A liquor law with a catch

It is possible that attempts to elevator restrictions on Minnesota’s Craft Brewers and Distillers may actually happen in the Minnesota Legislature this year.

But there is a catch.

In return for greater flexibility on selling growlers and other sizes of craft beer, as well as larger bottles of distilled spirits – changes long opposed by the traditional liquor lobby – craft brewers and distillers would have to accept a five-year moratorium on seeking further changes to liquor laws.

There is more. In an unusual arrangement, the eight dominant players should go beyond a verbal agreement. There is a draft written document, prepared by an attorney for Minnesota beer wholesalers, that would require each party to “actively and publicly oppose any proposal … related to alcoholic beverages” during this time.

Groups include those representing licensed beverages, municipal liquor stores, beer wholesalers, craft brewers, the Distillers’ Guild, liquor wholesalers, and the Teamsters Union.

House Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Zach Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, who helped broker the deal, told an op-ed he was doing what he could to bring all parties together. Senate Commerce Chairman Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, has long been known for insisting that changes to liquor laws be virtually unanimous among major groups. “It’s been well documented that he wants to see full stakeholder agreement,” Stephenson said.

This, unfortunately, leaves a group out in the cold not just now, but for the foreseeable future. By law, small grocers and convenience stores can only sell 3.2 beers. Minnesota is now the only state in the country with such a limitation. And that’s a problem. Soon there may be very few 3.2 beer for sale. Last year, Molson Coors became the latest producer to shut down its 3.2 lines.

Lonnie McQuirter, owner of the 36 Lyn gas station in Minneapolis, said he built his convenience store/gas station in a neighborhood location for locally sourced foods and would like to do the same for beer. artisanal, wine and spirits.

“We feel a bit left out and away from the table,” McQuirter told an editorial writer. “I’d like to apply for a strong beer license so I can have a well-curated and displayed selection that features local producers. We’ve got no shortage of great producers here…and there’s a lot of pride in that.”

Stephenson said he visited breweries and distilleries “from Bemidji to New Ulm” and spoke to all the key groups. Beer and wine in grocery stores were deliberately excluded from the bill, he said, “because if the test is complete agreement on that, we’ll never get there. Munis and liquor stores see it as an existential threat.”

But big box retailers such as Target, Walmart and Cub Foods already have the resources to build adjacent liquor stores with a separate entrance. Many have. At this point, there are only small retailers left for which a separate store is not an option.

Stephenson notes that the “ceasefire,” as he calls it, is not binding on the legislature, nor would he be one of the signatories. “I still hear the bills,” he said. “This is an agreement between artisans and wholesalers that they will not fight for five years. This is a very important part of the agreement.”

Among the bill’s changes: A production cap that would limit growler sales to breweries producing less than 20,000 barrels would be raised to 150,000 barrels. Currently, of the 9,000 craft brewers across the United States, only five — all in Minnesota — are not allowed to sell growlers to customers. They are among the most successful breweries in the state: Surly, Castle Danger, Summit, Fulton and Schell’s.

Lon Larson, co-owner of Castle Danger, would welcome the change. “A lot of hard work has gone into this,” he told a columnist. But Larson, who is part of the Alliance of Minnesota Craft Brewers, said he was surprised at the emergence of a written contract. “I don’t know why it’s necessary,” he said. Other than the lawyer’s author, he said, “I don’t think any of the other parties listed were aware” of the document until it was leaked. Minnesota Public Radio got a draft of the document for a new stories.

The Star Tribune editorial board has strongly backed ‘Free the Growler’ legislation in 2021. And it backs the handshake deal the major groups appear to have reached this year, as well as Stephenson’s determination to forge a compromise .

But the signed contract is a bad idea that should be abandoned. It is understandable to want safeguards against new “demands”, but such are the ways of a democracy and of the legislature itself. If successful, the previous one is one that others will no doubt try to copy. What would be next? Health care? Education? Agriculture?

Larson said the Minnesota Craft Brewers Alliance has always said that if the proposed legislation becomes law, “we would agree not to pursue further legislative changes” for the agreed time. “I know the Craft Brewers’ Guild made the same representation.”

That should be enough. If they went back on their word, the other groups would have the right to protest loudly. But the legal agreements that require active opposition to any future liquor changes seem designed to force unanimity on the lockdown of small grocers and convenience stores, and that’s just plain wrong.

Editorial Committee the members are David Banks, Jill Burcum, Scott Gillespie, Denise Johnson, Patricia Lopez, John Rash and DJ Tice. Star Tribune Opinion staff Maggie Kelly and Elena Neuzil also contribute, and Star Tribune editor and CEO Michael J. Klingensmith serves as an advisor to the board.