Control State

December 11, 2008 | admin

One thing sounded really good to me during the long, 36-hour trip home from India this week – to bend an elbow at the Kettlehouse and relive the adventures with good friends.

I probably dreamed about it a little on the plane as I drank German beers and reveled in good bread and other solid foods that didn’t have the smell of curry about them.

I figured there would be snow on the ground in Missoula, and I’d smell the brewery from around the corner, that inviting, warm-grapenuts smell of grains cooking.

I’d sidle up to the bar, and Mitch or Al, most likely Al, would rib me about something I’d blogged from India. And I’d grip a pint of Doublehaul and laugh about something Al wrote on his little whiteboard of wisdom.

Instead, I walked up to Kettlehouse last night to find a bouncer smoking at the door telling me that the brewery was at capacity, and that I would have to wait for someone to leave.

I looked into the warm, inviting interior, curiously devoid of people. I watched as people walked up to the bar and ordered drinks as if it was a Saturday afternoon.

The boisterous atmosphere of the Kettlehouse had settled to a healthy din as the new Gourds album could be heard clearly above the chatter.

“Should only be about five minutes,” the bouncer said.

Fifteen-minutes later, standing with a crowd of at least a dozen people, I finally got in, but my companion had to wait.

I stolled into the brewery wondering what kind of America I had come back to.

This is not the fault of the Kettlehouse, its owners or staff. The whole situation, as I understand it, is out of their control.

So don’t mistake me, this is not meant to slam the K-Hole, rather, it’s written out of frustration for a series of events dating back several months that have made it increasingly difficult to just go out and enjoy a craft-brewed beer.

First, the pressure on breweries to close their doors at 8 p.m. made it tough if you, like me, work late and can’t get up to the brewery for a beer until after 7:30 p.m.

Second, pressure from the MTA led to the Montana Department of Revenue raiding stores and pulling high-gravity beer off of shelves, which led to stores voluntarily removing some of the best beers in the world from their shelves.

Third, a crackdown by the Fire Marshall led to capacity controls limiting the amount of people in places like the Kettlehouse and the Rhino.

I understand the need for safety, especially in a world where lawsuits dictate policy. I understand the need for laws governing the consumption and sale of alcohol, which is a drug.

What I do not understand is why creative solutions cannot be found to help promote Montana’s craft-brew industry, which has bent whichever way both the MTA and Department of Revenue want in order to maintain good relations and to be able to operate under existing guidelines.

States that promote their craft breweries have seen a surplus in tourism dollars. California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado all benefit from their breweries. Montana still treats breweries as if they are saloons and brothels attempting to corrupt the wholesome settlers of the west.

Sadly it comes down to money. The MTA has copious amounts of it to throw at the legislature to protect its inheritance system, while the state can’t seem to get past post-prohibition laws meant to legislate morality.

We’ve come a long way in this country regarding personal rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, but we seem determined to hang on to some notion that government knows what’s best for its citizenry rather than the other way around. “Of the people, by the people and for the people.” At least that’s how I understood it.

I know it’s just beer. But the control of it remains a symbol of old and decrepit thinking instead of opportunistic optimism in the face of recession. Montana needs new revenue streams. The government needs to get out of the business of alcohol unless it is to promote the tourism industry based on the state’s craft breweries, wineries and fledgling craft-distilling industry.

For now, I’ll buy a four-pack of Doublehaul and head home to enjoy its frothy goodness. If the MTA is mistaken enough to think that by harassing breweries it will garner more business or somehow protect its dead legacy, well, I’ve got news for them. Montanans like good, local beer brewed by people who live here and who serve their product fresh.

Perhaps it’s hard to see that from the dim, smokey interior of an empty tavern.



  1. Travis Dye says:

    I, too, should clarify that I wasn’t bagging on the K-House. I love the place and would have stayed, but did not want to leave my friend waiting outside for who knows how long. I know the occupancy limit is not imposed by the K-House, but by the fire marshall – the number just seems low to me given the crowds that are allowed in other venues.

    Al, you made a good point about the atmosphere. There very well could be unintended consequences to changes to the tap room laws. Perhaps being allowed to serve until 10 with no 48 ounce limit is a good solution? That would keep taprooms different from bars, but give you more time to serve – catch those folks on the river in the summer – and would get you out of the business of having to police how many beers each person has had. Or maybe 8 on weeknights and 10 on Fridays and Saturdays in the winter and 10 every day in the summer?

  2. Al Pils says:

    ….hey isn’t “electric atmosphere” an eddie grant song?

    oh wait it’s electric avenue……

  3. admin says:

    Al is right. The rules that established the brewers’ ability to open a tap room helped create something that is different than anywhere else. For that I’m grateful. But I think individual interpretation of those rules has characterized the individual tap rooms. The Kettlehouse is known for its raucous (fight free)Friday night scene made up of students and young professionals. Bayern Brewery is known for a being an after-work hangout for those who punch a time card as well as a Sunday afternoon, after-hike hangout. And Big Sky, well, Big Sky is as popular a tap room as the rest though it doesn’t operate as a tap room in the traditional sense. My point is that each tap room has developed its own unique character, and when you change that dynamic, you change the quality. I’m not trying to bug on the Kettlehouse. They have no more ability to change the circumstances than I do, but I’m lamenting the loss of something I’ve come to enjoy. Even though crowds don’t always make it easy to relax at the K-Hole, the electric atmosphere is such a microcosm of Missoula life.


  4. Al Pils says:

    ….the limit is actually 49. I would like to say thanks to anyone who waited outside in the cold to get in. Rules are rules and unless they are changed, that’s all we can do. It is strange though if you think about it, the restrictive nature of the taproom rules have helped create the very atmosphere that you yern for. Family friendly, mellow taprooms would be significantly different if you you had a late night crowd or unlimited pints served. I’m just throwing that out there for you guys, and I’d rather be able to choose how late or how much I was able to serve people. But I’ll say this much, in all the years that I’ve been in the taproom I’ve never had a fight or had to throw a drunk out and there is no doubt that the rules have had an effect on that

  5. Travis Dye says:

    Looks like I miscopied the link. This one should work.$.startup

  6. Travis Dye says:

    Well put, Tim. I ran into the same thing at the Kettlehouse a couple weeks ago. The person at the door told me there had been an anonymous complaint to the fire marshall. I ended up leaving shortly after I got in because the friend I was meeting was 12 people deep in the line to get in with little movement in sight.

    Like you, I understand the need for safety, however, the 42-person limit for the Kettlehouse is laughable. In the event of some disaster, you could get 100 people out of the Kettlehouse much faster than, say, 7,000 out of the Adams Center or 25,000 out of Washington-Grizzly. I’m not sure how capacity limits are determined, but it looks like the math could use some re-working.

    You’re right about the MTA. They use their money to prop up an archaic system that benefits only them. But their money works only in a void created by silence from the people. As we saw this summer with DOR’s rule proposal, the breweries have a great deal of support. If those supporters contact their legislators and advocate for common sense changes, like abolishing the 48 ounce limit and allowing tap rooms to serve until 10 or even midnight, and changing the definition of the alcohol content of beer to match that of table wine, then we will see changes.

    The MTA will use its money to oppose change, but only to a point. For years the MTA fought smoking bans, but backed down in the face of overwhelming public support. The MTA also fought every expansion of the ability of restaurants to sell beer and wine, but finally backed cabaret licenses. They sell this as doing what’s right for the state, but really recognized that digging in their heels too much would lead to changes that the do not like – such as ending the ability to transfer liquor licenses.

    This is all a long way of saying that if all the people who wrote and emailed DOR and signed petitions this summer contact their legislators, we will see changes that will support the brewing industry in this state. There are a couple bills being drafted for the legislature to “revise liquor laws.” The drafting is not complete, so it’s not clear what they’ll do. You can track them here:$.startup

    Pull up the “alcohol and drugs” subject. Once the bill is drafted, there will be a link to the full text.

    Thanks for keeping people posted on the happenings around the state and for continuing to advocate for common sense changes to Montana’s lliquor laws.

  7. admin says:

    Hey John,

    I would say that sums it up perfectly. I’ve tried to contact the MTA for a response, but they hide behind talking heads who offer no insight.


  8. Tim, a few weeks ago when you blogged about the state raids, I asked ( for a cogent explanation of the MTA’s position, and your post today helps (as did the several other comments on the previous post).

    Someone I know told me the MTA position is grounded in a sort of greed that is cultivated by state policy and banking interests. Something like this: “The state creates a scarcity of licenses, which drives up their value to absurd sums. This makes individual bars/taverns worth a lot (on paper), and hence banks issue large loans to them. So if the state eliminates the artificial scarcity, and the tavern owners’ licenses are suddenly worth a few hundred rather than a million dollars, then the banks lose too, since those licenses are collateral on loans. Hence, two powerful groups (MTA & banks) are against changes to the status quo, and there’s no organized group likely to topple them.”

    Is that about right?

    Any sign of 2009 legislative efforts to help the craft beer industry and consumers?

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