Montana Brewers Progress Despite Challenges

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With the October leaves painting the hills, I landed in Missoula earlier this month for the Montana Brewers Association (MBA) Fall Conference. Over two days, Montana brewers came together to network and elevate their knowledge on challenges facing the state’s brewing industry.

Following two days of seminars and celebration, Friday brought a beautiful fall day for 2,000 attendees at the 7th Annual Montana Brewers Fall Festival in downtown Missoula’s Caras Park. A major fundraiser for the MBA, 42 Montana breweries and 154 beers were poured.

Montana Brewers Association

Montana’s craft beer industry has been growing, despite challenging regulation on the small brewery businesses. Having doubled the brewery count since 2012, the MBA now counts over 60 active craft breweries. Formerly lead by Tony Herbert, the Montana Brewers Association has a new executive director, Matt Leow, who has his work cut out for him!

Montana is among the 17 states in the U.S. with a quota system. This system dates back to post-prohibition, and is a liquor licensing system that places population-based caps on the number of retail liquor licenses available in a municipality. Unfortunately, it forces brewery, restaurant and bar owners to look for liquor licenses on the secondary market. Montana’s breweries, when not using a license within the quota system, must operate through the complicated Montana brewery licenses, which are restricted through operating hours and tasting room sales (not just in barrels, but also in ounces per person, per day).

Despite this system limiting commerce and depriving cities from expanding the lineup of breweries and restaurants, the Montana Tavern Association (MTA) has historically strongly opposed attempts to remove or reformulate license regulations. Every legislative session, both the MTA and the MBA battle over further regulations being proposed to restrict breweries’ business abilities. This year, however, the two associations came to the table together in a new coalition involving members of the MTA, MBA, the distillery association, distributors and restaurants. The intent of the coalition was to unify the separate interests, working together instead of continuing the feud. The 2015 legislative year, unfortunately, didn’t bring any further progress, however.

Mayor Nagen

The success of the MBA’s attempts to partner with the state’s other allied associations will once again be tested next year, as another legislative session approaches and a renewed debate over Montana’s alcohol laws likely resurfaces.

The conference hosted multiple dignitaries who all championed the state’s small brewers. Missoula Mayor Engen stated, “Brewers add value and participate in the community with activities and fundraisers because brewers ‘get it.’ They are the fabric of who we are and they make a huge difference.” He continued, “Keep making that impact, keep doing what you’re doing, keep making quality products, keeping providing high quality jobs. You are important to Montana.”

Governor Bullock

The keynote was delivered by Governor Steve Bullock who always has two Montana beers on tap at Governor’s mansion. Governor Bullock recognized the state’s brewers as “a significant source of economic activity.” He says he’s working to streamline regulations that restrict small businesses in Montana.

Educational seminars included social media training, legal considerations associated with the different Montana beer licenses, employment law, trademark and branding issues, updates on the promotion of the state’s small brewing industry, pipeline supply chain perspectives, quality control, wholesale distributing, draught quality and a presentation on workplace safety by Brewers Association Safety Ambassador Matt Stinchfield.

The Montana Brewers Association is a formidable powerhouse, organizationally mature and working relentlessly to protect the state’s brewers. The guild’s quest to develop the local brewing industry has not been a simple straightforward journey, but instead a very tenuous and nuanced tale that illustrates the complexities facing many brewers guilds in quota states. The MBA’s difficulties and the industry’s divisiveness stem from fundamental challenges drowning in multiple layers of regulatory structure and historical paralysis. With strong leadership, the association and industry will continue to overcome these challenges.