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Dave Ayers of Glacier Brewing, one of the first to defend of microbrewing in Montana. Photo by Bill Schneider.

Score One for the Brewmasters

If you know how government works (or doesn’t) and followed last week’s quick reversal of a Montana Department of Revenue (DOR) proposed rule to limit taproom hours, you might be as amazed as I am.

Government officials usually dig in deep and don’t like to admit mistakes, but in less than a week, we saw a rapid and decisive turnaround by the DOR and even an admission that the agency hadn’t properly thought out the proposed rule before throwing it out into the public arena.

You might be saying, “No Big Deal,” but for me, this little skirmish has a big back story.

First of all, DOR director Dan Bucks deserves some kudos from brewers and taproom patrons for stepping in and stopping a runaway train before it picked up any speed. He immediately recognized that the proposed rule was way off track and quickly pulled it. Anybody who has dealt with government agencies should know that doesn’t happen very often.

But there’s more, a lot more. The proposed rule had no formal basis and was little more than a perceived solution looking for a problem that didn’t exist. There were two written complaints from the Montana State Brewers Association (MSBA) about Yellowstone Valley Brewing of Billings, a former MSBA member, but neither complaint addressed the issue of taproom hours, let alone consumption or alleged serving of beer after 8 pm, which was the target of the proposed rule.

Bucks told me that there had been phone complaints, but no formal record kept of those calls, nor were there any written complaints about any brewery abusing the 8 pm limit for serving beer. So, I must ask, why was this rule even proposed?

Most people in the taprooms think it was because the Montana Tavern Association (MTA) was behind the scenes puling the strings, but Bucks denies that and there’s definitely no evidence that the MTA had anything to do with the rule. Bucks admitted that some of the alleged phone complaints could have come from tavern owners, but no official involvement by MTA.

I’m sure some tavern owners would welcome the taprooms being knocked back a few notches, but I happen to believe Bucks that the MTA wasn’t involved in a backstage plot to rapidly force this rule into reality.

So assuming MTA wasn’t involved, who was behind such a misguided effort? That is the question, isn’t it?

I suspect we’ll never know the answer, but the next best theory would be DOR staff bias against brewers and taprooms. I hope this isn’t the case, but it sort of smells like it. If so, I hope it doesn’t surface again.

Serendipity is a wonderful thing, and for the brewers, this entire exercise turned out just fine. Now, the brewmasters know they have political clout. People frequenting taprooms will make calls, write emails and go to hearings to support their local brewer. Or as one taproom fan warned in the comments section of my report about the rule being pulled: “There are two things that will send masses of people to hearings in Montana, messing with our rivers or our beer.”

Witness the online petition put up by Dave Ayers of Glacier Brewing of Polson, which amassed 1,164 signatures in less than a week.

So, for our political leaders, listen up. Tread lightly on our brewers. If you don’t, you’ll have a fight on your hands.

And craft beer devotees might get another chance.

While out on the Beer Trail doing the Microbrew Montana series, I’ve heard a plethora of gossip and rumors about planned legislation for the next legislative session. The MSBA might hire a lobbyist to help them win some more relaxed rules such as longer hours, spiking the restriction against large brewers (more than 10,000 barrels per year) not selling beer in tasting rooms, or allowing breweries to make stronger beer (currently limited to 8.75 percent by volume). On the other hand, some brewers seem quite content with the current situation, and might opt to concentrate on defending the status quo. In any regard, some of these proposals will surely end up in legislative bills, so stay tuned and be ready to help support your local brewer. I’ll do my best to report on any bills in the hopper.

About Bill Schneider

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  1. Bill, why do you think the DOR staff would have bias against brewers & taprooms?

  2. Can anybody tell me what the proposed rule to (further, I’m guessing) restrict taproom hours actually was? I’ve read this article and the previous one (first link), and I’m either an idiot, or nowhere does it say what the new rule proposed to do.

  3. Nick,

    The proposed rule would have prevented taproom patrons from consuming beer after 8 pm, even if it was purchased before 8 pm. Montana law currently prohibits brewers from selling or serving beer after 8 pm, but does not prohibit consumption. Some brewers keep their taprooms open past 8 pm to allow patrons to finish beers purchased before 8 pm. If they couldn’t do this, some customers wouldn’t buy it, of course, which in the opinion of the brewery owners would seriously reduce sales. Hence the controversy.