Town Team Baseball pitches Minnesota lawmakers to sell stronger beer, seltzer at games

A Minnesota House committee advanced a series of liquor law changes Friday, jumpstarting negotiations on whether to lift the state's growler cap, allow six-pack sales in taprooms, and other long-stalled requests.

The House Commerce committee approved the measure on a 14-1 vote, sending it to the Ways and Means committee. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said it's the closest they've been to a major liquor deal in years, though a final agreement is subject to end-of-session negotiations.

"We have an opportunity in passing this bill not just to get some work done, but also to set the stage for peace, not just for one year, but for a period of time, for five years," said state Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids and the House Commerce chairman.

Minnesota has a powerful three-tier system dating back to the years after Prohibition that carves out specific roles for producers, distributors and retailers. If lawmakers give one tier a bigger piece of the market, the other two tiers get less. All three have allies at the Capitol, and their disputes traditionally end in stalemate.

As a result, requests for changes to Minnesota's liquor laws have been piling up at the state Capitol in recent years. 

Among the changes proposed in the House bill:

• Minnesota would allow larger craft brewers who produce up to 150,000 barrels a year to sell growlers to customers. Currently, the cap is 20,000 barrels. The change would affect eight breweries who are either above or approaching the cap: Summit, Schell's, Surly, Castle Danger, Fulton, Third Street Brewhouse, Lift Bridge, and Indeed, Stephenson said.
• Smaller craft brewers who produce less than 7,500 barrels a year would be allowed to sell six-packs in their taprooms. The change would affect all but the biggest of Minnesota's 200 brewers.
• Smaller distillers could sell 750 milliliter bottles or smaller airplane-sized bottles. Current law only allows sales of 375 milliliter bottles.
• Bars could have extended hours to sell alcohol during FIFA World Cup games.
• Cities could approve licenses for Town Team Baseball clubs to sell strong beer and seltzer at games. Currently, most Minnesota Baseball Association teams can only legally sell beer with 3.2 percent alcohol content.

However, the bill does not allow grocery and convenience stores to sell strong beer. Minnesota is the last state in the country with 3.2 beer laws, and retailers have been seeking changes for years.

State Sen. Gary Dahms, the chairman of the Senate Commerce committee, has blocked several of the House's proposals in recent years. Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, did not return a request for comment left with a spokeswoman this week.

Town baseball's request

The first pitch of the Minnesota Baseball Association's season went to lawmakers. Some teams won't be financially viable if they can't sell strong beer and seltzer at games because it's getting harder to find 3.2 beer, said Joe Kreger, the group's vice president.

Kreger, who is the mayor of Green Isle and president of the Green Isle Irish Association, said his team generates 75 percent of its yearly revenue from beer sales. Sales were down in 2021 because the team had to scrounge for off-brand beer just to get through the season.

With fewer brewers producing 3.2 beer, the problem will get worse, Kreger said. He predicted that many teams will resort to breaking state law if nothing changes.

"They’re probably going to go to the local liquor store, buy strong beer and resell it, and hope nobody says anything," he said. "That’s just the honest truth of what’s going to happen." 

Stephenson and state Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, said they had been working together on the proposal to loosen restrictions on the baseball clubs. It will give cities the go-ahead to grant strong beer and wine licenses to teams.

Last summer, the Town Team tournament came to Carver County. But teams in some cities didn't have beer to sell to fans because of the 3.2 limitation, Nash said.

"That’s a huge part of how they make their money -- and how they contribute to the community. It’s time to get this fixed," Nash said in an interview.