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The meeting at the corner table inside St. Paul’s Great Waters Brewing Co. Wednesday didn’t look like your typical political confab — just a few guys with names like “Rockie” and “Badger” sitting around sipping dark beers and shooting the breeze.
But the hastily scheduled meeting was indeed a strategy session by a group of small-business owners trying to respond to a puzzling attack on a bill that could make a dramatic impact on their industry, and even on “beer tourism” in general.
The men were all members of the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild, which had recently discovered that a bill moving through the Legislature that would allow their members to open taprooms and sell glass jugs, “growlers,” of beer on Sunday had hit an unexpected roadblock.
Local craft beer has grown from a neighborhood economic boost to a tourism draw and even a lifestyle and political force.
Because of that popularity, the bill to exempt the taprooms from Sunday sales seemed to be sailing through, passing commerce committees in both houses. Then something happened.
The powerful Teamsters union recently began contacting legislators, saying they were not in favor of the bill. A wholesaler that employs Teamsters apparently notified the union that passage of the bill would let them reopen labor contracts, potentially having an impact on wages and benefits of members.
So once again, even the slightest attempt to refine the state’s Byzantine liquor laws with some common sense adjustments — to benefit consumers and business owners — has become threatened, this time by union muscle.
“You can see we’re not pounding the table about this, we don’t want union workers to lose their contracts or anything,” said Dan Justesen, co-owner of Vine Park Brewing Company. “We just want to make our customers happy and we’re trying to learn how to fix this.”
Besides a vague claim that contracts were in jeopardy, however, the Teamsters have been unwilling to share details with the brewers guild.
They did not return phone calls.
If the Teamsters maintain their opposition, a bill that seemed almost certain to pass will likely fail, even though union contracts have nothing to do with how taprooms and breweries do business, said Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie.
“It’s a mystery to me,” Loon said of the Teamsters’ sudden objections. “There seemed to be pretty broad support for both growler sales and taprooms [to be open].”
“I just really see it as a huge case of economic freedom,” said Loon. “There is no direct correlation between taprooms and the union.”
The businesses make their own products and sell directly to customers, so it’s not like union workers would have to work weekends to deliver beer.
Though they were early opponents of brewery legislation, neither of the other powerful liquor lobbies opposed this recent attempts to expand Sunday sales.
Some members wonder whether the union, with or without cooperation from wholesalers and the liquor store owners, are actually opposing the change because they don’t want “the camel’s nose under the tent,” eventually opening the door for more change.
In turn, craft beer advocates have stayed out of the controversies over Sunday liquor store sales and wine and liquor in grocery stores.
“We’re focused on our members. We’re not interested in telling other people how to run a business,” said Clint Roberts, executive director of the guild.
Rockie Kavajecz, owner of Canal Park Brewing Company in Duluth, said his city has become known as “beer town” to craft beer lovers.
Tourists come up for the weekend and want to take a growler home with them on Sunday, “and we have to say, sorry, can’t do that,” said Kavajecz. “It’s not just about beer, it’s about customer relations.”
In July, thousands of people will travel to Duluth for the third annual “All Pints North Summer Brew Fest” at Bayfront Festival Park. But if they want to bring back fresh local beers on Sunday, they can’t.
Brewers see their buildings as weekend tourist attractions and think Sundays could be their second- or third-most popular day.
“We can’t grow with this type of resistance,” said Sean O’Byrne, owner of Great Waters.
“We were built with union labor, and our place is filled with union members who want to buy growlers on Sunday,” said Badger Colish, brewmaster at Canal Park.
“It makes me wonder which Teamsters, exactly, are opposed to this bill.”