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Brew battle: Tavern owners oppose longer hours for microbrew tap rooms

Posted: 11:35 AM, Feb 06, 2019
Updated: 2019-02-06 13:35:41-05

HELENA – Tavern and restaurant owners lined up Tuesday to oppose a bill extending microbreweries’ tap-room hours to 10 p.m. in Montana, saying it gives craft brewers an unfair competitive advantage on retail sales of beer.

If microbreweries want longer hours for their tap rooms, they should buy a state alcoholic-beverage license, just like taverns and restaurants must do, their owners and lobbyists told the House Business and Labor Committee.

“This bill is not about economic growth; it’s an economic shift,” said John Iverson of the Montana Tavern Association. “When a new brewery opens and they hire a new bartender, a bar closes and fires a bartender. …

“Breweries that want to retail more beer through this limited exception want to have their cake and eat ours, too.”

House Bill 185, sponsored by Rep. Dave Fern, D-Whitefish, would set brewery tap rooms’ closing time at 10 p.m. instead of 8 p.m.

Breweries don’t have a retail alcoholic-beverage license, but are allowed to sell their beer at tap rooms from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. under an exception in the law.

Fern said consumer demand is driving the boom in microbreweries across Montana, and that they deserve to have longer hours so they can expand what are essentially manufacturing businesses that employ many people.

Microbrewers also showed up in force at the hearing to support HB185, saying tap-room traffic is vital for their business – which is having an increasing economic impact across the state.

“The tap room is the cornerstone of any craft brewery,” said Matt Leow of the Montana Brewers Association. “It’s how a brewer markets their beer and tests new recipes. It’s how a brewer builds their brand to the point that a bar or restaurant will put their beer on tap.”

Amanda Dinstel of Bias Brewing in Kalispell said if the brewery could stay open an additional two hours, it would brew more beer – and hire more people to make and serve it.

“To make that beer, I will be reinvesting in factory equipment and I will be hiring another brewer, immediately,” she said.

Farmers who grow malt barley and hops also testified for the bill, saying more craft-beer production in Montana means more business for them and a boost for flagging small-town economies.

Yet tavern owners said that beer consumption in Montana is not growing any faster than the population, so craft brewers are merely taking a bigger piece of the retail pie – and don’t need any additional breaks or advantages over bars and restaurants.

“This is just one more example of the brewers seeking preferential treatment under the law,” said Brad Griffin of the Montana Restaurant Association. “Don’t get me wrong – we like their product. We just want them to pay for the proper license, like we did.”

Alcoholic-beverage retail licenses are limited by geographic quotas in Montana and can run into the high six figures in some cities.

Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Libby, asked a state revenue official how many beverage licenses are available in Libby, which has a microbrewery that might want longer hours. The answer: Zero.

The committee will vote later on the bill.