Minnesota Beer Activists fight for your drinking rights

Lobbying for booze one beer at a time

"Nothing is preventing him from going out and opening up a brewery in another state," the quote read.

Johnson was stunned.

"I can't believe this," he thought. Rage grew within his beanpole frame.

The founding members of the Minnesota Beer Activists mix business with pleasure at the Nomad World Pub in Minneapolis
Sasha Landskov
The founding members of the Minnesota Beer Activists mix business with pleasure at the Nomad World Pub in Minneapolis

So he did the only thing he could think of: He alerted Reddit.

A member of the fast-growing social bookmarking website for over a year, Johnson founded a group called Twin Cities Social. He tore open his laptop and posted his disgust with the anti-Surly sentiment.

"I'm sick and tired of lobbyists hurting the interests of citizens!," he wrote.

Johnson started envisioning picketing the MLBA's offices, or flooding their mailbox with angry letters. He created a splinter group on Reddit called Twin Cities Activism, and rallied his followers to meet with the Surly lobbyist to strategize.

"We wanted to be their army," Johnson says of Surly.

One of the most active commenters, a reader with the handle Minnesota_pirate, arranged a meet-up at Haute Dish. About 20 people pushed six tables together in the front room, ordered Surlys, and crowded around to plot where to strike first.

The Surly lobbyist, taken aback by the fervor in the room, told them she was more interested in polite calls to legislators, letters, that kind of thing.

After the meeting, a burly, bearded man approached Johnson and introduced himself as Andy Schmitt, a.k.a. Minnesota_pirate. He thought this was much bigger than the both of them.

"This doesn't just affect Surly," Schmitt said. "We should take another step forward."


THOUGH HE SPENDS most of his days with a gun strapped to his hip and a uniform on his back, Schmitt isn't exactly a stickler for rules.

"I think they should spend half the legislative session when they aren't making laws taking silly laws off the books," he says.

He's a broad man with an easy laugh, at once welcoming and formidable. A security guard by trade, Schmitt spends his days walking a perimeter and monitoring closed-circuit video feeds.

If there's one thing he hates, it's driving across the border on a Sunday to buy alcohol in Wisconsin. He hates arbitrary liquor store hours, and the fact that he can't buy a six-pack when he goes grocery shopping.

The ban on Sunday sales just doesn't make sense, he says. "What we should do here is serve the consumer."

After the initial meeting at Haute Dish, Schmitt envisioned forming a group to push back against industry lobbyists. His team would be passionate fans who could speak to the benefits of beer. He called them the Minnesota Beer Activists.

The first meeting was held at Stanley's Northeast Bar Room in Minneapolis, and a rag-tag crew showed up, including a bisexual graphic designer, a mailroom clerk with his '50s pin-up girl fiancée, and an environmental science Ph.D. They spanned the political spectrum, but had one crucial thing in common: beer.

"I'm actually somewhat antisocial," says Schmitt. "I'm not big into crowds. Most people irritate me. But most of the people involved in the beer scene are people you'd want to hang out and have a beer with."

Since bringing them together, the once shy Schmitt has become the public face of beer drinkers, glad-handing at breweries and bar events, trying to get his group's message heard.

"We feel like he's just one of us," says Jim Diley, one of the four cofounders of Fulton Beer. "We're five guys hanging out in the garage drinking."


BACK IN THE same Senate hearing room on the first floor of the majestic state Capitol, Bagnoli and Ansari meet again.

Bagnoli doesn't speak during the hearing, just watches as the committee agrees to fold the Surly bill into the larger package of liquor laws destined for a floor vote. The discussion is over.

This day, at least, belongs to the beer activists.

"There's nothing really to say," shrugs Ansari after he and Bagnoli pass wordlessly in the hallway.

If the bill passes the House and Senate floor votes in the coming weeks, it will mark the most significant change to local liquor laws since brewpubs were legalized in 1988. There's a general consensus the bill will pass, albeit with only begrudging agreement from the trade associations.

The day after the omnibus hearing, Schmitt sits in Stanley's to raise a toast to the group's success. In order to be more effective in the future, the activists want to hire their own lobbyist to combat the $1.2 million the industry has spent on lobbyists over the past five years. Stanley's has agreed to give the activists a free booth to drum up support and sell merchandise during the Minnesota Craft Beer Week.

The party breaks up and Schmitt makes his way to the Nomad to share news of the beer festival with other activists. Flush with success, Schmitt can't help but imagine a brighter future for Minnesota beer drinkers.

"It's a big step," he says of the omnibus bill. "Once that happens, it'll be time to celebrate. 

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