Minnesota State Capitol • Photo by Kevin Kramer

Minnesota State Capitol • Photo by Kevin Kramer

The 2022 Legislative Session is underway and for supporters of craft alcohol producers, and the question of whether this is the year substantial liquor reforms will pass looms large. However, alcohol producers in Minnesota might have missed their best chance to change the state’s restrictive liquor laws in 2021.

Last year, Minnesota State Senator Mark Koran and State Representative Liz Olson chief-authored an omnibus bill (HF 1192/SF 1176) intended to provide support for the state’s hospitality and food and beverage industries. The bill, which became known as the “Drink Local Economic Recovery Package,” offered several law changes that Minnesota’s craft breweries and other producers have been requesting for years, including allowing to-go can and bottle sales from taprooms, lifting the so-called “growler cap” for large craft breweries, and allowing limited self-distribution for brewpubs. To promote the bill, several of the state’s most prominent hospitality interest groups fused together, Voltron-style, to form the Minnesota Craft Beverage Council and throw their support behind the bill. These groups included the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild, Cider Guild, Distillers Guild, the Minnesota Farm Winery Association, and others.

With a groundswell of public support for local craft producers, bars, and restaurants stemming from the industry’s highly visible financial hardships due to COVID-19, it seemed that the stars had finally aligned for liquor law reform in Minnesota. Instead, the bill never even made it past the committee stage. What the heck happened?

“Minnesota, in classic Minnesota form—the home of Volstead—we didn’t move anything,” says Bob Galligan, Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild’s Director of Government and Industry Relations. “Now, there was a lot going on, a lot of balls in the air legislatively, obviously. We all lived through the past two years. But we still haven’t gotten any real help from the state legislature.”

Bills in Minnesota remain active for two years (for the most part), so even though Drink Local didn’t pass last year, the bill technically still has a chance to pass again this year. Galligan says that thus far, the Brewers Guild has been focusing their lobbying efforts on behind-the-scenes work with House of Representatives members in the hopes that engaging legislators directly would yield more favorable results. These discussions have centered around attempting to persuade lawmakers to address specific asks from the brewing industry, rather than the entire bill writ large. According to Galligan, the Brewers Guild is willing to accept a more piecemeal version of Drink Local if it means passing critical reforms for its members.

“Get what you can” seems to be the operating principle of the remnants of the Drink Local movement in 2022. Galligan says that while the Voltron-esque Craft Beverage Council still exists on paper, the organization no longer meets regularly and the involved parties are pursuing separate agendas centered around the needs of their respective memberships during this legislative session. Galligan points to a reduced sense of urgency now that the freefall that the hospitality industry was in at the time of the bill’s introduction has stabilized somewhat.

“There are very specific asks for each industry at this point,” Galligan says, “Some of the larger players in those spheres have decided to kind of go at it alone, and that’s totally fine.”

Minnesota Cider Guild President Adam Ruhland says that the Cider Guild has plans to lobby for Drink Local during this session, “with a primary focus of allowing wine manufacturers to self-distribute, which is a current barrier to the growth of the cider industry in Minnesota.” The Distillers Guild and Farm Winery Association could not be reached for comment.

The Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild is planning a virtual day of action to promote Drink Local on Tuesday, March 22, 2022. Galligan sees it as an opportunity to return the spotlight to Drink Local and its goals ahead of the legislative committee deadlines at the end of the month. If the bill fails to pass through committee during this session, Bob says that the Guild will likely take time to retool and decide on their next steps. Despite the dire outlook on Drink Local at the moment, Galligan is still hopeful for liquor law reform in the future and points to the industry’s resiliency and broad public support as the source of his hope.

“The fact of the matter is, not as many breweries as we were anticipating closed during the pandemic, and that wasn’t because we were helped out, it was because we worked our asses off,” Galligan says. “I think it’s a sign of what we can do.”

“We have the most engaged public and consumers and customers of any industry that I know of… the drinking public treats us well, and we try to do the same. So we know that we have public opinion on our side, and ultimately, that’s what changes laws in the long run, no matter how difficult it might be.”