Will the World End If Breweries Can Sell Pints to Consumers?

The food world is all aflutter with one story: Surly’s announcement this week that they wish to expand with a big new brewery and event center in Minneapolis—if only they can get a few laws rewritten. If you want to have anything to talk about this weekend at cocktail parties, take sides now!

Here’s the deal: Surly, the upstart brewery that put Minneapolis on the brewing map (after Summit put us on the map in the 1990’s, and Grain Belt, Hamms, and so forth put us on the map back in the day), announced plans to build a huge 20 million-dollar, 60,000 square-foot brewery with a 250-seat restaurant.

This comes on top of the little flurry of new breweries that are opening: Harriet Brewing on Lake Street in Minneapolis, and Fulton, which should open in a few months right by the new Target Field. And don’t forget Town Hall, the brewpub which just opened a second location called Town Hall Tap down on Chicago near 48th in South Minneapolis.

So, what is going on? Minnesota has a bunch of laws on the books from the immediate post-Prohibition era, meant to protect innocent citizens from evil brewers and/or ourselves. One of them is that a brewer is not allowed to sell pints of beer at their brewery directly to consumers. Another old law stipulates that brewpubs cannot sell their beer to distributors. So, if you own a liquor distributing company and would like to sell Town Hall Tap beer in Albert Lea, Minnetonka, or Duluth, and if you own a liquor store in Albert Lea, Minnetonka, or Duluth and would like to sell Town Hall beer, too bad. Another one stipulates that you can’t open a brewpub, then open a second location and drive your beer over. That’s why there’s never been a second Barley John’s, or Great Waters, or Herkimer or what have you; you’d have to buy all your brewing infrastructure again, which is a huge cost.

So, Omar Ansari, Surly’s owner—a Macalester grad and Current listener—has taken it on himself to try to change at least one part of this law, namely, letting breweries sell pints of beer. If this one thing happened, little breweries would be able to open much more easily, because it would solve one of their biggest problems—cash-flow on day one. So, the first benefit to our life if breweries could sell pints of beer to individuals: We’d get a big splashy Surly to show off to visitors.

But that’s not all! Benefit two: It would make Minnesota a tourist destination for beer tourists, the way Portland, Oregon, and Madison, Wisconsin are. People would come in from Iowa, Denver, all sorts of places, and patronize our hotels, restaurants, farmers’s markets, and so forth. But that’s not all!

Benefit three: Jobs! Surly owner Ansari estimates 150 full-time jobs at a new destination Surly brew complex and event center, and you can presume a handful of good jobs at every new brewery that opens. Benefit four: Improving of foodie culture, generally. Benefit five: Markets for farmers! Minnesota is a great place to grow barley and hops, and especially high-margin specialty barley and hops. If you are a farmer listening right now and want a business idea, here it is: There’s no one in this country making specialty Belgian malted barley. A lot of the malted barley used in brewing in this country comes from a company in Shakopee called Rahr.

So, what can you do to help this all along? Right now, you can just discuss with friends and family whether you think the selling of pints of beer at breweries would be a good thing or a bad thing. (The Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, which represents distributors who currently get a cut of every single drink you have which isn’t purchased at a brewpub, is dead against it.)

Also, if you want to see unbelievable evidence of the eloquence and erudition of Minnesota beer drinkers and blog commenters, check out this good article and fantastic comment stream—it’s like the New York Review of Books of comment streams.

Then, if you think it’s a good thing, you can Friend Surly on Facebook and ready youself for the day you’ll be called upon to contact your legislators.

Yet, what can you do if you want to taste all the great developments in local beer? Come to the Minnesota Monthly Food and Wine Experience! March 5th and 6th. There’s going to be a whole craft-brew area and pavilion. The Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild will be there in force—as of today, we’re counting 75 different beers on offer. Surly will have a huge presence and will be pouring a bunch of their hard-to-find brews like the 5th anniversary celebrating Pentagram, Surly Smoke, Molé Smoke, Mild, as well as the more commonly available Abrasive Ale, Furious, and so on. Harriet Brewing will also be there pouring their Belgian Style Ales. And it’s at the new Twins Stadium this year, indoors in the Target Field Metropolitan and Legends clubs. And of course the food & wine show will have all the usual great things—350 wines from 200 distributors, including an impressive presence from Washington State, and a cake challenge with cake decorators pulling out all the stops (I still can’t stop thinking about the Silence of the Lambs cake from last year). And it’s a benefit for MPR! And I’ll be there. So come drink wine and fine local beer with me. I’d love to see you! The event usually sells out, but there are still tickets left.