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How Sunday growler sales have affected Minnesota brewers

Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a law allowing Minnesota brewers to sell beer to go on Sundays — a move that has been a boon to many in the industry. 

Jill Pavlak, co-founder of Urban Growler in St. Paul: "Our Sunday sales are greater than some of our other days. Our very first Sunday we sold 150 growlers."
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley

It wasn’t intended to save the fledgling craft brewery movement in Minnesota, which was doing pretty well anyway.

But state lawmakers’ decision to allow Sunday sales of beer growlers was seen as a way to give small brewers a helpful income stream — and provide another small opening in the state’s longstanding blue laws.

Craft breweries with tap rooms had only been around since 2011, when the Minnesota Legislature passed the Surly Bill. The change let small brewers sell their own product in-house, but it also to let customers take a growler or two home, and the 64-ounce brown jugs soon became symbolic of the state — and nation’s — return to its brewing roots.

But while tap rooms could be open Sundays, they could not sell growlers to go on those days. That fit in with the state’s longstanding ban on off-sale of beer, wine and liquor on Sundays, which in turn led some brewers to stay shut on that day. Those who were open had to explain to customers why they couldn’t take a favorite beer home. “They’d get upset,” said Jill Pavlak, co-founder of Urban Growler in St. Paul. “They’d think it was our policy but we had to explain that it was not policy, but state law.”

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That changed earlier this year, when the Legislature passed an omnibus liquor bill that included the authority for local governments to allow growler sales on Sunday. Cities and towns raced one another to be the first to approve the change. Among the first were the towns of Buffalo, 40 miles northwest of the Twin Cities, and Montgomery, 56 miles southwest.

“One good thing about being in a small town is that if you need something to happen fast, it can,” said Charles Dorsey, the proprietor and brewer at Montgomery Brewing, a small batch brewer with the same name and in the same building as a brewery started 130 years ago.

Montgomery hadn’t been open Sundays before the law change. But it quickly took advantage of the council’s vote and has built up a steady stream of business. Beer tourists from the Twin Cities who made the trip down on Saturday now can come on Sunday as well.

Both of the Twin Cities joined the race too. Minneapolis had its ordinance in place in time for Flag Day, St. Paul in time for the Fourth of July.

Ryan Pitman owns Eastlake Brewery & Tavern in the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis. The brewery has been open about a year, and because it’s in the global market, the brewery has always been open on Sunday, even if it could only serve its beer on site for the first six months of operation.

Since the start of Sunday sales, Eastlake has been selling between 50 and 80 of the smaller .750 liter bottles it specializes in, sometimes called “bombers,” which are also legal under the new law.

“It’s made Sunday go from one of our quietest days to our busiest day, even more so than Saturday,” Pitman said.

Brewpubs, the subset of operations that brew beer as part of a traditional restaurant, also benefited. Scott Kolby, one of the owners of Red Wing Brewing, said his Sunday revenue doubled. “It made Sunday another Saturday,” Kolby said.

Pavlak at Urban Growler said Sunday growler sales have “exceeded our expectations. Our Sunday sales are greater than some of our other days. Our very first Sunday we sold 150 growlers. That was huge but there have been a couple of times we have met that.”

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Generally, a good Sunday for growlers ranges between 50 and 70, she said.

As for the customers who were disappointed when they were told they couldn’t take a growler home on Sunday before the law changed: “Now we’re making friends instead of enemies,” Pavlak said.

Not everybody is seeing a Sunday growler boom, though. Sunday sales are mixed at Dangerous Man in Northeast Minneapolis. Sarah Bonvallet, a co-owner and creative director of the brewery, said they did not begin opening on Sunday until November, and that, so far, Sunday sales do not match other days. She attributed that to the fact that the brewery had always been closed on Sunday, and that customers are only slowly realizing the change.

Dangerous Man recently expanded its facility, which includes a separate growler shop. Bonvallet said she and her husband (and co-owner) Rob Miller had decided to make the move based on existing volumes, not to take advantage of the Sunday sales law. “It was beneficial timing, but it wasn’t the motivating factor,” she said.  

Beer continues to boom

Minnesota craft brewing is following a similar trajectory as the industry nationwide, which is essentially straight up. The Brewers Association, based in Boulder, Colorado, reported this month that the nation now has more breweries than ever; at the end of November there were 4,144 breweries in the nation, according to the trade group for small and independent brewers. That tops the previous record of 4,131, which was set in 1873. It does take note of the population increase since then to estimate that an 1873 America had a brewery for every 10,000 residents. Now there is a brewery for every 75,000 people.

In between those two dates, the industry went through two periods of contraction, the association noted. The first came in the late 19th century when the industry went through a period of consolidation as the first large national brewers were formed. The second came as a result of Prohibition. The result: By 1978, the nation was home to just 100 breweries.

That began to change with the national legalization of homebrewing, which led to the brewpub concept and the craft beer movement. By 1996, the country had 1,000 breweries, passing the number that existed at the beginning of Prohibition.

According to the Brewers Association, 15 states have more than 100 breweries. While the national group does not count Minnesota among those states, Phil Platt, executive director of the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild, counts more than 100, with another dozen set to open by the end of this year or in 2016.

What’s next for craft brewers?

Now that Sunday growler sales are legal, Pittman at Eastlake and Dorsey at Montgomery both said they wish the state would be more flexible on the sizes of containers that can be filled for off-sale. The law allows 64-ounce growlers, and has been interpreted to allow .750 liter bottles, as well as “crowlers” — aluminum cans that are filled and topped on site. A gallon jug, though, is not yet legal.

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Pittman tells the story of a customer who brought in a stainless steel gallon growler he had purchased on-line. It was expensive; it was also worthless in Minnesota.

Dorsey of Montgomery Brewing said the Sunday growler sales law produced one change that he has mixed emotions about. Before, the brewery was open to the public Wednesday through Saturday and reserved Monday and Tuesday for beer production. That left Sunday as an actual day off.

“I can see how liquor stores like having that day off,” Dorsey said, while adding that he doesn’t think state law should mandate Sunday closure. Despite the extra work, though, he prefers the current rules to the old ones. He estimates it has increased sales by 10 percent.

Bonvallet at Dangerous Man said she and her husband debated opening on Sunday, with him in favor and her less so. Giving up the family’s one true day off was a downside, she said, and she said she misses it “incredibly.”

But unlike with the state’s mandate that liquor stores be closed Sunday, the brewers have a choice. Dangerous Man stayed closed on Sunday for the first six months of Sunday growler sales, and Bonvallet and Miller might in the future decide to close again — or just open the growler shop and keep the tap room closed. Such choice, she said, “is a powerful thing.”