Bill to extend taproom hours tabled, but legislator says issue not dead yet

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Patrons enjoy beer at Bonsai Brewing Project. (Pilot file photo)

A bill that would have let small breweries be open extended hours was killed last week by a state House committee, but Whitefish’s representative who introduced the bill says the issue may not yet be finished.

House Bill 185 looked to let small breweries serve customers later by pushing back their closing time from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. Rep. Dave Fern, D-Whitefish, sponsored the bill, which was tabled on Friday by the House Business and Labor Committee.

Fern on Monday said while the bill is effectively dead for this legislative session he’s hopeful the issue may return in some form in the future. Fern told the Pilot that his impression is that the committee has some interest in looking at the issue more throughly in the interim between legislative sessions.

“I expect they many even come out with something this week that would create a commission to provide oversight on the issue,” he said.

He said some modification to the state’s alcoholic beverage license regulations would likely be required, and he would expect some study of that before changes could be brought back eventually allowing taprooms to operate for longer hours.

“I think there is some consensus on getting distributors, brewers and the Montana Tavern Association to all agree,” he said.

The Montana Brewers Association was among 15 supporters of the bill during the Feb. 5 committee hearing. The Montana Tavern Association was among the 10 opponents of the bill.

Montana regulates alcohol sales by distributors, producers and retailers and divides licenses into several categories for licenses for alcoholic beverages, beer and wine, and brewery, winery and distillery.

“The licensing system is regressive with licenses becoming a commodity gaining in value,” Fern said. “The license system needs to adapt to new businesses by changing the license procedure.”

In introducing his bill before the committee on Feb. 5 in Helena, Fern said he became interested in the bill when he was on the campaign trail knocking on doors and decided to stop at the local brewery.

“While it was still sunny out and people were just coming off their recreation activities, the facility was closed,” he said. “It struck me as odd being in a tourist destination area where there seemed to be lots of activity in demand for the facility.”

Marcus Duffey, managing partner of Great Northern Brewing Company, told the committee last year the brewery produced 7,500 barrels of beer employing 24 full and part-time staff with an annual payroll of $700,000.

“Most businesses in Whitefish believe we bring a great contribution to the community,” he said.

Duffey said it’s time to extend the operating hours for breweries that have poured hard work into their businesses.

“It’s time to change the 8 p.m. closure law to 10 p.m.,” he said. “As they stand now it’s a major limitation to the production of goods and services of breweries and their economic partners.”

Matt Leow, executive director of the Montana Brewers Association, during the committee hearing said craft breweries are a significant part of the state’s economy.

“Montana breweries are job multipliers,” he said. “Dollars spent in a local craft brewery are circulated through our state’s economy many times over.”

John Iverson, with Montana Tavern Association, was among opponents of the bill saying that small breweries are creating an economic shift by pulling business away from retailers and taverns that also sell beer.

“It doesn’t matter if a brewery taproom sells a pint of Montana beer or a tavern sells that same pint of beer it uses the same amount of barley and the same amount of hops,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where it’s sold it supports the agriculture and manufacturing that has occurred.”

Iverson said breweries are asking for special treatment by extending hours in taprooms, and should be focusing on distributing beer to other businesses to sell to customers.

Dax Cetraro, president of Montana Tavern Association, said breweries make great Montana beer and retailers and taverns sell that beer. At his own taverns, he said, he serves beer from Montana breweries.

“This is saying that brewers don’t want to be my partner any more and they want to end the partnership that has allowed both of our businesses to serve customers,” he said. “I can’t manufacture.”

Rep. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, made a motion to table, or kill, House Bill 185. The motion passed the committee by a vote of 16-3.

There was no discussion of the bill.

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