Frequently Asked Questions

Getting to the bottom of Minnesota's liquor laws

On a recent Sunday evening I conducted an experiment. In honor of the Sabbath, I strolled down to the redoubtable Speedy Market near my home and utilized my City Pages corporate AmEx card to purchase a 12-pack of 3.2 Budweiser for $9.99.

In the name of scientific inquiry, I then proceeded to sit on my three-season porch and drain multiple cans of the neutered alcohol. This was not a particularly pleasant experience. Low-alcohol beer, similar to fat-free pork rinds, does not taste good. It's flat and flavorless, roughly akin to what's at the bottom of a plastic cup the morning after a keg party.

The results of my experiment, however, were quite remarkable. In the ensuing hours I played Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road" multiple times while singing along. I stepped on my cat's tail and kicked over his water bowl. I wrote a long, incomprehensible, self-pitying letter to a friend on the East Coast. All of these actions, based on past experience, are rock-solid indicators of acute alcohol poisoning. Conclusion: It is indeed possible, if not recommended, to get drunk on 3.2 beer.

The ban on selling decent alcohol on Sundays is far from the only peculiarity of our liquor laws. Minnesota, in fact, has a rather storied history when it comes to demonizing booze. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which banned "the manufacture, sale, or distribution of intoxicating liquors," was introduced by none other than Granite Falls Congressman Andrew J. Volstead. (To the credit of Yellow Medicine County voters, the "father of prohibition" was defeated at the polls in 1922.)

In the 70 years since that failed experiment in social engineering, legislators and municipalities have created a vast, often bewildering set of policies designed to protect the public from intoxicating liquors. There are 79 different sections of state law that include the phrase "intoxicating liquors." State statute 150A.08, to cite just one example, specifies that dentists may have their licenses revoked for "habitual overindulgence in the use of intoxicating liquors."

In the name of public service--and in light of the ongoing holiday season and the inevitable outbreaks of dipsomania--City Pages has conducted an exhaustive study of these statutes and boiled them down into a reader-friendly user's guide. Cheers.

 

Why is booze regulated?

"If you sell somebody too many Fruit Loops it's not going to be a problem," explains Paul Kaspszak, executive director of the Minnesota Municipal Beverage Association. "If you sell somebody too much alcohol it will be a problem."

 

Why can't we buy liquor on Sunday?

The short answer: Jesus Christ. The prohibition on Sunday liquor store sales is simply a remnant of the state's once-vigorous blue laws. Most of these Sunday restrictions--on horse racing, for instance--were repealed by the mid-'80s, but getting drunk on the Sabbath remains taboo. Over the years, limitations on Sunday liquor consumption have eased considerably, however. It is now possible to sell spirits on Sunday in a bar so long as food is also served. Some municipalities, such as Coon Rapids, require that food account for a certain percentage of sales. This restriction can put bar owners, particularly those that cater to professional drinkers, in a strange quandary. "What do you do if you can't make your customers eat?" asks Jim Farrell, executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association.

 

How much booze am I legally allowed to bring back from Wisconsin on a Sunday beer run without paying Minnesota taxes?

Not much. According to state law, Minnesota residents over the age of 21 are permitted to import just one liter of liquor or 288 ounces of "fermented malt beverages" without paying the state's nine percent excise tax on alcohol.

 

If I bring back more, will anybody catch me and make me pay those taxes?

No.

 

What is the purpose of 3.2 beer?

Near beer, or 3.2 beer, is a remnant of prohibition. During the years that alcohol was banned, people started drinking more hard liquor than beer, which was too difficult to transport and hide to be a viable option for bootleggers. In March 1933, just before prohibition ended, Congress attempted to encourage the consumption of less potent alcoholic beverages by passing the "non-intoxicating beverage act," which capped booze's legal limit at 3.2 percent. "It was a way of reintroducing beer to the public," says Carole Basil, director of public affairs at the Minnesota Beer Wholesalers Association. When the 21st Amendment went into effect later that year, however, the measure essentially became meaningless. States were left to make their own choices about what kinds of alcohol to permit. Minnesota is one of just six states that continues to employ a separate regulatory framework for 3.2 beer, chiefly because it allows convenience and grocery stores a cut of booze dollars. "I think that it was sort of a bone thrown at them," says Farrell, of the MLBA. Basil remembers that a legislative attempt to eliminate the 3.2 beer classification was quickly abandoned because of opposition. "Some people like it," she claims.

 

Why can't we buy wine in grocery stores?

Because liquor-store owners like it that way. In each of the last three legislative sessions, a bill has been introduced to allow grocery stores to begin selling wine--and each time this seemingly benign proposal has been defeated. Liquor-store owners bankroll one of the most effective lobbying operations in the state. There are two main organizations that lobby on their behalf: the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association and the Minnesota Municipal Beverage Association. This year, the MLBA spent $123,468 at the Capitol, while the MMBA doled out $61,200. "The liquor lobby has just crushed us," says Bernie Hesse, an organizer with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 789, which has lobbied on behalf of grocery-store wine sales. Hesse recalls that one year the liquor lobby bolstered its cause by spotlighting a teenager who had recently been through rehab. The young man was employed at Rainbow Foods and testified before the legislature that having wine available at his workplace would pose a grave temptation. This year, supporters of expanded wine sales thought they had enough votes lined up, but then a few key Democratic legislators, most notably Minneapolis Senator Larry Pogemiller, flipped allegiances. "The liquor lobby has got their hand in the pocket of the DFL caucus," Hesse argues. "They've got a relationship that has been going on forever."

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