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It’s not just Sunday liquor sales. Lawmakers look to revamp a bevy of Minnesota’s booze laws

From brewpubs at MSP to Sunday hours for cocktail rooms, is it open season on Minnesota’s longstanding alcohol regulations? 

Shanelle Montana at the bottle labeling station in the Du Nord distillery.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Shanelle Montana at the bottle labeling station in the Du Nord distillery.

Shanelle Montana owns a small business with her husband in Minneapolis called Du Nord Craft Spirits. She wants to be open on Sundays, but state law doesn’t allow it.

She’s hopeful a push at the Legislature will change that. 

The big news this week, of course, is that Minnesota House is expected to take a vote on Monday and pass — for the first time ever — a proposal to lift the state prohibition of liquor stores selling alcohol on Sundays. 

But that’s not the bill Shanelle Montana is watching.

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Du Nord Craft Spirits produces small batches of artisan gin, vodka, and whiskeys. It also operates a craft cocktail room, and Montana wants legislators to allow the cocktail room to be open on Sundays, when they could also sell bottles of their product, as breweries now can.

“Customers are getting more savvy,” Montana said. “They know that Minnesota wine is available, and they know that Minnesota beer is available, and that obviously exploded. And now they are starting to know that Minnesota spirits are available. We are asking the state to help us foster this growing industry.”

When it comes to liquor laws in Minnesota, that’s just the tip of the artisanal ice cube.

Even as the state Legislature moves toward allowing Sunday sales, advocates of loosening up some of Minnesota’s other longstanding alcohol regulations are gearing up for a broader push. From allowing brewpubs at the airport and permitting craft beer shipments into the state to letting breweries in Minnesota sell nearly unlimited growlers, dozens of bills introduced this session are hoping to make Minnesota much friendlier to its booming booze industry.

‘Opens everything up’

If the distillery bill passes, not only would it allow craft cocktail rooms to be open on Sundays, but it would allow them to sell bottles of their product, as long as the area’s local governmental body approves. Under current law, distilleries are limited to selling a single, 375-milliliter bottle (which is about half the size of bottles typically found in a liquor store) per person per day. They could also sell larger bottles under the new law.

“The bill basically opens everything up for us,” Montana said. The idea is to level the playing field with breweries, which can be open on Sundays and sell growlers — 64 oz. jugs of beer — directly from the location every day of the week.

But even breweries are bumping up against state regulations.

Du Nord Craft Spirits
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Under current law, distilleries are limited to selling a single, 375-milliliter bottle per person per day.

Current Minnesota law doesn’t allow breweries that produce more than 20,000 barrels per year to sell growlers. A bill from Rep. Drew Christensen, R-Savage, would raise the cap dramatically, to 250,000 barrels per year for breweries. The law would also allow wineries in Minnesota to sell up to 250,000 gallons of wine each year.

“Minnesota’s growing small breweries and brew pubs have been successful at making Minnesota a craft brew hub,” Christensen said. “Rather than penalizing successful small businesses like Fulton Brewing, we should be encouraging their success and welcoming more of it.”

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Lawmakers are proposing other, smaller tweaks to state law that would make the craft beer culture more pervasive in Minnesota. One, from Rep. Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska, would allow brewpubs to have a presence in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Another bill from Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, would allow Minnesotans to ship a bottle of beer from a craft brewery from another state, much like they can ship wine from an out of state winery. All of these proposals, including Sunday liquor sales, have the chance to be wrapped into a larger, omnibus liquor bill.

Steady change, diligent opposition

Changes to the state’s alcohol regulations have been slow and steady over the last decade. In 2011, lawmakers passed the so-called “Surly bill,” which spurred a taproom boom by allowing breweries to sell pints of their own product onsite. Since then, more than 100 taprooms have opened in every corner of the state.

A lesser-known change in the bill also lowered the fee to start a distillery in Minnesota from $30,000 to just more than $1,000. Two years later, distilleries were allowed to offer visitors half-ounce samples of their products, and by 2014, distilleries were allowed open craft cocktail rooms.

And yet, there remains plenty of opposition to many of the proposed changes in Minnesota, both from legislators and outside groups. The Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association (MLBA), which has long been the main opponent to the Sunday liquor sales bill, is also opposing several other changes to the state’s liquor laws. Allowing brewpubs to open in the airport is far different from just the 12 days of the State Fair, Joe Bagnoli, a lobbyist representing the group, said in committee last week. “This is a significant departure from current law,” he said.

The Minnesota Beer Wholesalers Association, meanwhile, is opposing the proposal to let people ship beer from craft breweries in other states into Minnesota. It would completely bypass Minnesota’s regulatory system and taxes, giving an advantage to out-of-state breweries and possibly putting beer in the hands of people under 21, said Brandt Erwin, an attorney representing the association.

Politically complicated

Politically, liquor regulations are a complicated issue in St. Paul. The MLBA leads a powerful lobbying force that includes small liquor stores in every district, as well as the Teamsters Union. Legislators from both parties have opposed Sunday liquor store sales over the years for a variety of reasons, from religious beliefs to concerns over the health and societal costs of drinking. And some lawmakers argue they have bigger fish to fry, so they simply choose to side with their local private and municipal liquor stores.

State Rep. Jeff Howe
State Rep. Jeff Howe

Some ideas are less realistic than others. Legislators are pushing to allow bars to be open until 4 a.m. — two hours later than usual —in Hennepin and Ramsey Counties during the 2018 Super Bowl in Minnesota. Rep. Jeff Howe, R-Rockville, said if bars in the metro area can be open later on some nights, why can’t bars in Greater Minnesota? 

He’s authored a bill to let local governments decide if bars can be open until 4 a.m. across the state. “If it’s good policy for the weekend of the Super Bowl, it should be good public policy for the rest of the year,” he said.

It took years for the Legislature to push bar closing time from 1 a.m. to 2 a.m., which passed in 2003, and legislators and law enforcement pushed back at the 4 a.m. idea in a recent committee hearing, citing concerns about public safety. Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, said pushing bar closing two hours later would put those drivers on the road at the same time as early-morning commuters. Matt Langer, chief of the Minnesota State Patrol, said they would not have enough staff to handle the additional traffic at 4 a.m.

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For Montana, she’s hopeful that the distillery bills and others will gain traction this year. They had support in committee hearings, but she knows there’s a lot of “politics in liquor laws.”

“There’s still a lot of negotiation that takes place,” she said. “There are Democrats that are strongly opposed to rolling back liquor laws and there are Republicans who are very opposed to rolling back liquor laws, and then there are people on both sides who support it. We are hopeful.”