Beer Laws: Montana Legislature Gears Up for 2013 Session

Look out.  The 63rd Session of the Montana Legislature convenes Monday, January 7, 2013.  What it holds for the future of Montana is anyone’s guess. 

The Montana Legislature meets every other year and only for 90 days. While the short, biennial sessions helps maintain a “citizen legislature,” it also guarantees a whirlwind of frenzied action as our legislators try to make sense of more than a thousand proposed bills.

For 2011, the Montana Brewers Association made a push to shift the tap room hours, but the message received was loud and clear.  The road for such change still runs through the Montana Tavern Association.

What’s up for 2013? Not the tap room hours. There are no plans to try to amend those this session, so get ready for two more years of a not-so-free-market stifling choice.

How about the 10,000 bbl limit? You’ll recall Kettlehouse Brewing Co. pulled out of several Montana markets in March 2012 rather than produce more than 10,000 bbl, the point at which a tap room must stop selling beer for on-premise consumption.

Word has it the MBA was ready and willing to help Kettlehouse and the 2-3 other large-ish breweries get the limit raised. Rather than present a united front, Kettlehouse, Bayern and others dropped out of the MBA, choosing instead to go it alone.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure the big boys in Montana’s craft brewing scene might be willing to horse trade certain privileges they no longer need in order to obtain a higher bbl cap.

Still, a concrete effort to raise the cap, if any, remains in the shadows.

Here’s what we do know:

  • The Montana Department of Revenue is asking the legislature to create a license for brew-on-premise operations.  A hearing on the bill (HB 58) is scheduled for January 11 and you can find the text of the bill here.
  • A new “boutique beer or wine license” is in the works for off-premise consumption (LC 1294).  Presently, only grocery stores and pharmacies can sell beer and wine for off-premise consumption, precluding the traditional “bottle shop” common in many other states.  (Yes, there are obvious workarounds.)  This bill would authorize bottle shops and permit tasting “events” to be held up to twelve times per year.  Patrons would be limited to ten, one ounce tastings per event.   While I hate these limits, it’s at least something.  The unapproved draft bill is available here, but is subject to change.
  • Revisions to Montana’s restrictions on direct shipments of beer and wine will be a topic of conversation.  Two bill draft requests have been made, one to license and regulate wineries selling and shipping wine directly to MT consumers” and the other to generally revise laws affecting the sale of beer or wine through mail.” No bill text is available yet.
  • Legislators have staked out numerous other placeholders for potential bills affecting generically identified subjects like “generally revise state liquor laws,” “generally revise brew pub laws,” and generally revise laws related to microbreweries.”  Some of these will turn into specific bills and some will not.  

Stay tuned. There’s plenty more to come over the next few months.