"It's a rollercoaster," says Surly Brewing Co. owner Omar Ansari of the process. "There have been some pretty bad days and today is a good day."
Since Ansari announced back in early February that he's itching to build a $20 million destination brewery with a beer garden, performance space and restaurant, he's also drawn attention to the fact that his vision is currently illegal in Minnesota.
His social media-based campaign to change that resulted in a bill to allow breweries to sell pints of their own beer -- versions were introduced in both the Senate and House in February. It also resulted in what appeared to be stiff opposition from the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, which argued the law change would weaken the state's three-tier system.Despite the initial controversy, last night's Senate commerce committee hearing -- in front of a packed room with about a dozen audience members decked out in Surly gear -- was extremely light-hearted. Author Linda Scheid (DFL-Brooklyn Park) introduced an amendment to SF 416 that she says had been hammered out with representatives from MLBA. That amendment included language to exclude companies that brew more than 250,000 barrels like Anheuser-Busch and Miller from obtaining the so-called "brewer taproom" license.
"I don't really see them coming in and having some kind of destination brewery selling Bud Light," she said to peals of laughter from the micro-brewers in the audience.
Brewers, bartenders and patrons testified one after another in support of the bill, as did Ansari, arguing the change to the law will create jobs and a thriving beer tourism industry in Minnesota."This modest change is not an attempt to tear down the three-tier system," he said. "We're a small business with a big idea."
The committee was also presented with a pack of letters in support, one from Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak.
The lone voice of opposition came from MLBA lobbyist Joe Bagnoli, who said he spoke on behalf of wholesalers, the Minnesota Municipal Beverage Association, retailers and restaurants who took issue with the bill.
"Our concerns are not born out of a desire to squelch competition," he said. "Our concerns are that we do not create statutorily a competitor that has a unfair advantage."
He said although he is still not completely happy with the bill, it is "not unreasonable for a brewer to serve a couple of pints."
After a few more minutes of banter, the committee brought the amended bill to a vote and it passed unanimously. It now heads to the Senate floor for a full vote, while the House version will be considered in committee next week.
Ansari, who said he was at one time concerned the opposition would prevent the bill from ever making it to committee, was pleased.
"I'm really happy," he said. "It seems to me that Joe Bagnoli's testimony showed that as a group they're happy with the outcome."
Watch more of Ansari's comments below, including a special toast to MLBA head Frank Ball, who voiced the most fervent opposition to Ansari's plans after they were first announced: