By Jake Lewis
It has been a progressive year for the Minnesota beer scene since the passing of the Surly Bill just over a year ago, and the momentum keeps building. The efforts of the brewing community to create better business opportunities for themselves has been wholly supported by their consumers, and for the most part, legislators as well.
The climate in which the Twin Cities’ breweries are now thriving in is one of mutual support and growth. The changes being made are being designed for the greater good of the breweries and other avenues of the beer industry, by the very people that make the delicious craft beer that Minnesotans can’t seem to get enough of.
Many of these legislative changes that have taken place focus on the revision of outdated laws that lack the initial purpose with which they were created in the post-prohibition era. Times have changed, and finally some of these laws have changed, too.
Surly Brewing’s support of the Pint Law was a proactive effort to make their dream of opening up a destination brewery, where people can actually drink the beer they’re learning about, a reality. As of the publication of this article, a new location for the brewery has yet to be decided upon, but the Pint Law and the subsequent taproom ordinances that each city had to create to make the change possible, has been a positive change for everyone.
Lift Bridge Brewery was the first to take advantage of the bill. “As soon as the bill was signed into law, we met with the City of Stillwater to talk about getting a taproom license,” says Dan Schwartz, one of the brewery’s founders. “Since there wasn’t an ordinance that allowed it, we worked with them to craft some language. The City Council was very supportive and unanimously passed the change. We proceeded with the licensing and inspection process. In September of 2011 we were the first licensed taproom in the State of Minnesota. We didn’t know at the time we were the first, we had assumed that others had already moved forward. Many of the other taproom ordinances are based on what we crafted in Stillwater.”
However, the Surly Bill has done more than just allow consumers to belly up at the brewery bar. There is now a greater sense of community and culture that ties the brewery to its patrons. “We have seen a shift in the culture of the brewery. People are joining us specifically to have a pint, talk with the brewery staff and to connect with friends,” says Schwartz.
But you don’t have to go all the way to Stillwater to take advantage of taproom culture. Fulton’s downtown Minneapolis location makes for a great place to have a pint before a Twins game (and an even better place afterwards when you’re trying to forget it.) At Harriet Brewing , where community is one of their main principles, patrons are able to enjoy an über relaxed atmosphere, a variety of beers, and live music three or four nights a week.
A well-run taproom is proving to be an essential revenue stream for these breweries. Many that don’t have one are planning them out, and developing breweries like Indeed are realizing how important their taprooms can be to their business. Tom Whisenand, Indeed Brewing’s Director of Operations and Co-Founder, talks about their developing taproom plans. “During our planning process it became apparent that the law may be changed to allow taprooms and first, we just got excited about the idea as we were still pretty early in the planning process of the brewery. We began to work on a small side plan for a taproom and think about how it would change our approach to starting and operating a brewery.
“Looking back now, none of the Indeed crew could imagine starting Indeed without a taproom. The taproom ended up becoming a centerpiece of our business plan and subsequently the centerpiece of our brewery in Northeast Minneapolis (currently under construction). The Indeed crew is social, we love meeting people, and we love drinking beer and we feel our taproom will be the living room of our brewery.”
When asked about how he thinks these legislative changes will affect the local industry, Whisenand said, “No doubt it will affect the industry in a positive manner. The financial benefits of having a taproom cannot be ignored and I think it will help breweries accumulate the capital needed to expand their operations and get more of their delicious beer into the hands of thirsty consumers. Recent tax changes will also help breweries expand by reducing what could have been seen as barriers to growth. So overall, Minnesota has taken some great steps towards being a craft beer destination, and we hope our elected officials won’t stop there.”
Minnesotans are eager for more craft beer, and it’s the support of the beer drinking community that has proven to be paramount in making these changes possible. The Surly Nation was crucial in making legislators realize how important the Pint Bill was to them, and the legislators listened. Even Rob Miller and Sarah Bonvallet of Dangerous Man Brewing Company were successful in having an ordinance restricting the sale of alcohol within 300 feet of a church lifted.
“It wasn’t until we had already discovered our dream building in Northeast Minneapolis that we discovered the church law,” says Miller. “And we had no choice but to try and change the legislation, which we did. It was either that or lose out on an amazing building in an awesome neighborhood. Now that all these laws have changed, my dream brewery model (a taproom without wholesale or distribution) is possible. I have always wanted my brewery to be a neighborhood meeting place where people come to try many different styles of beer and take some home with them in the form of growlers. I didn’t want to be a production brewery focusing on distribution and wholesale. I want to be a destination taproom, where people come to enjoy the beer and get educated on the process and on what they are drinking.” Now the family-run tap house microbrewery is in the middle of their build-out at their Northeast Minneapolis location.
The Minnesota Beer Activists have championed the cause of craft beer from a consumer perspective in the state for over a year now. “The easing of old blue laws has a positive impact for beer consumers,” says Andrew Schmitt, the organization’s president. “More Minnesota breweries will raise the bar, both on pricing and product.”
The MNBA is now looking to have off-premise alcohol sales legalized on Sunday. “There have been objections to Sunday sales from a few powerful bar and store owners in the past. With over 80% of consumers in favor of the change, we are hoping to find some middle ground,” says Schmitt. The sale of alcohol, and even limited to beer and wine, on Sundays has been a hotly debated annual topic for a long time not at the capitol, and was in fact shot down again at the end of March. Consumers are tired of driving across the border for their beer on Sundays, and with the way our sports teams have been playing, we’re giving a lot of money to Wisconsin.
The fact of the matter is that the Pint Law, or the Surly Bill (whichever title you prefer), has marked the beginning of a very enthusiastic change in policies regarding craft beer in the metro. Policy makers are realizing the economic impact that craft breweries have, and are finally enabling beer makers to take advantage of new opportunities that will give them greater chances of success. In less than a year, opportunities for brewpub distribution, raised production limits for growler sales, Sunday sales, and even bottle shop restrictions have been brought to the table, because of the momentum that the Pint Law generated. It is a great time for craft beer in the Twin Cities. Keep supporting the local breweries. Be vocal and drink up.