The effort to update Minnesota's outdated liquor laws continues at the legislature, with some lawmakers hopeful a bill will get passed in the 2022 legislative session.
The Minnesota House Commerce Finance and Policy Committee on Wednesday held an information-only hearing on nearly 30 bills related to reforming the state's liquor laws.
Committee chair Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, said this hearing is the "next step in the process of getting a bill done," noting at the end of the 2021 session he said he wanted to see a "significant" liquor bill passed during the 2022 legislative session, which begins in late January.
"Today, ultimately, isn't a day to make decisions, it's a day to learn and listen to one another. After today, the conversations will continue. We're going to work to try to find as much common ground, as much compromise, as possible," Stephenson said. "My hope and my expectation is that when the regular session comes in 2022 we will bring a package of bills back to this committee where we can debate, discuss, amend as is the normal legislative process."
Here's a look at what some of the proposals that were discussed on Wednesday would do:
— Remove a law that prohibits some breweries from selling growlers. This proposal is similar to previous bills that would remove the "growler cap," which prohibits breweries that sell more than 20,000 barrels per year from selling growlers and beer to go.
Currently, there are only five breweries in Minnesota — and the U.S. — that are too big to sell growlers. The cap has long been viewed by critics as an arbitrary rule that punishes successful breweries, forcing them to choose to either stop selling growlers or not expand so they can stay under the "arbitrary" 20,000 barrels-per-year cap.
Related [Feb. 15]: GOP lawmaker slams Teamsters for meme about 'free the growler' bill
Another proposal would expand the containers breweries can sell to-go beer in to include 32-ounce containers, with supporters citing breweries' struggle to get their hands on 750-milliliter crowlers during the pandemic. Currently, state law allows beer to be sold to-go from taprooms in growlers (64-ounce containers) or in 750-milliliter bottles. This would help breweries in the event of continued can shortages, proponents said.
— Allow some 3.2% malt liquor license holders to sell alcohol that doesn't exceed 4.5% at qualifying sporting events. This proposal from Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, would address amateur sports teams and the issue they're facing with 3.2% beer going away. Nash says lawmakers have gotten letters from beer producers who say they will stop selling 3.2% beer in Minnesota, with Nash saying "It is going away, so we have to address that."
Another proposal from Nash would allow cities to authorize on-sale 3.2% liquor license may also sell stronger alcohol to people attending town ball baseball games.
Opponents of these proposals stress low-alcohol beer is not going anywhere because customers are seeking out lower-alcohol products.
— Allow wine and beer to be sold in grocery stores and gas stations. Currently, Minnesota grocery and convenience stores can sell 3.2% alcohol but because Minnesota is the only state left with 3.2% beer laws, domestic beer makers say they will stop producing the product. This bill (HF1597), sponsored by Rep. Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, would allow beer and wine to be sold at food retailers.
Forty-five states allow beer to be sold in grocery stores, while 39 states allow the sale of wine, Daudt said.
— Allow liquor sales on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. instead of 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. This proposal from Rep. Tony Jurgens, R-Cottage Grove, would tweak the hours liquor stores are allowed to be open. When the Sunday sales bill passed in 2017, liquor stores were allowed to be open from 11 a.m.-6 p.m.
The proposal would allow them to be open as early as 10 a.m. and would have to close by 5 p.m., giving Minnesotans more time to stop at the liquor store before going to tailgate or other activities. It would also adjust the hours liquor store could be open for some holidays if they fall on Sunday: If New Year's Eve is on a Sunday, the hours would be 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. and if Christmas Eve is on a Sunday, liquor stores could open as early as 8 a.m. and close by 5 p.m.
— Create an exception in state law to allow businesses with a taproom and microdistillery license to serve both beer and alcohol in the same space. The proposal would benefit Bent Brewstillery in Roseville, which has been seeking this change in state law for years as it holds both licenses but cannot serve the alcohol it makes in the brewery. Bent Brewstillery is believed to be the only business this proposal would impact, as it is the only distillery that isn't allowed to have a cocktail room.
Other proposals would allow on-sale license holders, like restaurants and bars, to sell booze and allow people to drink in outdoor areas that are not contiguous to their property; allow liquor stores to sell products like DrinkWorks machines (think single-serve coffee makers but for cocktails); allow microdistilleries and wineries to donate their product to nonprofit organizations; allow commonly owned liquor stores to transfer wine to its sister store so they can balance their inventory; allow on-sale liquor licenses for event centers on farms; put a framework in place for direct wine shipments; allow distilleries of any size to operate a cocktail room; allow people to use coupons to buy liquor; allows for citrus fruit and glassware to be served in liquor stores; and allow cities to issue more than one off-sale liquor licenses to the same person/company.
Hope for the future?
This hearing was a long time coming. A bipartisan group of lawmakers, beverage producers and Minnesota residents have been calling for change for years but the push grew stronger as the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent state-ordered closures highlighted the need for change.
While efforts such as "free the growler" stalled in the Minnesota Legislature last year (they didn't even get a hearing), legislators are happy to see liquor modernization laws finally get a hearing.
"This informational hearing is quite literally the bare minimum that was promised during last session to Minnesotans yearning for this change," Rep. Nash said in a statement ahead of the hearing. "We have watched some of our best-known breweries expand across the border into Wisconsin rather than expanding in our state with many others considering doing the same."
Nash is one of the most outspoken proponents of modernizing the state's liquor laws. Last year, when Lift Bridge Brewing and Tattersall Distilling announced they were expanding into Wisconsin due to the state's restrictive liquor laws, Nash urged a hearing on bills that would reform state law, saying current laws are costing the state investments, property tax revenue and jobs.
"We have to update our archaic liquor laws or we will continue to see breweries, distilleries, wineries and the jobs they create move across the border to other states. It's time to make common-sense changes and modernize our liquor laws," Nash said in a statement.
Rep. Stephenson explained Wednesday the liquor industry has changed drastically in recent years thanks to the craft beverage movement and many Minnesotans are in favor of seeing barriers to their growth removed. But he stressed that businesses that made up the industry before the craft boom are also valued and, too, provide jobs and benefit the local economy.
"The system and laws that sometimes puzzle the average person often have important policy justifications rooted in consumer protection, consumer choice and safety," Stephenson said, noting it is lawmakers' job to look at the laws to determine if they're in the best interest of the people of Minnesota and make changes "as appropriate."
He added, "I think in a number of areas we could be doing better. We can have laws that ... support local breweries and distilleries while still protecting the safety of consumers and encouraging a robust marketplace. We can have good, union jobs and a strong craft industry."
Stephenson stressed that the proposals discussed on Wednesday were for information only and just because they were discussed does not mean they will advance during the regular session, which begins in January. He hopes the state passes a "significant" liquor bill in 2022.
Whether that happens remains to be seen. Minnesota is notorious for being slow to pass any major changes to state liquor laws despite having a lot of support from Minnesotans (remember the years-long Sunday liquor sales debate?). That's because the liquor store lobby, distributors/Teamsters and cities with municipal liquor stores continue to retain support from enough Republicans and Democrats to prevent legislation from passing.
During Wednesday's hearing, opponents spoke up on the majority of proposals that were discussed.