Minnesota Beer Activists fight for your drinking rights
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.
"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.
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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