State lawmakers managed to consider more than two dozen proposed changes to Minnesota's liquor laws during a marathon hearing last week, even wrapping up in time for happy hour.

The debate over state laws on brewery, winery and distillery operations — and alcohol sales — has ramped up the past two years, becoming more pronounced as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the industry hard. Proponents say many of Minnesota's liquor laws are outdated, while retailers and distributors contend that many of the new bills would benefit one sector of the industry at the expense of others.

For nearly four hours on Wednesday, the House's Commerce Committee considered proposals such as ending the cap on which breweries can sell to-go growlers of beer and a measure to let grocery and convenience stores sell stronger beer and wine.

"A number of people have been waiting for this day for a very long time," said Rep. Zach Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, who chairs the committee.

The hearing was billed as informational only and did not include any votes. But Stephenson started the meeting by saying that he wants to see significant liquor legislation passed during the 2022 session, which begins Jan. 31.

Jamie MacFarlane, co-owner of Castle Danger Brewery in Two Harbors, told the committee that because of a state law prohibiting growler sales at breweries producing 20,000 or more barrels of beer each year, only five breweries in the nation cannot sell growlers to go — all in Minnesota.

"It penalizes local businesses from being successful once you reach a certain point," MacFarlane said. "There's probably no other business out there that has to stop selling something that they've had from the get-go."

Brandt Erwin of the Minnesota Beer Wholesalers Association argued that ending the growler cap would be an "additional exemption which confers a substantial competitive advantage over thousands of other industry members on both the wholesale and retail tiers." Erwin cited the spike in Minnesota craft breweries from 42 in 2010 to 291 as of early 2021 as evidence that the liquor laws are working.

The crush of liquor bills are backed by both DFL and Republican House members. Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, is behind a proposal to legalize the sale of wine and stronger beer in grocery and convenience stores. Daudt said such stores in Minnesota are at a disadvantage compared to neighboring states because it is one of just five states to not let them sell beer stronger than 3.2% alcohol by weight.

Lobbyists for retailers and distributors are fighting many of the proposals. In a statement before the House hearing, Tony Chesak, executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, called many of the bills "unnecessary and controversial."

"The entire hospitality industry is working hard to recover and find a new normal after mandatory shutdowns last year," Chesak said. "The Legislature should not impose controversial and industrywide changes to accommodate very small groups, at the expense of others in the industry."

Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755