The Top Stories in Montana Beer for 2013

With the sun about to set on 2013, it’s time to reflect on this year’s top beer-related stories. From new breweries to greater choices to a visit from a craft beer legend, there was plenty of beer news making waves during the past year.  Read on for my take on the top stories in Montana beer for 2013. 

5.   Homebrewing Gains Higher Profile

In 2013, homebrewing became legal in all 50 states with Alabama and Mississippi finally joining the fold.  The American Homebrewers Association reports increasing sales in U.S. homebrew shops, including a significant rise in the sale of beginner equipment.  The AHA estimates there are 1.2 million homebrewers in the U.S. and two-thirds of them started in 2005 or later.  (Though I’m rarely one to be ahead of the curve, I’ve been at it since 1997.)

Here in Montana, homebrewing has long been legal, but its popularity took new steps this year.  Out of some friendly smack talk among homebrew clubs in Missoula, Bozeman and Billings formed the state’s first statewide homebrew competition.

Dubbed the Montana Mashup, homebrewers from around the state entered 129 beers in nine categories for this inaugural event.  The winner received the chance to brew his beer on the big scale with Bozeman’s Bridger Brewing. As the winning club, Missoula’s Zoo City Zymurgists won the right to host next year’s competition and they already have tough shoes to follow. 

4.   Increasing Choices/Availability

Fellow blogger Ryan at Montana Beer Finder beat me to this one, but there’s no question that beer distributed in Montana took a significant step forward in 2013.  We love our Montana beer, but as beer geeks we’re always on the lookout for new choices, too.

Craft Beer Guild Distributing of Montana, Montana’s new kid on the block, made a big splash with a wide variety of beers from New Zealand, Scotland, France, Germany and even Lebanon.  Intermountain Distributing in Billings signed up importers Vanberg & DeWulf, significantly increasing the number of Belgian and Belgian-ish beers available in the state.

Bigger beer names like Green Flash and Elysian made their debut while nearby Idaho breweries Laughing Dog and Wallace Brewing hopped over the state line.  Word has it Selkirk Abbey of Post Falls, ID, and their Belgian-inspired beers will be arriving soon, too.

What does it mean?  Well, most of the regional breweries still skip Montana and many of the up and coming Oregon and Washington breweries continue to think the earth ends at Idaho.  Think Allagash, Dogfish Head, Midnight Sun, Boulevard, Avery, AleSmith, 21st Amendment, Gigantic, Fort George – to barely scratch the surface.  Yet, distribution is improving and that’s a trend which is sure to continue.

3.   What Bubble?

In October I took some time to update the list of Montana breweries that appears in the side bar on this blog, choosing to add any brewery that was currently under construction.  With two more opening this month and several more announced, I recently did another update.  Billings just got another one, Butte is about to get its second, Great Falls’ third just opened up, and, if they all come to fruition, Missoula is set to have eight within the next year or so.  That’s 39 operating breweries, eight under construction, three more announced and in the works, and several more in the rumor and slightly-more-than-rumor-but-can’t-say-more stage. 

All of which raises that “bubble” question. Is craft beer setting itself up for a bubble burst? It’s a subject I and many others wrote about for the October Session.  My short answer, after consulting with the Growler Fills Staff Economist, is no, it’s not a bubble, it’s a cobweb.  You’ll find the long answer, including an explanation for that cobweb thing, here.

2.   Charlie Papazian Visits Montana, Touts Montana Beer

August hosted one of the best craft beer related events to ever grace Montana as Charlie Papazian, craft beer and hombrewing legend and current president of the Brewers Association, took part in the Montana Brewers Association’s cruise on Flathead Lake.  As he finished his remarks to the collection of brewers, owners, industry members and fans assembled on the boat, Charlie confidently declared this unique floating brew fest “the best state association gathering ever!”

Charlie returned to Montana in September to take part in Senator Max Baucus’ Economic Summit, leading a panel discussion on the future of Montana craft beer. The Summit featured CEOs from Ford Motor Company, Delta Airlines, Google, Boeing and more to talk about heady topics like wind energy, the growth of biochemicals, and exporting.  And beer. It’s come a long way.

More recently, Charlie wrote an article for the New Brewer, the Brewers Association’s trade magazine, discussing his experience at the Economic Summit.  He used Montana as an example of the growth and importance of craft beer not only to the general economy, but to the revitalization of neighborhoods and towns.  It’s something we already knew about beer here in Montana, but wonderfully fascinating to get this kind of exposure beyond our borders.

1. Craft Beer Lovers’ Impact on the Montana Legislature 

It may seem like much longer ago and a chapter most would like to forget, but the 2013 Montana legislative session went from relatively quiet to full-on assault on Montana’s tap rooms in a matter of one day.

January was barely half over when news broke – here first, I might add – that the Montana Tavern Association planned to introduce a bill to limit on-premise sales at taprooms to no more than 10% of a brewery’s annual production.  Given that many of Montana’s breweries sell well more than 75% of their beer at their tap-rooms, the effect would be – and was intended to be – devastating.

Montana’s craft beer fans sprang into action, spreading the word through social media and calling and emailing legislators with abandon.  The bill’s first sponsor pulled out, claiming he was only a placeholder for the bill.  The bill was subsequently shelved, only to be replaced by a less draconian version which nevertheless carried a major effect on Montana’s beloved taprooms. 

Realizing he wasn’t going to win the validity-challenged “let’s level the playing field” argument, the revised bill’s sponsor, Rep. Roger Hagen, turned to leveling unfounded charges and classless moves, going so far as to accuse tap rooms as being unlicensed and unregulated bars responsible for the rise in D.U.I.s.

By the end, one brewery, Montana’s largest, had publicly supported the bill to the temporary chagrin of its many fans, though a few others were known to agree.  It wasn’t enough.  In one last puff of sour grapes, Rep. Hagen killed his bill.  He didn’t have the votes to bring it out of committee.

This unnecessary and highly contentious fight proved two things.  First, Montana’s broken alcohol license quota system will only continue to foster these kinds of stifling battles.

Second, Montana’s craft beer fans are a large, growing, and engaged group that will continue to have a part in the future legislative direction of this state. Legislative committee members commented that no other issue during the entire 2013 legislative session drew more calls, emails and comments than craft beer.

None of this is to take anything away from the hard and difficult work of the Montana Brewers Association and its Executive Director, Tony Herbert. Without their direct engagement with the Legislature, its hard to think craft beer fans’ voices would have carried the same impact.

Regardless, those voices demonstrated for the first time that they carry great weight in this large, beer-loving state.  The Montana Tavern Association would do well to acknowledge it. The Montana Brewers Association would do well to embrace it.

It’s the top story in Montana beer for 2013.