Bad Beer Laws

There must be a better way

By Kellyn Brown

Extending hours for Montana breweries should be a no-brainer, but it won’t be. The state Legislature will instead discuss how taprooms already have an unfair advantage over bars and restaurants, many of which spent tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege to serve alcohol.

Right now, breweries are required by law to stop serving beer at 8 p.m. A bill proposed by Whitefish lawmaker Dave Fern would have extended that to 10 p.m. — you know, when it’s still light outside during the summer months — but it died in committee. He argued it would have been good for the economy and brewers agreed.

“We’re an economic driver in the state,” Matt Leow, Montana Brewers Association executive director, said.

They’re right. But it didn’t matter because opponents, including the Montana Tavern Association, argued that the legislation would allow breweries to further circumvent a quota system that has been in place since Prohibition. They’re also right — it would have.

That’s the problem. To no fault of licensees, many of whom have spent their hard-earned dollars to buy an alcohol license, we’re stuck in an archaic system that hasn’t worked for years. There’s no easy way out of it. And there are actually proposals under consideration to make it worse.

The ability to serve wine, beer and liquor can make or break any establishment, but especially those considered bars or sit-down restaurants. And the enormous expense of obtaining a license serves as an additional deterrent to independent restaurateurs.

The argument that these licenses are investments — often fetching a half-million dollars, or more — is valid. If the system is overhauled, those who have spent a substantial amount of money need to be compensated somehow. But, to be clear, that’s not always the case.

Licenses used in counties, often purchased at much lower prices, have been annexed into cities, making them far more valuable. For years, licenses were also divvied up by a lottery system, an imperfect system because the success of an eatery was partially determined by chance, but it at least provided entrepreneurs with little means a fighting chance.

Now that may be eliminated and replaced with a competitive bidding process. The state switched to the auction system during a 2017 special session to help make up a revenue shortfall. Now, state Sen. Ed Buttrey, who owns bars and casinos in the Flathead and around Great Falls, has proposed legislation to make it permanent, although he said the bill wouldn’t affect him.

The Montana Tavern Association supports the proposal, saying the state has been giving something very valuable away through a lottery process. This change could make licenses even more expensive. What happens if the only entities that can afford them are chain restaurants? What happens if many Montanans are priced out even further?

One of the many attractions of local breweries is they’re usually owned and operated by people you know: friends and neighbors willing to invest in the community they live in. They also provide a sense of place and, yes, spur economic development, especially in rural areas. But in Montana, we make them close at 8 p.m. for no other reason than to protect a system that was outdated decades ago. And instead of fixing it, our lawmakers might double down.

There must be a better way.