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State: MillerCoors can't sell in Minn. because of shutdown licensing problem

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The state government shutdown appears to be endangering one of Minnesota's most precious summer commodities: beer.

Beer sales have been in the spotlight this week as the shutdown has closed the offices where Minnesota businesses renew their licenses to purchase and sell beer.

Now a major national beer manufacturer has emerged as the latest business to run into licensing problems, calling into question the line from this old television commercial: "If you've got the time, we've got the beer -- Miller beer."

Both the state and Miller's manufacturer, MillerCoors, are pointing fingers at each other saying neither took the time to keep the beer flowing.

"I don't say this facetiously. When you can't get a beer, I think the world changes."

Department of Public Safety officials say MillerCoors was delinquent in renewing an important license to sell its 39 brands of beers by June 13. They say the company then botched a resubmission and didn't meet a June 30 deadline to remedy the situation. 

Agency spokesman Doug Neville said the so-called "brand label registration" is essential. The company pays $30 per brand every three years to offer its beer in the state.

"It affects their ability to sell it," Neville said. "So anything on the shelves would have to come down."

That means the product must be removed from every liquor store, bar, and restaurant in the state selling it. 

That's not going to happen, according to MillerCoors spokesman Julian Green. He said the company met its renewal date and even overpaid the associated fees by about $200.

Nevertheless, Green said, MillerCoors received notice that the company was delinquent in its license renewal.

"The only problem with that was we received that letter on June 30, which was the day of the shutdown," he said.

Green said Minnesota is one of the company's biggest markets. MillerCoors will take legal action if necessary to keep beer vendors stocked, he said.

For now, it appears many beer sellers don't care about the license problem.

  "It won't affect us. They'll keep going," said Tim O'Connell, manager of Big Top liquor in St. Paul. He's not worried about his beer inventory thinning due to the dispute between MillerCoors and the state.

"They'll get an injunction to do what they have to do," O'Connell said. "They'll stay in business despite the stupidity of the state."

That's also the view of Tom O'Shea, owner of the Whiskey Junction bar in Minneapolis. He believes the deep pockets of MillerCoors will absorb any legal costs necessary to fight the state.

If O'Shea is barred from selling MillerCoors beers, his customers will just drink other brands.

"They may not be happy about not getting exactly what they want, but they'll take something," he said. "It's beer."

But Frank Ball, executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, notes that problems with licenses have caught many in the beverage industry by surprise. He said a number of business owners didn't believe a state shutdown would happen and failed to renew their licenses on time.

Ball said they now have to take seriously the prospect that MillerCoors beers might not be available.

"You can't have a Pollyanna approach to this thing," he said.

Still, Ball thinks the whole matter could be cleared up quickly if state officials would permit a half-time worker to return to the job of processing license applications. His trade group made that pitch Tuesday to the special master appointed to hear appeals for state funding.

If that fails, Ball said the national exposure of the MillerCoors debacle could put pressure on Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican legislators to cut a deal and end the shutdown.

Former state Senate Republican Minority Leader Duane Benson agrees. 

"There has to be pressure for this to happen," Benson said. "Releasing pressure doesn't help this.  I don't say this facetiously. When you can't get a beer, I think the world changes."

If a court does order the Miller to stop flowing, it would likely be the broadest commercial impact of the government shutdown.