Montana Colleges Seek Legislative Approval to Operate Educational Breweries

Should Montana’s colleges and universities be allowed to build a brewery and operate a taproom? That was the question presented to the House Business and Labor Committee at a hearing Tuesday morning.

HB 462, sponsored by Rep. Frank Garner (R), Kalispell, would allow Montana’s colleges and universities to hold a license to operate a brewery and taproom under the same rules that apply to current breweries, so long as the brewery is part of a college curriculum involving brewing.

Flathead Valley Community College began a Brewing Science and Brewery Operations program in the fall of 2015. The two-year Associate degree program, which has a long wait list for admission, combines course work in microbiology, brewing science, agronomy, facilities and operations, with hands-on training in brewery operations.

Testifying in favor of the bill, Jane Karas, President of FVCC, noted the program arose in cooperation with area breweries whose rapidly growing industry is having a difficult time finding well trained employees.

According to Karas, the Department of Revenue initially believed the College could apply for a license to operate a brewery under existing law.  Yet, during testimony in support of the bill, Shauna Helfert, Liquor Control Division Administrator for the Department of Revenue, confirmed the current statutes do not allow a political subdivision to hold a brewery license.

Shane Scanlon, representing the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, offered their support. “With the limitations on ownership in this bill and after consultation with the license holders, bankers, and beer and wine distributors, we do not see this affecting the value of licenses in the Flathead Valley,” said Scanlon. “This bill will help improve quality and supply in the Montana workforce in the brewing sciences. This is critically important given that it is becoming a growing segment of the Montana economy.”

Brian Smith, co-owner of Helena’s Blackfoot River Brewing Co., praised the bill as a tool to help educate new Montana-based brewers.”In all the years we’ve been hiring, it is very difficult to find professionally trained brewers that are current residing in Montana without cannibalizing them from one of your other competitors,” said Smith. “Trying to get someone from out of state isn’t always so easy.  I look forward in the future to be able to hire Montana natives that got their education here in Montana and ultimately get to stay and work here.”

Not everyone agreed with the bill. John Iverson, representing the Montana Tavern Association, said his organization would support the bill if can be amended to eliminate the ability to include a taproom for on-premise sales.

Iverson began his testimony by asked a very relevant policy question, “Should publicly funded institutions be running a bar on campus?”

“This is on a college campus,” noted Iverson. “A lot of kids on campus aren’t 21. This is going to be a sample room that’s going to be operated by college kids, kids that are 21. They’re going to brew new and exciting beers. I’ll bet you they’re going to want to give them to their friend who’s 20, so they can try it, too. I’ll bet they’re going to want to serve it past 8:00. I know I drank a fair amount of beer past 8:00 when I was in college. And I’m concerned at 48 ounces, they may not stop serving their friends, because they’re excited and passionate about the products they’re making.”

Instead, Iverson suggested the colleges should keg, bottle or can the beer and market it to retailers.

Iverson’s policy question is a good one, but the MTA’s justification rings hollow. Its suggests the MTA’s members are immune from over-serving issues, encouraging underage friends to try alcohol, or serving past permitted hours of operation – much less actively soliciting frequent patronage from the college crowd in Bozeman, for example.

If anything, one might surmise that a taproom operated as a training tool for an accredited college academic program is likely to receive heightened oversight by instructors and college officials as well as members of the community.

Representative Amanda Curtis (D), Butte, referred to the testimony of the opponents as “strong, ageist” and invited Andy Bixler, lobbyist for the Montana Associated Students, to comment on the responsibility of college students in managing a business.

“I would like to take that opportunity,” responded Bixler, noting he is 24 years old and has held jobs involving checking IDs of people interested in buying beer and wine, including his friends. “I was aware of the consequences of losing my job, of losing my source of income, and in this case I would assume people who are in this program would be aware of the consequences of losing their program and losing the thing they want to do most in their life.”

“Just because you’re 21 years old doesn’t mean you’re going to have this need to break the rules or not be able to follow the rules,” said Bixler. “So I thought that was kind of an unfair attack on the young folks who will be in this program.”

FVCC President Karas explained the curriculum includes several business classes and the tasting room would be part of the hands-on experience associated with those classes, much like the college does with its culinary program. She explained the college did not expect to create a “bar,” but a small tasting room with limited hours connected to the curriculum.

Brad Griffin, Montana Restaurant Association, opposed the bill because it created publicly funded competition to his Association’s members – certainly a valid consideration for any policy discussion.

Neil Peterson, Montana Gaming Industry Association, stated his members have no problem with the brewing science program and would support the bill if it allowed for self-distribution, but not on-premise sales. Given the college brewery could not include gaming of any kind, one wonders why the Gaming Industry has any beef with the bill at all.

Representative Garner indicated he was open to an amendment to limit the hours of operation of the tap room – and had tried to reach agreement with the MTA on such a compromise – but was not willing to eliminate it due to its importance as part of the curriculum.