Our alcohol laws are outdated, and a 2013 poll shows Minnesotans agree: It's embarrassing when we have to tell Wisconsin visitors that we'll need to stockpile beer on Saturday night.
Local consumer advocacy group MN Beer Activists has been working tirelessly to change that. After a recent Capitol rally cry, we caught up with founder Andrew Schmitt to talk about his inspiration, his motivation, and why he keeps fighting for progressive alcohol laws year after year.
Schmitt's MN Beer Activists group represents the consumer side of legislation. Before the Taproom Bill was passed, Schmitt says, "We saw everyone from bar owners to beer distributors influencing the legislative process. Nobody was hearing from the consumers."
MN Beer Activists helped lobby for that Taproom Bill, they joined wholesalers and Teamsters to curb an increase on the alcohol excise tax, and they've worked with breweries to clarify growler refill regulations.
However, there remains a key wedge between consumers and industry forces, that of Sunday sales, and it's a topic that's mostly debated behind the industry's closed doors. On Monday it was announced the Teamsters will drop their opposition to refilling and selling growlers on Sundays, but other roadblocks to full Sunday sales remain.
Hot Dish: Did you have any background in consumer activism when Minnesota Beer Activists started?
Andrew Schmitt: When we began, I had zero background in the field of consumer activism -- I would still consider myself very inexperienced, as there are people that go to school for a career in advocacy. I'm just a guy that loosely follows local politics, is into local craft beer and spirits, and wants everyday people to have a voice.
What is the biggest thing holding back Sunday sales right now?
I'd say distributors and municipal liquor stores, which is odd. You'd think many of Minnesota's municipal liquor stores would want to start breaking even. The amount of money some of them lose on an annual basis is downright staggering. Data from other states show that being open when people do the bulk of their shopping is likely to provide a significant boost to their sales volume.
The view of beer, wine, and liquor distributors is difficult to understand. Some are concerned about Sunday delivery, but that is an obvious red herring. Distributors don't deliver to bars on Sunday. In many ways distributors are a mandated entity. I'm not saying that is a bad thing, but their whole industry relies on regulation. Don't expect them to come out in support of easing regulations anytime soon.
Who is your strongest advocate?
It might be Todd and crew at Nomad World Pub. Minnesota Beer Activists held our first meeting at the Nomad and we have been hosting a Wednesday evening event there ever since. Politically, it might be Rep. Jenifer Loon from Eden Prairie or Sen. Roger Reinert from Duluth. Both legislators are big advocates of modernizing our outdated liquor laws.
How do you bounce back each year after defeat in the previous session? Is it hard to find motivation?
Last session we successfully clarified regulations on refilling growlers and passed a bill allowing taprooms to open on Sundays. That isn't defeat, that's making progress.
Minnesota gets closer every year to a full repeal of the Sunday off-sale liquor ban. That kind of progress makes motivation easy to come by, even if funding is not. We are making headway in spite of opposition contributions to numerous political campaigns and lobbying by special interest groups. The fact that they've redoubled efforts by hiring a grassroots team at Lockridge Grindal Nauen shows opposition is worried consumers have had enough crony politics. Things like that motivate me. I have no problem speaking for the people, being David and taking on Goliath. Bring it on.
What's surprised you the most in your time with Minnesota Beer Activists? The people. I have met so many wonderful Minnesotans. I am so thankful for the lifelong friends that have been brought into my life by being a consumer advocate. I'll be out someplace and someone will tell me how much they love the blog or the Minnesota BeerCast. The Minnesota Beer Activists is run by volunteers; it means a lot to know people appreciate the time and effort we put in.
How did the March 15 rally go? Are more events planned?
The Sunday event at the Capitol was a huge success. The Capitol parking lot was filled with supporters who caravaned to Wisconsin. Sen. Susan Kent, Sen. Dave Osmek, and Rep. Sarah Anderson came out to speak about repealing the ban Sunday off-sale liquor sales. Several small liquor store owners spoke, and we made a run to the border to spend money out of state.
Our goal was to draw attention to the movement for full repeal. The story was picked up on a national level, so I think we did that. On the surface repealing the ban on Sunday liquor sales might seem a little superfluous, but jobs and revenue are important to Minnesota. It is time to let store owners decide if they want be open or remain closed.
And yes, look for more events in the near future. We have some fun things planned.
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