Montana ranks third in the nation for breweries per capita, with 46 operating breweries and more expected to open by the end of the year. Yet, to get a draft beer fix at one of these local microbreweries, things get complicated.
The unsettling words “last call” come earlier for taproom patrons than for other drinkers. Every night at 8, Draught Works, KettleHouse's Northside taproom and Bayern’s tasting room have to stop serving customers. Not only can they not serve past 8 p.m., they also aren’t allowed to serve a customer more than 48 ounces of beer per day.
At Big Sky Brewing, it’s different. Customers can consume beer samples for free, and customers at the Southside KettleHouse can drink until 9 p.m. The difference is due to the nuance of Montana law.
According to state law, a brewing company that produces no more than 10,000 barrels (about 310,000 gallons) can legally serve 48 ounces of beer per customer on premise between the hours of 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. Any brewing company that produces more than this can only serve free samples on premise.
“We sell around 47,000 barrels,” said Neal Leathers, one of the founders of Big Sky Brewing Company. Leathers said they cannot sell samples to customers in a taproom because that is over the 10,000 barrel limit. Instead, Big Sky gives its customers free samples. “You can have up to four samples of six-ounce glasses,” Leather said. He said Big Sky would love to sell samples in its taproom to cater to its customers. The biggest problem is Big Sky can’t provide a taproom experience for people other breweries can, especially those who travel to Montana specifically to visit microbreweries.
KettleHouse rebuilt its business model to cater to its local customers and expand business. To abide by Montana code, produce over 10,000 barrels of beer a year and still serve customers in a taproom, the company split into three separate businesses.
“I own KettleHouse Brewing Company, and my mom owns the Myrtle Street Taphouse, and my wife owns Northside Brewing Company,” Tim O’Leary, founder of KettleHouse Brewing Company said.
“Northside Brewing Company operates a taproom under Montana law, three pints between the hours of 10 and 8,” O’Leary said. Northside Brewing Company is contracted to brew cans of beer for KettleHouse Brewing Company. “We (KettleHouse Brewing Company) sell beer to Myrtle Street Taphouse under a beer and wine license.” This multi-company loophole is why you can now enjoy more than just three pints of Coldsmoke and drink past 8 p.m. at its Southside location.
Draught Works Brewery is different than both KettleHouse and Big Sky. Draught Works only sells beer to its customers in a taproom. It doesn't bottle or can its product. Patrons of Draught Works are familiar with the three tickets given to each customer to turn in for every pint purchased.
The new Lockhorn Cider House can legally stay open until midnight every day of the week. Since the cider business ferments fruit instead of grain, it falls under winery — not brewery — licensing, allowing for extended business hours. It doesn’t sell wine at all; just a series of flavored pint-sized hard ciders it can pour without limit. Of course, it too is restricted to the amount of “wine” it can produce a year in order to sell on premise, which comes to 25,000 gallons per year.
Despite Montana's different restrictions, owners of local craft breweries don’t seem too bothered by them. “I think that’s what happens with any kind of complex industry and when you get the government involved and you get laws written over a long period of time,” Leathers said. “Montana isn’t the only one with weird laws. … Even though there are all these restrictions it works pretty well,” O’Leary said. All breweries agree — their main goal is to provide people with their product. “Our focus is making a quality beer and getting into the channels of distribution to people,” O’Leary said.
Enjoy the locally crafted alcohol Montana has to offer, just remember to check closing times.