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As the man strides to the head of the room, a grim hush falls over what had been a giddy meeting about beer in Senate hearing room 123. Clad in a trim blue suit, he sits down at the microphone, faces the 15 senators, and introduces himself: Joe Bagnoli, lobbyist for the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association.
"This has been a great hearing," he says dryly.
The audience hanging on his every word represents a veritable who's who of the local beer scene, including the owners of Town Hall, Fulton Beer, Stillwater Brewing, the Muddy Pig, Schell's, and Lift Bridge Brewing.
The brewer responsible for drawing much of the crowd is Omar Ansari, owner of Surly Brewing Company. In early February, Ansari released a sketch of a proposed $20 million brewery that would be legal only if Minnesota laws are changed. The bill being discussed would make it possible for a brewer to sell pints of his own beer on premises. Though the Surly merchandise in the crowd shows the considerable public support for the bill, its passage is far from a sure thing.
On this particular night, Bagnoli offers the voice of opposition. His association represents many influential wholesalers and distributors who aren't interested in seeing a brewer become legally able to cut them out of the loop.
"Many of our members were afraid it would create unfair competition," Bagnoli explains. "We may not ever be entirely comfortable with this legislation."
Watching him intently is a group of about five people who are new to the state Capitol. They're not brewery owners or wholesalers or even bartenders.
They're drinkers, and they call themselves the Minnesota Beer Activists.
The group is prepared to mobilize should anything trip up the bill. But even though Bagnoli runs through his list of concerns—including his fear that huge multinational breweries like Anheuser-Busch will open chains across Minnesota—he concludes by saying the association is standing down.
"I've shared with you our concerns," Bagnoli says primly. "I hope those concerns don't come to pass."
The committee votes unanimously to push the bill along closer to a floor vote. If it's successful, it will be the biggest overhaul to local liquor laws since the 1980s. While liquor regulations are notoriously difficult to change, social media is making it easier than ever for drinkers to be heard.
"They're working really hard to get the word out and get people engaged," says Ansari. "This stuff matters. There's a better chance that future laws will get changed."
ON ANY GIVEN Sunday on the western border of Wisconsin, the license plates of the cars in liquor store parking lots tell the story: blue and white Minnesota tags. They've come from the Twin Cities, down highway 94 into Hudson, or up through Stillwater—drivers confronted by an empty fridge on game day. Across the border in Minnesota, all the liquor store windows are dark, thanks to a law that's over a hundred years old.
Blame it on a tweedy Norwegian from Granite Falls: Congressmen Andrew Volstead. In 1919, the 18th Amendment enacted Prohibition, but it was the Volstead Act that defined the rules of the new dry America.
"It wasn't unusual for a lot of Americans to believe that some action against the liquor industry was called for," says Thomas Pegram, author of Battling Demon Rum: The Struggle for a Dry America. "But a lot of people were surprised by how stringent it was."
Heavily influenced by the Anti-Saloon League, Volstead's laws banned the sale of all alcohol, leaving criminal enterprise to meet the demands of the tens of thousands of speakeasies that popped up. Violent crime surrounding control of bootleg booze skyrocketed. The government itself poisoned quantities of industrial alcohol in a disastrous attempt to scare drinkers away.
In the wake of the catastrophic experiment, Prohibition was struck down in 1933, leaving the country with only one logical fallback—return to the way things were before, when alcohol laws were dealt with on a state-by-state level. Meanwhile, the federal government designated a highly regulated three-tier system in an attempt to purge gangsters from the business, decreeing that alcohol must be made, delivered, and sold by three completely separate businesses.
Minnesotans have lagged far behind when it comes to liberalizing our liquor laws. We're one of only five states that still ban sales of wine and spirits in grocery and convenience stores. Sunday sales remain verboten, though we lose millions in sales each year to border states. In 2006, the Legislative Analysts Office concluded that Minnesota consumers would save $100 million annually if our rules were as liberal as Wisconsin's.
"I think many of these laws were placed on the books by legislators who didn't know the business," says Doug Hoverson, author of Land of Amber Waters: The History of Brewing in Minnesota. "They've stayed there simply because the laws are hard to change."
IT HAD BEEN a long, frustrating day for Andrew Johnson. He had returned from long hours at work as a computer programmer, pulled off his coat, and sat down to read the latest about the Surly expansion.
He figured an update on his favorite brewer's burgeoning success would cheer him up. Instead, he came across an interview with the beverage lobby's executive director, who was dismissive about Ansari's plans.