Sen. Jim Patrick was at a Christmas party last year when some craft beer enthusiasts from Hazelton approached him with some disconcerting news: they couldn't buy one-sixth kegs - 5 gallons - of their favorite brews anymore.
For many, the mention of a keg of beer invokes images of fraternity backyard, red cups piled on top a 15-gallon cylinder of Pabst.
But for a growing number of Southwest Idaho craft-beer enthusiasts, the 5-gallon keg is perfect for the home bar or keg refrigerator set-up.
Say you're having a party or barbecue and want to dazzle your guests with something excellent, like Alaskan Smoke Porter, Sierra Nevada Hoptimum IPA, Deschutes Jubelale or New Belgium Imperial Coffee Chocolate Stout. A regular keg (15 gallons, also known as a half keg) is too much brew and too much money ($130 and up, with some specialty brews breaking $200).
Buying a bunch of bottles can be expensive and doesn't offer the communal experience of a keg. It's hard to drink 15 gallons (about 120 pints) in a regular keg before it goes bad. Even a 7.75-gallon quarter keg, which is legal to buy direct from a distributor, can be too much beer (about 60 pints).
NOT TOO BIG, NOT TOO SMALL - JUST RIGHT
The one-sixth keg, which has about 40 pints, takes care of those problems.
Unfortunately, Idaho law says they are illegal. It was written before the days of craft brews and small kegs.
"So many people have home bars and (keg refrigerators) in the Treasure Valley ... those one-sixth barrel kegs are very popular," Dodds Hayden said, owner of Hayden Beverage Co., one of Idaho's biggest beer distributors.
"One thing that happens all the time is people get a keg they take to a tailgate or a picnic and they just don't drink the whole thing. The kegs are brought back half full. The people with home bars don't want a full keg just sitting there."
TWEAKING THE LAW
Hayden said his business had sold the one-sixth kegs directly to the public for years, but stopped in January when he learned they weren't allowed.
Patrick, R-Twin Falls, introduced a bill to take care of that problem. Idaho law currently allows people to buy quarter-kegs, and Patrick's bill will allow the sale of 5-gallon kegs. It passed the Senate State Affairs Committee Wednesday and Patrick doesn't see a problem getting it through the Legislature this session. Rep. Clark Kauffman, R-Filer, is the House sponsor.
"It's not like this is about cheap beer ... this is about good beer," Patrick said, noting that most beer sold by small, artisanal craft brewers is in kegs. "The (craft brewers) deal with much smaller volume than the big brewers. It's a shame this is prohibited."
Lt. Russ Wheatley, who runs the Idaho State Police Alcohol Beverage Control Unit, said he wasn't aware of any enforcement action taken by his officers. The distributors figured it out and stopped selling the one-sixth kegs until something could be worked out, he said.
"We've got an old law, and a new phenomenon that seems to really work for people," Wheatley said. "There's a process in place to change it, and it looks like" it's working out.
ROOM FOR GROWTH
In Idaho, as in most states, beer sold at retail must go through a distributor first. Idaho allows distributors to sell kegs to the public because most stores don't have the space or demand.
The craft beer business is booming in the Treasure Valley with nine active breweries - The Ram, TableRock, Sockeye, Highlands Hollow, Payette, Crooked Fence, Kilted Dragon, Slanted Rock and Crescent - and several others in development. Local brewers compete for bar tap and store shelf space with dozens of highly regarded regional breweries from around the region.
While regular beer sales - think Budweiser and Miller - have been flat for years nationwide, craft beer sales have grown in double digits.
Still, craft beer sales are less than 7 percent of total beer sales, which is why most experts say there is room for growth, even in a town like Boise, which is known as a "mature market." Part of that growth is in the small keg sales.
Patrick Orr: 377-6219, Twitter: @IDS_Orr