, Labor and Economic Affairs Committee held a hearing today on Senate Bill 202 which seeks to shift tap room hours from 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. to 12:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. The hearing lasted 1.5 hours with ten proponents and fifteen opponents squaring off. The arguments for and against were predictable, revealing nothing more than the fact we've got a mess of a licensing structure in Montana. Following the hearing, the Committee voted 10-1 to table the Bill.
Make no mistake, "tabled" means dead, here.
Tony Herbert, representing the Montana Brewers Association, kicked off the public portion of the hearing, tying the bill to its benefits for tourism, agriculture, demands of consumers, job creation and support for small businesses. Brian Smith, one of the founders of Blackfoot River Brewing Co., touted the quality of the jobs Blackfoot provides, including health insurance, paid vacation, and matched retirement accounts for all employees working more than 20 hours a week. They are "exactly the kind of business the legislature should be encouraging," he told the Committee. He's right.
Chuck Schnabel, Quarry Brewing, Max Pigman, Lewis and Clark Brewing, Nicol Bozik, Bitter Root Brewing, Michael Uhrich, Carter's Brewing, and Paul Marshall, who is developing a new brewery in Missoula, all spoke in support. So did Mellisa Lewis, lobbying for the City of Shelby. It seems the City identified a brewery as a potential source of economic development for downtown Shelby, but recognized the main limitation is the restricted business hours. The Montana Farmers Union also showed its support.
Mark Staples, lobbying for the Montana Tavern Association, accused the brewers of breaking the deal they struck back in 1998 when the legislature approved the current scheme allowing breweries to sell limited quantities in tap rooms. He suggested breweries should go buy beer and wine licenses if they want to be in the retail business, reluctantly admitting breweries are prohibited from doing so now. It's apparently an idea the MTA put on the table in earlier negotiations with the Brewers Association. Mr. Staples argued breweries are intended to be a manufacturing sector, not a retail sector, and are cannibalizing the very businesses who sell their beer - and the "billions" they have spent on licensing in Montana. Billions? Really?
Following Mr. Staples, a variety of representatives of individual bars and local tavern associations expressed the common theme that breweries should not be allowed to enter the retail business because they haven't forked over bundles of cash for the expensive privilege to sell alcohol. Many simultaneously argued the breweries haven't had to incur the overwhelming expense of the licenses while pointing out that beer and wine licenses can be had in many places for $7,500 or less. Two threatened to remove all Montana craft beer taps from their bars if the bill passed. Now there's a smart business plan.
Not all breweries are on board with the proposal, including Missoula's Kettlehouse and Billings' Himmelberger Brewing. Similarly, not all tavern owners oppose the shift. Brad Martens, co-owner of The Rhino in Missoula and its 50 taps says in this story on NBC Montana.com (link no longer works) that the bill may help develop more craft beer drinkers who will patronize his business.
During discussion prior to the vote several of the Committee members acknowledged the current licensing system escalates the turf war and needs to be fixed. Only one Senator was willing to approve the bill as an interim measure. Unfortunately, no one appears to be willing to convene an interim legislative committee to work on solutions, either.
We're fortunate in Montana to have such good, local craft beer. We'd all be so much more fortunate if we could eliminate the turf wars.