Starting Friday, Minnesota will have the distinction of being the last state in the nation to sell 3.2% alcohol beer — the often maligned weak brew sold almost exclusively at neighborhood supermarkets and convenience stores.
Some state lawmakers want to change that by abolishing what they call “antiquated” liquor laws that limit what small-business owners can sell.
“It’s 2019, but Minnesota’s liquor laws still reflect the era of Prohibition,” said Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Marys Point, who is renewing her efforts to clear 3.2 beer from the shelves.
Now that Minnesota will be the lone state restricting grocery stores to selling only the weaker beer, Housley suspects it’s only a matter of time before brewers decide it’s no longer profitable to produce it.
“It won’t be long before the market demands we bring our laws in line with the rest of the nation,” she said. “Minnesota has a world-class craft brewing scene and a booming market. We should be encouraging growth in that area, not stifling it.”
Regardless of brand, 3.2 beer has long been derided as “beer-flavored water” by customers frustrated over the lack of full-strength alcohol Sunday sales in Minnesota. The law was changed in 2017, ending a more than century-old ban on Sunday liquor sales.
“Nobody would even be able to tell the difference unless they read the can,” said Richard Bohnen, a second-generation convenience store owner in south Minneapolis. “And when’s the last time you read a can of anything?”
Before Sunday liquor sales took effect, Bohnen could count on football fans dropping by his BP gas station to grab some 3.2 beer. Customers seemed to look past the fact that the brew contained less alcohol.
But the law change had an immediate impact, slashing Bohnen’s beer profits by more than half. Now he would welcome the chance to sell regular alcohol.
“When you go to any other state, they have liquor in the grocery store; some have it in the gas stations,” he said. “Give me the same playing field; that’s all I’m asking for.”
An uphill battle
Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, lamented Minnesota’s resistance to following the rest of the nation on what he considers a “common-sense proposal.”
“I don’t know why anyone would oppose this,” he said. “Minnesotans can handle their beer.”
But previous efforts to do away with 3.2 beer in Minnesota have failed without so much as a committee hearing at the State Capitol. And the outlook remains dim.
Although a spokesman said Gov. Tim Walz is open to the idea and will review the proposal, Housley’s bill is likely to face stiff opposition from powerful lobbying groups like the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association and the Minnesota Beer Wholesalers Association.
Both organizations disapprove of so-called “alcohol everywhere” legislation, which would permit full-strength beer, wine and spirits in virtually every grocery and convenience store.
The groups believe that changes in regulation could “have serious repercussions for consumers and communities,” including less variety and product choices, easier access to alcohol for minors and a significant loss in revenue for independent and municipal-run liquor stores.
“There is no evidence consumers are having difficulty obtaining alcohol,” the MLBA wrote in its legislative priority fact-sheet. “Beer manufacturers have not indicated they plan to stop producing 3.2% beer.”
But sales are dwindling — the Minnesota Beer Wholesalers Association estimates that an average of 3.7 cases a week are sold per store.
As a result, some of the nation’s largest beer manufacturers, like Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors, have hinted that they may eliminate some brands and slow production now that Oklahoma, Colorado, Utah, and Kansas have all axed 3.2 beer requirements.
August Schell Brewing Co., Minnesota’s largest brewery, is the only manufacturer that’s explicitly committed to that market, despite 3.2 representing less than 1% of its total production, according to the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal.
Rep. Laurie Halverson, chairwoman of the House Commerce Committee, said she opposes sweeping changes to the state’s current system at this time.
She cited concerns about enforcement of liquor laws and effects on competition and consumer selection.
“It’s not a simple discussion or a simple change to Minnesota law,” said the Eagan Democrat, who called for more “stakeholder involvement” before holding hearings.
“We have to be sure we’re protecting all Minnesotans.”
Staff writer Torey Van Oot and the Associated Press contributed to this report.