Big Sky Brewing Betrays Montana’s Small Breweries

BetrayalFor those of us in the know of Montana’s beer scene, today marked a peculiar event.  It was the culmination of a month’s+ worth of work to build the ground game necessary to defeat HB616 in committee.  HB616 is a wide sweeping bill that aims to change the face of Montana’s breweries as we know it.  March 26th was the day where this potential bill was heard by the Business & Labor Committee of Montana’s legislature, a critical first step for a bill to become law.

Today’s story, however, turned out not to be about HB616, the Montana Tavern Association’s efforts or even the success or failure of our grass roots or Montana’s breweries.  No.  The topic at hand is how Montana’s largest brewery, Big Sky Brewing, took to their own interests above that of their industry as a whole.  Essentially, they opposed nearly the entirety of Montana’s brewing industry and instead, sided with the Montana Tavern Association to support HB616.  (See 48 minutes, 25 seconds of this video for their own words.)  As a result, Big Sky Brewing has inserted themselves into a controversy that only could occur in Montana.

Now, before I begin, Big Sky truly did act in their own interests.  Of all the Montana breweries, Big Sky Brewing has been punished the most by our current archaic and restrictive laws within Montana.  Due to the fact that they furnish the Western United States with well over the 10,000 barrel limits found within current Montana laws, this ultimately prevents Big Sky Brewing from having a tasting room that we commonly would recognize within the state of Montana.  The truth is, they give their beer away, for free, and this expense is greater than over 40 barrels (approximately 1,260 gallons) per year.  This has been, up to this point, at their own expense and choice in order to comply with the law and promote their products.  From my own experience, and the experience of many others, these “free” giveaways result in a considerable amount of sales when it comes to growler fills, merchandise, bottles and other offerings they provide.  Personally, I can’t account for actual numbers, but I am certain it reaches into the hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars over the years.

They would certainly stand an almost unfathomable opportunity, within the construct of HB616, should they put their minds and resources to it.  But the truth is, those mechanisms are in place today, should they choose to do it.  Yet, they’ve been happy putting their bottles on our grocer’s shelves and shilling out free beer by the truckload at their tasting room.  Today, it became clear that they seek to compete not by sheer popularity, growth and agility…but rather by an incestuous attempt to limit their “competitors” through the heavy fist of law.

For those that are not aware, Big Sky Brewing pulled their support from the Montana Brewing Association (MBA), the state lobbyist for Montana’s beer industry, years ago.  This trend has been followed, more recently, by our state’s other largest breweries, Kettlehouse and Bayern Brewing, also located in Missoula, Montana.  As far as I can imagine, there are two possible justifications for the lack of support of the brewer’s state lobbyist organization.  The first is that the big three don’t see as much value from their investment into the MBA.  The second, and potentially more sinister, is that they disagree with the MBA and are actively seeking legislation the MBA would not support.  In either case, the motivations for their decisions are not public knowledge.  This recent situation, however, is giving circumstantial weight toward the latter.

That sets the stage for today’s events.  Essentially, what happened at the committee meeting, was Big Sky Brewing aligned with the Montana Tavern Association and spoke in support of HB616, a bill that is interpreted by smaller breweries as a direct threat to their business.  And for good reason.  The bill makes little disguise of it’s intent.  It aims to force breweries into a single tier, $100,000 license and/or the primary pursuit of tavern/bottling distribution.  It gives virtually no room for an upcoming brewery to satisfy their local population’s needs and is a move which is both ill-sighted to the potential and detrimental to breweries that have yet to establish themselves amongst Montana’s highly competitive landscape.  Thus, it directly curtails the ability of our craft brewing industry to grow, yet it clearly allows larger and established breweries to grow their businesses well beyond the current limitations.

My interpretation of the event that went down in Helena today was Big Sky Brewing was believing, perhaps testing, their ability to act as their own political interest organization.  Surely, with their significant profits and following, they have the ability to sustain a certain amount of political abrasions and still stand on their own two feet.  If I were standing in their same shoes, I would consider an expense to a state lobbyist organization against my own ability to use those same funds to represent my own interests.  And they have done just that.

It was interesting to watch Big Sky play their own hand in politics.  Simultaneously, they supported both HB616 and HJ18.  To be clear, HB616 is the “brewery killer” bill and HJ18 is a call to take pause with the current legislation and introduce a larger set of information and discussion on how to modify our liquor licensing laws.  It appears that they are supporting both sides, two opposing concepts about how to handle the current situation.  It’s one thing for Josh Iverson, lobbyist for the MTA, to very reluctantly agree to a study, since it would appear insane to not support this.  It’s another, however, for a brewery to enthusiastically and simultaneously champion both a rash, controversial, and anti-small brewery bill AND a study to determine if that is the best course of action at the same time.

You can’t play both sidesEven Josh Iverson knows that.  He had to rise as an opponent to HJ18, but said he would support a study that brought more information and interests to the table.  After all, the mood of the hearing revealed the complexities of the situation, the interests involved and the many ways in which HB616 was shortsighted of the situation.

So, is the point of all this to pillage and take what you can, while you can…and then determine if it was right or wrong after the fact?  Was this Big Sky’s “compromise” and “compassion” to the skinned cats, the brewers and people who had to muster a defense against HB616 with barely five days notice of actually seeing the text of the bill?   Is Big Sky uncomfortably settled as an MTA poster child that fears being seen as completely traitorous by their true roots?  Or was it all just an inexperienced play?

The unfortunate unintended consequence in this matter, however, is that Big Sky Brewing has miscalculated the disposition of the people in their action.  We, as their customers, love our craft breweries and we are not solely dependent upon, or exclusively loyal to, Big Sky Brewing within the boundaries of Montana.  We, the people, have an interest in seeing this industry grow through many different breweries, many different tastes and many different providers of those interests.  Big Sky Brewing is but one of those many providers, choices which we opt to make on a beer to beer basis, as we see fit.  Big Sky, as it would seem, has failed to understand this basic precept of their Montana based supporters.

As it stands right now, less than 12 hours after their testimony to the Montana State legislature, an almost innumerable number of people have called for a personal boycott of Big Sky Brewing.  Individuals across Montana have posted to Big Sky Brewing’s Facebook showing their discontent.  I have little doubt, as the word gets out about their actions, that this trend will continue and Big Sky’s support will dwindle, albeit only slightly.  They, unfortunately, have put their own interests above the interests of their customers, and we’re smart enough to realize this.  In today’s world of social networking, the reaction to a poor choice is both swift and furious.  This miscalculation will hurt Big Sky Brewing in the end, although I doubt with their extensive sales across the Western US, that our efforts are much more than a fraction of their total sales.

More importantly, though, the Big Sky brand has taken a hit.  Some of us will remember.  Some of us can hold grudges for a very long time.  Absent some sort of reparations, some of us may choose to forgive these misgivings, yet others may be vocal about them for years to come.  Ultimately, I believe, that until Big Sky makes an effort to reconcile their relationship with me, a craft brew enthusiast – and you as well – that our dollars are better spent with companies that support Montana as a whole, including their potential competitors.

Our breweries, if they realize nothing else, must understand that no one man can act as an island, especially in Montana.  It is my hope, through Big Sky’s soon-to-be realization, that our state’s other largest breweries, Kettlehouse and Bayern Brewing, will take note of the public backlash.  These two breweries cannot afford a boycott from their Montana based constituents – we are their sole bread and butter.  If they know what’s good for them, they won’t bite the hand that feeds them.

With such an inflammatory opinion, contrary to the desires of the people, Big Sky Brewing would have been better served to just stay out of the fight.  They would have been wise to at least listen to the MBA’s opinion on the matter (even as a non-member), seek their own customer’s input or at least tapped a few other breweries for their opinion.  They should have seen the public outcry against HB616 and more carefully weighed their choices.

But, until Big Sky Brewing realizes the overall importance of the craft brewing industry within Montana, publicly apologizes for their actions and will take steps to repair the relationships with their fellow brewers and customers, I will no longer support them.  While this loss, and even those that feel the same way, will hardly affect their bottom line, there is a significance in that the very people responsible for their growth have turned against them.  Big Sky Brewing is not too big to fail, nor is it an island in Montana.

The MBA has publicly stated that they do NOT support a boycott of Big Sky Brewing.  Trust me, I don’t want to see it, but I don’t feel this is just a bump in the road that Big Sky Brewing’s supporters should turn a blind eye to.  We are not courting Big Sky as a potential customer or ally and therefore our choices are pure and undivided.  We have a right, and some may say a duty, to communicate with the company when we don’t agree with their policies or actions.  Especially when they hold an opinion that many of us interpret as harmful to our own interests.

Bottom line, I don’t support eliminating my fellow Montanan’s because I want more property or food.  And if I did, you’d probably have an issue with me too.

UPDATE:  On 03/27/2013, Big Sky Brewing issued this statement on the controversy.  In this note from Neal, there is hardly any mention of how HB616 would negatively affect Montana’s small breweries, only benefits to their business.  Nor is there an apology present for their customers, many of whom feel betrayed by their decision to support the MTA.  They simply seem to be reiterating what we all ready know and are starting to reveal a consistent stance against Montana’s smaller breweries, while at the same time, not saying a word about it.

As to Neal’s comments about how his fellow brewers were cordial and supportive?  Yeah, I wouldn’t want to take on the 300lb gorilla in the room either.

UPDATE:  On 4/2/2013, Big Sky hosted a meeting with Missoula’s homebrewers to discuss the implications of this bill and why they supported it.  I have provided my analysis of this meeting and have rescinded my personal boycott.

For Montana.

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