#FreeTheGrowler: Midsize Minnesota Breweries Fight for the Right to Sell Draft Beer To-Go

Minnesota only allows small breweries to sell growlers, a rule that's become especially frustrating during the pandemic.

Most beer drinkers are familiar with growlers—the typically 64-ounce jugs used to take draft beer home from the tap, often directly from the brewery. Growlers are especially helpful for small brewers looking to avoid the hassle or expense of packing into bottles or cans: These to-go jugs give customers an option for leaving with fresh beer other than, say, cupping their hands.

But just because growlers are good for small breweries, should small breweries be the only ones allowed to offer them? That's the law in Minnesota, but a recently-formed alliance is hoping to open up growlers up to all Minnesota brewers, regardless of size, at a time when the pandemic has left everyone in the industry looking for new ways to earn revenue to survive.

Minnesota brewed battle growler laws
Japhy / Adobe Stock

A "#FreeTheGrowlers" campaign has been launched by the Alliance of Minnesota Craft Breweries with the goal to lift the state's growler production cap. Currently, the to-go option is banned for any brewery making more than 20,000 barrel per year. The alliance was formed by six breweries, four of which are already above the 20,000 barrel limit: Schell's, Surly, Castle Danger, and Fulton. Two other breweries — Lift Bridge and Indeed — also joined the cause, with Lift Bridge specifically suggesting that, if not for the pandemic, they would have passed the threshold this year.

As a point of reference, August Schell, the largest brewery of the group, sold 113,000 barrels in 2020 according to a representative speaking on behalf of the brewery, 10,000 fewer barrels than in the previous year. Surly sold 75,000 barrels this past year, 18,000 fewer than before the pandemic. And just five breweries in the entire state are currently over the 20,000 barrel limit, with only Summit not joining the alliance due to its lack of focus on taproom sales.

Despite the rule's seeming inequity, there is a good reason behind it: According to the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal, Minnesota operates under the three-tier system, with most beer moving through distributors and then on to bars or retailers before reaching consumers. Growlers cut out these middlemen (aka distributors and retailers), providing the primary source of pushback against any rule change.

And yet, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted supply chains — beer included — leaving plenty of brewers stuck with draft beer that had been earmarked for bars. Without the option to sell this kegged beer directly to consumers in growlers, breweries argue that, in the short-term, the current rule can leave them literally pouring beer down the drain. "I have over 800 half-barrel kegs in my warehouse that, as soon as the governor made the announcement of the shutdown, no longer had a home," Jim Diley, chief operating officer of Fulton Beer, was quoted as saying, last month. "If I had growlers, I could do something with that product… We have breweries a block away that are able to sell growlers."

Over the past decade, growlers have become legal in all 50 states, and though Minnesota isn't the only state with limitations on where they can be sold, the Alliance believes that their state has some of the most restrictive craft beer laws in the upper Midwest. "Because of this cap, many Minnesota breweries have chosen to open taprooms in other states where the craft beer laws allow them to grow their business with fewer restrictions," Lon Larson, co-owner of Castle Danger, explained.

The Alliance's initial hope was that a temporary COVID-19 exemption would be passed last month. However, Minnesota's Bring Me the News reports that the measure didn't make it into the final bill that passed the state legislature. With the officials reconvening this week, the Alliance is making another push to "free the growlers."

Even beyond the pandemic, however, the #FreeTheGrowler campaign likely isn't going anywhere. Larson said growler sales across all six breweries only account for less than 1/20 of 1% of Minnesota's beer sales, according to the Business Journal. And yet, for an individual brewery, those growler sales can make a huge difference: As he told the Stillwater Gazette yesterday, "When we hit the cap in October 2019, we saw an immediate 30% decrease in sales from our taproom."

These breweries argue that hitting the 20,000 barrel limit stifles their creativity to brew new beers and turns them into victims of their own success. And simply shifting from selling beer out of a taproom to selling through retailers isn't an easy (or even logical) pivot. "Many of these breweries started in our garages," Omar Ansari, founder of Surly Brewing, stated. "We've put a lot of hard work into building these businesses and have made plenty of sacrifices along the way. There is no other industry that is penalized for being successful, especially one that employs local workers and does so much to help our communities grow."

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