By Cole Grant/UM Legislative News Service

HELENA - Nearly a dozen brewers testified at the Montana Legislature Wednesday on a bill that would raise a small brewery’s production cap six fold.

Matt Leow with the Montana Brewers Association says raising the 10,000 barrel limit for small operations to 60,000 per year would unleash potential for Montana brewers.

“Wouldn’t that be great if instead of just seeing beer from California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado on our shelves, that we were seeing Montana beer when we go visit places like Seattle?” Leow said.

Big Sky Brewing in Missoula is over the small brewery limit, and distributes nationwide. That puts them in a category of brewers that doesn’t allow them to sell beer in their tasting room. So, they give it away there.

Co-founder Neal Leathers estimated they’ve lost about $4 million over the last decade by offering these free samples.

“We’d actually liked to have captured some of that,” he said.

Other proponents of House Bill 541 said the current cap has only impeded the growth of their brewery.

Neil Peterson with the Gaming Industry Association, who opposed the bill, said he’s unsure the demand will be there if the limit is raised.

“Just because a brewery opens up, it doesn’t create a whole bunch of new beer drinkers,” Peterson said.

John Iverson with the Montana Tavern Association says he’d support the bill with a caveat: that the Legislature pass another bill that would allow certain beverage license holders to add a brewery or distillery aspect to their business.

“We’re saying here’s something that you guys like, and here’s something that we like, let’s put them together and let this industry go for it,” Iverson said.

The bill passed the House 85-14 in February. It’s sponsored by Rep. Adam Hertz, R-Missoula, Rep. Ellie Hill Smith, D-Missoula, and Rep. Greg Hertz, R-Polson.

Cole Grant is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.