Minn. Officials Help Brew Up Craft Beer Growth
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) -- When Ryan Petz signed his lease in 2010 for a new brewery in the shadow of Minneapolis' Target Field, he never dreamed they'd outgrow the 6,000-square-foot building in just a few years.
Fulton Beer expects to pump out 7,000 barrels — that's about 1.7 million pints — of beer this year, more than double their production in 2012. They'll have to cram in two more brewing tanks to meet demand for their brews, like the Guns N' Roses-inspired India Pale Ale called Sweet Child of Vine. There is barely enough room for one.
The craft brewing scene is exploding in Minnesota as it is across the country: Two-thirds of the breweries in the state have opened just since 2010, according to licensing records. Twenty of those started in the last year alone.
Much of that growth has been driven on the local level by city officials, who see a new craft brewery in their town as a cultural and tourism magnet, a job creator and a growing economic engine.
Nowhere is that more clear than in Minneapolis. Mayor R.T. Rybak crashes brewery openings, and the City Council has shown its willingness to tweak zoning and other city ordinances to help out individual breweries.
"That has been one of the biggest difference makers," said Petz, the president of Fulton. "If the city of Minneapolis hadn't been willing to ... actually be proactive in helping us, the industry would be in a different place."
Minneapolis is home to eight of the 35 craft breweries and brewpubs that have opened since 2010. Duluth, another hot spot for growth, has four.
"We have done everything we could to make it clear that we're strongly behind the new beer culture," Rybak said.
In November 2011, the City Council changed a longstanding ordinance that separated churches and establishments that serve alcohol so that Dangerous Man Brewing could open a taproom in northeast Minneapolis. Dangerous Man finally opened its doors earlier this year.
And last spring, food trucks parked in Fulton's lot to feed hungry customers until Petz got a notice that he had to send the trucks away — the city's zoning ended three blocks east of their building. The city fixed the issue in less than a week, which Petz called "light speed."
"It could have been a protracted thing. We could not even have food trucks now, a year later," he said.
On the banks of the St. Croix River — outside the cities where the industry has flourished most — Stillwater has been nothing but supportive of Lift Bridge Brewing, said CEO Dan Schwarz.
"They understand that it's a part of the culture, it's a part of the community," Schwarz said.
For the industry to keep growing in Minnesota, craft brewers may need more help from the state.
The so-called Surly bill (named for a Brooklyn Center brewery), which allowed brewers to open taprooms and sell pints onsite, was a huge win for the industry when it passed in 2011. But other victories have been harder to score at the Capitol, where lawmakers and a powerful liquor lobby are wary of easing alcohol restrictions too fast.
Rep. Joe Atkins, an Inver Grove Heights Democrat who has gained a reputation for handling alcohol issues at the Legislature, said it makes sense for cities to approach craft breweries as an opportunity for economic development. But the state's role is a regulatory one, he said, which means changes often come slow.
In just the past five years, Atkins said he and others at the Legislature "have gone from perceiving the craft brewer as something of a novelty to something that makes a great deal of sense to embrace."
This year, a group of small breweries is pushing to revise state law so that growing brewers can keep selling 64-ounce growlers of beer. Those take-home bottles are a significant revenue source for many brewers, but current law bans breweries that churn out more than 3,500 barrels annually from selling them. A bill in the works would bump that threshold up to 20,000 barrels. Both Rybak and Duluth Mayor Don Ness have wholeheartedly backed that effort.
"There's a tremendous amount of support at a local level to encourage these entrepreneurs to succeed," Ness said. "Then we run up against these state restrictions that really hamper the ability of Minnesota brewers to be as successful as they could be."
For Petz, it's just a matter of time before the Legislature embraces the industry the way Minneapolis has. Minnesota brewers want to catch up to other states like California, Colorado and Oregon, where craft beer is ingrained in the culture.
"People are just getting that idea now," he said.