'Free the growler' legislation appears dead at Capitol

Jana Hollingsworth, Star Tribune
·3 min read

DULUTH — A proposal to allow Minnesota's largest breweries to sell 72-ounce growlers appears dead after the measure failed to gain significant support in the closing weeks of the legislative session.

Hurt by the pandemic, several of those breweries formed an alliance last year to lobby for a change in the law that says breweries that produce more than 20,000 barrels of beer in a year are prohibited from selling growlers or other to-go containers. Several of the breweries, including Surly, Fulton and Castle Danger, have said the cap penalizes them for their growth.

"Only five breweries in the country can't sell beer to go," said Jamie MacFarlane, co-owner of Castle Danger Brewery in Two Harbors. "We want to be competitive with national brands and everyone else."

Schell's and Summit are also among the five.

The lack of support in both the House and Senate is "really disappointing," said Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, who introduced bills to remove the growler cap.

"It's not a Minnesotan thing at all," he said, "Breweries are begging for help."

Nash is one of several lawmakers working with the breweries to change the 2013 law — itself an upgrade from a 3,500 barrel cap — intended to protect the state's three-tiered liquor system, which regulates the relationship between producers, distributors and retailers. Four of those breweries and two others near the cap — Indeed and Lift Bridge — formed the Alliance of Minnesota Craft Breweries and a "free the growler" campaign.

MacFarlane said growlers allow brewers to experiment with new beers without the added expense and lengthy design process that comes with cans, especially with aluminum shortages during the pandemic. Castle Danger's most popular beer, Castle Cream Ale, was first sold as a summer seasonal in a growler.

"We wouldn't be here today if it hadn't been for growlers," she said.

No liquor-related provisions have received hearings at the State Capitol this session. The growler amendment included several other provisions, such as language for bars and restaurants to permanently sell limited amounts of alcohol to-go with takeout orders, which they were allowed to do during pandemic closures.

Distributors and retailers have previously lobbied against efforts to raise or remove the growler cap, arguing that a change would benefit big producers at the expense of small restaurants, bars, liquor stores and wholesalers.

The provisions seem to benefit a few rather than the entire industry, said Leslie Rosedahl, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association.

"COVID has hurt everybody in the hospitality industry so much ... MLBA has been focused on relief packages and safely reopening as quickly as we can," she said Wednesday. "We have not been supportive of smaller, controversial policy changes that pick winners and losers."

Nash, who is concerned craft beverage-makers will move to neighboring states, said he hasn't yet given up on the legislation. A separate proposal that changes only the growler cap has been introduced in both the Senate and the House this session, but hearings have been held for neither.

Jana Hollingsworth • 218-508-2450