Wait, why can’t you sell Spotted Cow beer in Minnesota?

New Glarus Brewing sign, near New Glarus Brewing, Wisconsin.

Bill Foussard is a big fan of Spotted Cow beer. Whenever he’s in Wisconsin, he stops to enjoy a draught.

But he won’t sell Spotted Cow at his restaurant in White Bear Lake, Rudy’s Red Eye Grill. He can’t. 

“Not available,” he tells you. “Only in Wisconsin.”

But we actually knew that already, didn’t we? Earlier this month, felony charges were filed against two men connected to the Maple Tavern in Maple Grove: bar owner Brandon Hlavka and manager David Lantos. Their alleged crime: In April 2015, the two men bought 10 kegs of Spotted Cow in Wisconsin, brought it across the border and sold it at the Maple Tavern without a license. 

All of which seems like a pretty egregious flouting of the rules that govern booze sales in Minnesota.

But felony charges? 

Don’t mess with Minnesota

Foussard, for one, says it was “stupid” for the barmen to try to side-step the state’s complicated liquor regulations.

“It’s a privilege to have a liquor license; there are a lot of rules, but you’ve got to follow them, go through the proper channels,” he said. “It might seem harsh — a felony charge — but you can’t mess around.”

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman agreed. “We’re not picking on these bar owners. They know the rules,” he said. “If a bar owner violates the rules they pay a price. We’re not seeking a prison sentence, of course, but there will be ramifications.”

Freeman notes that he doesn’t make the rules, he enforces them. And law on this one is clear: State statute 340A.701, subdivision 2, says it’s a felony to: “to transport or import alcoholic beverages into the state in violation of this chapter for purposes of resale.”

Spotted Cow tap
New Glarus co-owner Deb Carey said New Glarus could expand wildly, and successfully, if it chose to do so.

Officials say the rules allow them to regulate production and sales, thereby making sure that products are safe. They also keep a level playing field for sellers. And they assure that the license fees and taxes flow into the government coffers.

Minnesota is one of the stricter states when it comes to alcohol laws and regulations. There are no Sunday liquor sales, nor can alcohol be purchased at grocery stores or gas stations. (And, lest we forget, the act initiating prohibition has the dubious distinction of being named after a Minnesotan: Andrew Volstead, a Republican from Granite Falls.)

But all states have some kind of beer distribution and licensing rules.

Scott Wasserman of the state Department of Public Safety said every state has similar rules, and says beer makers who want to sell in the state can contact the Minnesota Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement Division to get the proper licensing. But in the Spotted Cow case, the New Glarus Brewing Co. of New Glarus, WI, doesn’t want sell its beer in Minnesota.

‘There’s no reason’ to sell in Minnesota

Spotted Cow is described by its makers as a “traditional farmhouse ale, hand-crafted and unfiltered with complex flavors.”

The owners say they don’t want — or need — to deal with the byzantine tax and distribution systems that come with selling their beer outside their home state. “There’s no reason,” said New Glarus co-owner Deb Carey. “We’re growing so fast and it’s still hard to keep up with demand here.”

She and husband Dan have been brewing in New Glarus since 1993. They have no ambitions to expand nationally or globally. Instead, Deb Carey said, they’re “committed to brewing world-class beer and taking care of the people who work for us.”

The author buying a case of Spotted Cow at a Wisconsin gas station
Photo by Julie Kramer
The author buying a case of Spotted Cow at a Wisconsin
gas station last May.

She said they’d rather steer the conversation about beer away from the theme of constant growth and toward the appreciation of a good brew. “We want to talk about beer being a food, with a rich history,” said Deb. “About how it’s hard to make, has a wide range of flavors, is very accessible and can add pleasure to life. And that we should treat it with respect.”

And she thinks there’s much to be said for regional diversity. “From my point of view, when you get off a plane you don’t want to see one chain store after another and everything looking just like it does at home. Like everything else, I think food should have a regionality to it.”

Still, she wasn’t surprised to hear about the Maple Grove case. It’s happened before. A New York City sports bar was caught in 2009 selling Spotted Cow for $7 a bottle. Again, no license or distribution rights to get it from New Glarus to the Big Apple. The owners paid a $20,000 fine.

“Sure, I’m flattered that people like it so much, and a felony seems like a heavy price to pay, but c’mon,” she said. “They knew the rules,” she said.

Carey said New Glarus could expand wildly, and successfully, if it chose to do so. “We could be worldwide, if that was the goal. It’s absolutely in my power and it wouldn’t take very long,” she said. “But why would I?”

As for Minnesotans looking for a taste?

“It’s not that hard,” she said. “Cross the border. Even gas stations sell it.”

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Brian Scholin on 02/22/2016 - 12:40 pm.

    Hey Diddle Diddle

    The Cow Jumped Over the Lake?

    I was at a U of M event at a U of M facility in Duluth last summer, and they were selling Spotted Cow. I asked the manager how that was possible, and was told they buy all their beer in Superior, since it costs less.

    I pointed out that that is a violation of law, and was told, “We always have our caterers buy in Wisconsin, so we can make more profit.”

    I dropped the issue, and had another Spotted Cow.

  2. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/22/2016 - 03:36 pm.

    Hard to Care

    It doesn’t sound like New Glarus would face too many obstacles in getting permission to sell its beer here, and it doesn’t sound like they care much, so this issue is of pretty minor significance. The only real victim here of Minnesota’s byzantine–and somewhat hypocritical–alcohol laws is New Glarus, and they don’t seem too concerned.

    In fact, the illegality adds to their mystique. We old-timers remember when Coors could be bought only in a few western states. It was a big deal to get your Coors. Now, it’s freely available everywhere, and no one now remembers why anyone wanted it so badly.

  3. Submitted by Brian Simon on 02/22/2016 - 04:09 pm.

    Why so strict?

    The libertarians are right on this one: existing liquor laws are excessive & onerous. If a bar owner wants to drive to WI to source product, why stop them?

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 02/23/2016 - 07:45 am.

      Your Tax Dollars At Work

      I suppose if a saloon owner wanted to also pay the Minnesota tax, that would be fine with me.

      Outside of the law, I have two questions. The first concerns the business acumen of someone who would take the time to drive to Hudson (about 2 hours of labor, round trip) and pay retail. That makes it a pretty expensive proposition. Secondly, it’s not that great of a beer. It’s really for people who would like to like craft beer, but can’t get much beyond Bud/Miller. But by and large the saving people from making foolish decisions is not, by itself, justification for a law.

      Would this be legal in other states? If Spotted Cow were boot legged to Iowa, Florida or Alabama would it be unlawful? Overall, are Minnesota’s liquor laws more onerous than other states? At least we don’t have any dry counties.

      • Submitted by Brian Simon on 02/23/2016 - 11:01 pm.

        Onerous

        I’m no expert, but my understanding is that, yes, MN laws are a little more onerous. My recollection from years of reading reporting on the Surly law, the perennial Sunday sales & grocery store sales laws is that the distributors have more to do with the status quo than the big government types.

  4. Submitted by William Lindeke on 02/23/2016 - 09:59 am.

    more about New Glarus

    They don’t sell to any other state. It’s not Minnesota-specific. The only really Minnesota-specific issue is our fantastically dumb Sunday sales law, kept in place only by intense political pressure from the almost-mafia-like liquor distribution and sales lobbys.

  5. Submitted by David Wintheiser on 02/23/2016 - 12:27 pm.

    Why would they go national?

    Because in the U.S., trademark protection only applies to a product sold nationally — this derives from the understanding that, while copyrights and patents are specifically mentioned as being under Congress’s jurisdiction, trademarks are not mentioned under the Intellectual Property Clause (and was confirmed by the Supreme Court in an unanimous 1879 decision in a block of cases collectively referred to as the Trade-Mark Cases).

    Congress, of course, didn’t let that stop them, and continued to regulate trademarks under the Constitution’s Interstate Commerce Clause, but this power only applies to actual interstate commerce. If an enterprising brewer decided to copy Spotted Cow and sell it, there’s likely not anything New Glarus could do to stop them, since they don’t pursue commerce outside of Wisconsin and thus can’t register their trademarks or trade dress related to their product. As long as the copycat didn’t try selling his beer in Wisconsin, where state court jurisdiction would apply, they’d likely be OK.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/23/2016 - 04:43 pm.

      Not Quite

      New Glarus may obtain federal registration of its trademark.

      The definition of “interstate commerce” in the trademark law is broad enough to encompass virtually any private business activity. It actually means any commerce that affects a type of commerce Congress may regulate. Consider that the beer is sold to residents of other states who travel to Wisconsin and bring it home; in fact, the company explicitly encourages that kind of purchase.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/23/2016 - 05:16 pm.

        And Furthermore

        The trademark law at issue in the 1879 cases was a different animal from the one in effect now. It did not contain the magic words “in interstate commerce,” so the Court struck it down as unconstitutional.

        • Submitted by Justin Barnard on 09/28/2018 - 04:07 pm.

          Oh, thanks — I learned something today. I know this comment is a bit old but like an aged cheddar it’s still golden.

Leave a Reply