ST. PAUL — An alliance of craft beverage and hospitality industry groups is counting on public pressure to help break down legislative barriers for a proposal to do away with Minnesota's cap on growler sales at breweries and permanently allow for restaurants and bars to sell wine, beer and mixed drinks to go.
The plan, titled the Drink Local Economic Recovery Package, would also allow cideries to sell cider to go, boost the offerings that breweries and distilleries could sell patrons and free up liquor stores, bars and restaurants to fill growlers.
Minnesota business owners across craft beverage operations have brought the proposals before, citing limits on their ability to grow and compete. But they said the need to update "antiquated laws" was especially pressing as they aimed to stay afloat financially during the pandemic and they've pooled their ideas together in hopes of advancing them this year.
“Like everybody, we’ve dealt with the COVID pandemic and are struggling like everyone else," Jeff Zeitler, of Urban Forage Winery and Cider House in Minneapolis, said. "I think this bill will really give the tools to cideries and wineries and breweries and distilleries to pull themselves up by our bootstraps. We’re not looking for another handout. We want to build our businesses up and build our industry up and this is a way to do it.”
On its face, it would seem to have a combination of factors that could get a bill across the finish line: a bipartisan set of coauthors, a broad coalition of support from craft beverage and hospitality groups and public backing.
But the bill faces a big hurdle to getting a committee hearing in either chamber.
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Liquor store owners, restaurant and bar operators and beer distributors have stood against the plan, saying that opening up broader sales at taprooms or breweries could pull sales from their businesses. State leaders should instead consider dropping capacity limits on bars, restaurants and other places of public entertainment to boost the hospitality sector, they've said.
Committee chairs serve as key gatekeepers in shepherding a bill to or blocking it from the House and Senate floors. And the pair leading Minnesota's House and Senate Commerce Committees have said the measure lacks the support of all stakeholders involved. That drops its priority level for committee chairs tasked with taking on COVID-19 response and a two-year state budget, they said.
“Bills that do not relate to either of those subjects will be considered for hearings, with priority going to bills that have broad and bipartisan support," Rep. Zack Stephenson, D-Coon Rapids, said. Stephenson noted that he'd not yet decided whether the plan would get a hearing this session.
Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, chairs the Senate Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee and has declined to hear similar measures until stakeholders can strike a compromise.
"Ultimately, the common ground needs to be worked out by all the players involved," he said. "Until compromise can be reached between the parties, I believe our current law is working quite well, as evidenced by the incredible growth and success of the craft beverage industry.”
Despite that, craft beverage producers, hospitality industry leaders and lawmakers leading the push to get the legislation up for a vote said they're prepared to dial up the pressure campaign.
“We need to bring every tool to bear that we can to support this industry now,” Hospitality Minnesota Government Relations Director Ben Wogsland said. “This is a really meaningful way that we can help these folks.”
Rep. Liz Olson, D-Duluth, is leading the push to pass the plan in the House of Representatives and said public input could help "move the needle."
“Yes, it’s tough to bring somebody to the middle or even into the conversation but that’s why we’re here today to put the pressure on everybody and to have the conversation and to educate the public,” the bill's Senate author Mark Koran, R-North Branch, said. “It won’t be easy but this united group is going to be a really great start.”