Crafting Legislation With The Minnesota Brewer’s Association
By Doug Hoverson
Walk into Indeed Brewing Company’s taproom and order one of their fine ales—their seasonal beer is always a good place to start. If you sit at the bar, you might end up in a conversation with one of the brewery’s co-founders, Rachel Anderson, Nathan Berndt, or Thomas Whisenand. On a recent visit in February, enjoying a pint of Hot Box Smoked Pepper Porter, I asked Tom to identify common questions asked by patrons. Without hesitating, he said, “Do you have growlers?” The answer is no. But why not?
For the People, By the People
Visit the Minnesota State Capitol when the legislature is in session. There is something majestic about walking up the century-old steps. Once inside, your eyes will be drawn up to the magnificent rotunda, then to the grand staircases leading to the House and Senate chambers. But as you look around you will see an inordinate number of men and women in sharply tailored suits, all working on something critical to the future of the state. How can I, as a citizen, acquire the same power they seem to radiate?
Forming a political interest group is part of a great American tradition. Alexis de Tocqueville, in his 1831 masterpiece Democracy in America (which you may have been forced to read at some point), explained what he found to be the most unique aspect of American politics: the tendency of people to form groups to plead their case to the government. He wrote:
In America the citizens who form the minority associate in order, first, to show their numerical strength and so to diminish the moral power of the majority; and, secondly, to stimulate competition and thus to discover those arguments that are most fitted to act upon the majority; for they always entertain hopes of drawing over the majority to their own side…
In short: Americans seek to solve problems by forming a group to try to sway public opinion and legislation in their favor. This includes beer drinkers. The rise of organizations like the Minnesota Beer Activists would make de Tocqueville proud that his analysis holds true nearly two centuries later.
The desire of brewers to band together for mutual protection against economic and legal threats is as old as the industry itself. Brewers’ guilds were active in European cities in the early 1300s. Closer to home, a group of prominent New York lager brewers called for a national organization in 1862 to monitor the new federal excise tax on beer. The result was the United States Brewers Association, which was an important voice for brewers well into the 20th century. A local group using the name Minnesota Brewers Association acted as the voice of the state’s breweries in the decades after Prohibition when dealing with state or federal government, and in negotiations with the governments of states to which Minnesota exported beer. Each of these groups had at least one lawyer on staff to deal with legal and legislative issues; additionally, many of the larger brewers retained their own counsel.
Save the Growler
The Minnesota Brewer’s Association was founded in late 2012 by several Metro area brewers: Ryan Petz and Jim Diley from Fulton Beer Co., Dan Schwarz from Lift Bridge Brewing Co., and Tom Whisenand from Indeed Brewing Co.; support from the north came from Clint and Jamie MacFarlane of Castle Danger Brewery in Two Harbors, Minnesota. The Association aims to “monitor, protect and advance legislative issues that affect Minnesota packaging breweries.” As of early February, the organization had sixteen members, ranging from the 139-year-old Third Street/Cold Spring Brewery to NorthGate Brewing Co., which has not yet been open for 139 days. When the Association began, the founders recognized there were a number of issues before the legislature that could affect small brewers, as well as existing laws that might apply to craft brewers in ways not previously realized.
Is there room for another brewing organization in the state without jeopardizing the harmonious spirit that generally exists among Minnesota’s craft brewers? The Minnesota Craft Brewers’ Guild has generally avoided taking stands on legislative issues, since it includes production breweries of all sizes as well as brewpubs, and these groups sometimes have different concerns on issues like growlers or distribution. The Guild serves as an educational and outreach organization through its festivals and overall promotion of craft beer.
At the moment, the Minnesota Brewer’s Association, or MBA, is seeking targeted legislation on issues that concern smaller to mid-size production breweries. Of these, the best known is the Save the Growler campaign (unaffiliated with this magazine), which seeks to change the state law prohibiting breweries with annual production above 3,500 barrels from selling growlers. Since both Fulton and Lift Bridge are poised to pass that mark this year, and Indeed recently announced an expansion plan that would put them at almost double this limit, it is no coincidence that the founders of the MBA hail from these three breweries.
Tom Whisenand wondered why brewers who do a good job reaching the public and expanding their market should be punished for their success. Indeed Brewing Company elected to forego growler sales altogether, rather than spending the money on growlers, taking deposits, then having all that expensive glassware be worthless in a year or two. (Several breweries, including Indeed, Fulton and Lift Bridge, sell 750 ml bottles at their taprooms, which could simply be shipped to retailers if they lost on-premise sales.) Whisenand and others don’t see Save the Growler as asking the government for a new privilege, but simply a request to avoid losing something they already have.
Navigating capitol politics
So how does one get a law passed? Government can seem complicated, especially if you had a teacher who insisted you learn how a bill becomes a law without showing the immortal Schoolhouse Rock video. Now that you’re humming “I’m just a Bill, you know I’m only a Bill,” do you remember how many ways that Bill could die? In committee, on the House floor, by veto, and the list goes on. Bill needs a lifestyle coach—and in government, they are called lobbyists.
Lobbyists are often depicted as the villains who prevent the people from obtaining justice from their government, like the type portrayed in the movie Thank You for Smoking. Everyone likes to campaign against lobbyists, but the truth is, the vast majority of lobbyists are not working on ways to dump more sticky dark liquid in your neighborhood – unless that liquid is imperial stout.
Since every industry serious about protecting their interests needs a presence at the Capitol, the Minnesota Brewers Association has indeed (no pun intended) hired a lobbyist. Dan Larson has represented a variety of clients during his two decades at the Capitol. In fact, he met some of the Fulton founders at an event for another of his clients, Defending the Blue Line, an organization helping children of armed services personnel stick with youth hockey programs. Larson began to represent Fulton and later expanded his role to include the MBA.
Larson’s assessment of the support at the Capitol for craft beer is enthusiastic, but tempered by years of watching the process at work. “The energy it is generating is something I haven’t seen in my twenty years at the Capitol. Every neighborhood wants [a craft brewery]. We have the opportunity to be a destination state—and lawmakers understand that and they want to be part of it,” Larson said in an interview. Local craft brewers claimed they would create jobs and economic activity and they have been as good as their word, winning the attention of legislators. But success is not enough, and Larson said that brewers have already seen the advantages of having a group on the ground at the Capitol. Awareness of the laws could mean a difference between tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of dollars to the member breweries . However, he also cautioned, “Change is coming, but we have to be reasonable and respectful and not ask for too much all at once. We need to bring other groups in as partners.”
Larson and Whisenand both commented on the complicated relationship brewers have with retailers and wholesalers. Loyal customers of a neighborhood brewery taproom sometimes see the other parts of the three-tier system as the opposition, but retailers are also customers of the brewery, and wholesalers are important partners in many ways. Chairs of legislative committees prefer to have agreement among the concerned entities before they advance a bill, so the MBA has been working closely with wholesalers and retailers to give potential legislation a realistic chance of passing.
Call to Action
How can beer lovers help support bills to benefit the industry? Start by following the MBA through social media and respond to calls to action. Legislators usually prefer e-mail messages from their constituents – keep them respectful, brief, and to the point. You may have 101 reasons to support a law, but they won’t have time to read your manifesto; however, contact does matter. Larson said that one contact from a constituent will earn a lobbyist a note to the legislator, contacts from five constituents will result in an urgent note, but fifteen or more contacts may be enough to get a meeting with the senator or representative.
Most of Minnesota’s craft brewers—and their lobbyist—see the rapid growth of the industry as an opportunity to open new frontiers and reach markets not yet imagined, rather than as a threat to any individual brewery’s sales. With careful management, the MBA may be able to help bring the state’s laws in line with some of the more liberal policies of other states, without losing what is special about the Minnesota beer scene.