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'Free the growler' beer bill on its way to Minnesota governor's desk for signature

Both chambers of the Minnesota Legislature on Friday approved a plan to rewrite the state's liquor laws to boost the amount breweries can produce and still offer to-go sales from their taprooms.

File: Castle Danger growlers
Castle Danger Brewery in Two Harbors fills growlers in 2019. (Tyler Schank / 2019 file / News Tribune)
Photo by Tyler Schank
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ST. PAUL — Both chambers of the Minnesota Legislature on Friday, May 20, voted to advance a broad rewrite of the state's liquor laws, including a plan to let a handful of large breweries resume the sale of growlers from their taprooms and increase to-go sales options for microbreweries and distilleries.

That could mean Minnesota breweries and distilleries could open up new off-sale options in their taprooms in the coming days and weeks.

On a 62-4 vote in the Senate and a 111-21 vote in the House of Representatives, lawmakers approved a plan to let breweries that produced up to 150,000 barrels a year offer growler sales, up from the current 20,000 barrel cap. The move sends the bill to the governor for his signature and Gov. Tim Walz has said he plans to sign it into law.

The state's six largest craft breweries — Castle Danger, Fulton, Indeed, Lift Bridge, Schell's and Surly — were blocked from selling growlers under the cap. And the owners of Lift Bridge last year added a brewery in Wisconsin so they could produce more beer while not hitting Minnesota's barrel cap.

Jamie MacFarlane, co-owner of Two Harbors-based Castle Danger Brewing, got emotional talking about the bill's passage on Friday afternoon. The brewery was among a group that pushed to lift the limit since 2018.

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Jamie MacFarlane.jpg
Jamie MacFarlane

"It's incredible that it's finally happening," MacFarlane said. "I'm excited to not have to have people come this summer and ask, 'Why can't I get a growler?'"

The plan would also let smaller and medium-sized breweries sell four and six-packs from their taprooms. And it would allow micro-distilleries to increase the number of off-sale products they can offer and allow town ball baseball teams to sell alcoholic beverages. Resorts would also have the option to sell beer with an alcohol content higher than 3.2%. But 3.2% will remain than standard for grocery stores and convenience stores.

Stakeholders including craft beverage producers, wholesalers, liquor retailers and Teamsters for months ahead of the legislative session met in private to reach a deal on a liquor law rewrite that could appease everyone. Their feedback led to the omnibus liquor bill that came up for a vote on Friday.

"It has been almost a year of work," the bill's author Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, said noting he spent the legislative interim visiting breweries, distilleries, warehouses, liquor stores and other venues to better understand the problems with the state's liquor laws. "It feels just amazing to be on the 1-yard line."

The push for changes came after years of gridlock between stakeholders in the distribution system and after craft breweries launched public pressure campaigns to convince lawmakers to lift caps on the barrels of beer they can produce each year while still offering to-go sale options in their taproom.

At the Capitol, liquor law changes are rare and slow-moving. And the head of the Senate Commerce Committee said he wouldn't consider any tweaks until all groups involved could reach a "peace in the valley" agreement. Ultimately, the compromise proposal met that standard for Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, said on the Senate floor and he urged members to quickly approve it.

There was little opposition to the plan in either chamber but a few legislators raised concerns about making more alcohol sale options available without also putting up additional state funds for alcohol addiction education and treatment programs.

"Just think what this is doing to the families, to the communities that we represent, as well," Sen. Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, said. "If we increase the access to this, I hope that we're also paying attention to our responsibility to what is going on at home."

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Others raised frustrations that the proposal didn't go far enough to open up new options for alcohol sales for grocery stores and mini-marts or craft beverage producers.

Surly Brewing said it would still have to file state and city paperwork and get supplies sourced in the next few weeks but hoped to have growler sales back up and running this summer. MacFarlane, with Castle Danger, said she hoped that after getting appropriate sign-offs from the state and city that the Castle Danger could offer growlers again in one to two weeks.

Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter  @bydanaferguson , call 651-290-0707 or email  dferguson@forumcomm.com.

Dana Ferguson is a Minnesota Capitol Correspondent for Forum News Service. Ferguson has covered state government and political stories since she joined the news service in 2018, reporting on the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the divided Statehouse and the 2020 election.
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