How and Why to Drink Locally

By Beacon Staff

I’m back on the Beer Beat today and wondering why so many eateries with a license to sell beer don’t support their local brewery.

If you’ve been following my Microbrew Montana series, you probably noticed a common thread running through the articles. Probably every brewer I interviewed boasted about the sense of community that made their businesses tick. They all talked about getting support from local businesses and how they went to great lengths to return that local support.

But surprise, go next door or across the street to have dinner and ask for one of the local brewery’s products, and you’ll far-too-often hear a different story. Many owners of restaurants in Montana with craft breweries nearby often offer microbrews from Colorado or Oregon on tap, but nothing or almost nothing from their local brewer.

It doesn’t happen everywhere, of course, and some local eateries prioritize local brews, but it happens way too often. I have to ask why?

When I noticed this little problem last year, I started asking around. It’s obviously a touchy subject that people don’t like to discuss. I’ve talked to brewers and restaurant owners about it, and basically, they dance around anything that might be an answer.

I can understand the brewer’s reluctance to discuss it. They’re hoping the wind changes and can eventually get the restaurant next door to carry their beer – and probably won’t if they let their concern show up in articles like this.

Ditto for the restaurant owners. They don’t want their names in articles like this and possibly lose customers who support the growing “buy local” trend and have an allegiance to the local brewery.

I don’t want to put any brewer or restaurant owner on the spot, but hopefully, some of them can send in comments, anonymous if necessary, to help me understand the reluctance of non-competitive local businesses to support each other. In some cases, I’m sure it’s a personal or business relationship gone south. That happens, of course, and if that’s all it was, I wouldn’t write this. It’s more widespread.

I’ve done some not-so-scientific research. Over the past year, whenever I go to a restaurant in a Montana city with breweries, I always ask my server what they have on tap from the local brewery. I’ve found a few restaurants with a good selection of local brews, but most do not. In some communities, most don’t offer any local microbrews, even eateries within a stone’s throw of a local brewery.

Brewery owners don’t have to buy an expensive liquor or beer/wine license, but the Montana law allows them to sell beer in taprooms, albeit with restricted hours and in limited quantities. If I owned a tavern next door to a brewery, I might have mixed feelings about my friendly neighborhood brewer. On one hand, I’d be happy to have some great, locally brewed beer on tap, which should attract more business, but on the other hand, I might worry about each pint sold in the taproom next door meaning one less pint sold in my tavern.

To that, I say, it is what it is.

But if I owned a fine dining establishment in close proximity to one of Montana’s fine brewing establishments, a place where people come to enjoy a relaxing dinner, I’d sure want to feature locally brewed craft beer, especially since Montana brewers produce some of the finest microbrew available from any state. In fact, in my somewhat educated opinion, it’s better than most out-of-state beers.

Now to the reason of this column. Please join my little, friendly Buy Local initiative. Last October I wrote a column about supporting your local brewery when the industry was faced with a restrictive regulation from the Montana Department of Revenue. Several other writers did the same, as did the Montana Brewer’s Association. So many people responded that the Revenue immediately pulled the proposed rule. So, here’s another chance to support your local brewery.

Next time you go out to dinner at a Montana restaurant, courteously ask your server for a list of beers brewed locally or ask for your favorite beer brewed by the local brewery. If they have a good selection of local microbrews, thank them for it. If the restaurant doesn’t have any local microbrews or an embarrassing small selection, ask why. Perhaps even find the owner and ask him or her why, all in a polite, non-threatening manner.

You, like me, probably won’t get an answer, but don’t get mad. Don’t threaten to stop eating there. Instead, enjoy your dinner and let the market work. I have to believe that any restaurant owner who hears from a few dozen customers all concerned about why he or she doesn’t support local businesses, well, it’s remarkably easy for him or her to make a call and change it.

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