Mayor R.T. Rybak calls for changing beer law

In his state of the city speech, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak made his strongest endorsement yet of a change to local liquor laws proposed by Surly Brewing Co.

"Beer is a part of our history, beer is a part of our future," he said. "We need to change the laws."

His audience was about 300 people seated in the Hoversten Chapel at Augsberg College, but he was really talking to state legislators.

The mayor has already been a vocal supporter of the so-called Surly bill, which was proposed by Surly Brewing Co. owner Omar Ansari. The language would allow beer brewers to sell their own pints on site, which is currently only legal for brewpubs below a certain size. Surly's huge growth spurt over the past five years has made it ineligible.

Rybak (far left) with Ansari (far right) at a "Support Surly" event.
Rybak (far left) with Ansari (far right) at a "Support Surly" event.

Rybak is stumping for Surly because he likely wants the fruits of that bill's passage to land in Minneapolis. Ansari is pushing the change in order to build a huge $20 million destination brewery where he can have a restaurant, beer garden, and event space. He thinks it will create 150 jobs.

While instant opposition from the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association seemed to indicate Ansari could have trouble even finding a legislator to author such a bill, that has not been the case. In the Senate, Linda Scheid (DFL-Brooklyn Park) introduced the bill with support from Sens. Sandy Pappas, Dave Thompson, Linda Higgins, and Mike Parry. The house version has even more people lined up behind it--Rep. Jenifer Loon (R-Eden Prairie) is lead author, with coauthors Reps. Debra Hilstrom, Kirk Stenstrud, Kurt Daudt, Jim Davnie, Ryan Winkler, Diane Loeffler, Tara Mack, Tim Kelly, and Paul Torkleson.

"I have members almost every day that come up to me on the House floor and say, 'Oh, I just signed on to your Surly bill," says Rep. Loon.

The proposed Surly destination brewery.
The proposed Surly destination brewery.

Ansari says initially he was concerned that the opposition's political strength could squash the idea before it ever reached legislators. He's been spending a lot less time at the brewery and a lot more hustling at the Capitol over the past several weeks.

"The big challenge was to get those bills authored and get them introduced," he says. "The active work is done, a little bit."

MLBA president Frank Ball has also been to the Capitol on the matter, though he seems to have flip-flopped a bit as to whether he will eventually support the idea. Initially he said the change would weaken the three-tier liquor distribution system, then later said he thought the new Surly brewery was a great idea. Loon says she met with MLBA just last week.

"I said I was open to making changes," says Loon. "The agreement was they would go back, talk about it, and come back with some suggestions."

The two sides will have a few weeks to compromise--the bill is not on the Commerce Committee's calendar yet, mostly because the Legislature has this pesky budget thing to attend to. After March 25, the date legislators will attempt to have budget proposals ready, the committee might have a spare moment give the Surly bill a concrete date for discussion.

"People are more focused on the budget deficit right now," says Sen. Pappas. "This is just one small issue."

Tell that to the legion of Surly fans foaming at the mouth to mobilize. Ansari is still encouraging them to contact the legislators in support, but says for the most part they can kick back with a Bender until after March 25. Previous coverage:

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