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Here comes the Sunday liquor sales debate again, this time with feisty craft beer brewers

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Brewer supports Sunday sales
Northbound Smokehouse Brewpub owner Jamie Robinson supports changing the law banning Sunday liquor sales.
Jon Collins / MPR News

The perennial debate about whether to lift Minnesota's ban on Sunday liquor sales could get fizzier in the 2014 legislative session as citizen activists make a strong push to rally craft beer drinkers to their cause. 

They face an uphill battle against influential business associations, a strong union and legislators wary of alienating local liquor stores. But the activists believe it's inevitable.  

"We see that it works in every state that surrounds Minnesota," said Minnesota Beer Activists founder Andrew Schmitt. "It's just time to make Minnesota part of the rest of the nation."

'NO ONE IS ASKING CONSUMERS HOW THEY FEEL'

Associations that represent bars and liquor stores, and the unions representing liquor distributors typically oppose Sunday sales. A smaller group of liquor store owners, especially those near state borders, would like to see a change in the law.

A poll released by Public Policy Polling in May found that 62 percent of Minnesotans supported lifting the ban. Only 31 percent opposed it. It's this silent majority of supporters that Schmitt and the beer activists want tap into.

"No one is asking consumers how they feel about it," Schmitt said. "It's kind of crazy that there are a few lobbyists that really hold back tourism and revenue and the quality of life in Minnesota."

In an effort to curb the influence of opponents at the Capitol, Minnesota Beer Activists is launching a public awareness campaign for Sunday liquor sales in the coming weeks, including a website that lets constituents directly contact their representatives at the State Capitol.

"It's going to come down to whether legislators want to listen to constituents or listen to lobbyists," Schmitt said. Opponents "put a lot of the money into this system, the challenge is going to be seeing whether we can overcome that."

Minnesota Beer Activists plan to formally incorporate as a 501(c)(4), although Schmitt said it's unlikely they'll be able to afford any lobbyists. 

Even with public opinion on their side, the activists still expect an uphill battle.

CRAFT BREWERS MIXED ON SUNDAY SALES

Jamie Robinson, owner of Northbound Smokehouse Brewpub in south Minneapolis, supports Sunday sales. He estimated that his business loses between $12,000 and $15,000 in sales each year because he can't sell beer in growlers on Sunday.

"Craft beer is really popular right now and we feel like there are 52 days a year when we have a product people want and they're just not able to buy it because there's a group of retailers out there who just won't want to work Sundays," Robinson said. "We're open Sunday and we feel like we should be able to sell the products we have."

Brewpubs, which produce their own beer, must also sell food by state law and are unable to distribute their beer to retailers. That means Northbound doesn't depend on distributors or liquor stores to sell its product. Robinson said that breweries with taprooms, which often see the bulk of their business come from sales in liquor stores, have little incentive to cross distributors and retailers who oppose Sunday liquor sales.

"I've talked to several different packaging brewers and they'd like to see Sunday sales as well, I believe they just don't want to rock the boat," Robinson said. "That's where everything gets hung up, there's just not a big enough craft brewers voice out there at this point."  

The Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild is not taking a position on the legislation, and many breweries are following suit.

Indeed Brewing Company co-founder Thomas Whisenand said his Minneapolis company is staying neutral. Whisenand doesn't believe Indeed is losing revenue because of the Sunday liquor sales ban.

Another brewer who says he's staying out of the debate, western Minnesota's Brau Brothers Brewing Company co-founder Dustin Brau, said he expects the debate to resolve itself one way or another in the coming years as the ranks of craft beer drinkers grows.

"We deal with a lot of retailers who would really love to see things change and we deal with a lot of retailers that like the way the system runs right now," Brau said. "It would be silly for us to stand on one side of that fence."

Brau said the ban on Sunday liquor sales hasn't really affected the brewery, since they've traditionally depended only on retailers. But they've noticed a few missed opportunities at sales since they've expanded into a taproom earlier this year.

"We get a lot of tourists coming through town, we have to disappoint people once in a while when they can't get a growler of beer coming through the taproom," Brau said. "That's about the extent to which the law directly affects us."

'SUNDAY IS THE DAY OF REST'

A number of powerful organizations have successfully opposed the sale of liquor on Sundays in Minnesota for years through lobbying and mobilizing owners of liquor stores to contact their local representatives and urge them to oppose lifting the ban. 

The Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association Executive Director Frank Ball said the board of his organization, which is made up of both on-sale and off-sale liquor retailers, has voted year after year to vigorously oppose Sunday liquor sales.

"The short version is we don't want to work on Sunday," Ball said. "There's enough liquor sold between Monday through Saturday, and Sunday is the day of rest, the day to be with your families, kind of a religious day -- that's how we've always played it."

Ball said most of the liquor stores his association represents are mom and pop stores that wouldn't see more sales in a 7-day system. 

"By extending the additional hours on Sunday, it just pushes their expenses one more day, they have to pay for employees, they have to pay for operation," Ball said. "It costs more to keep them open than to close them."

Ball said the industry is changing, especially with the emergence of craft brewers, but that the current system works and should remain the same.  

Teamsters Joint Council #32 represents about 700 people responsible for warehousing and delivering alcohol in Minnesota has long supported a Sunday sales ban.

"The vast majority of the liquor stores with the exception of a few like the way the system is set up on a 6-day basis," said Political Director Ed Reynoso. "I've not heard of one distributorship that wants to deliver on Sundays either."

Reynoso said his union wants to ensure their members can have Sundays off.

"I'm not going to deny that there's a demand. I'm not going to deny it publicly, believe me, I've heard it from my own personal friends, but the reality is that if Sunday sales were to open, it would create a demand for Sunday deliveries." 

'LEFTOVERS FROM PROHIBITION'

The bill to lift the ban on Sunday liquor sales will be carried once again by state Sen. Roger Reinert of Duluth. He said making stores stay closed on Sundays defies studies showing that younger consumers shop more on the weekends. 

Reinert said he sees the argument that Sunday sales would economically hurt small liquor stores as "strawman arguments," with opponents essentially asking the government to protect them from having to work on Sundays.

"The big argument from liquor stores is that we'll be open an extra day, and we'd have extra expense but no extra sales," Reinert said. "Close on Monday if that's your low day, close on Tuesday if that's your low day -- you can run your business the way you want to run your business."

Reinert said one reason legislators should consider lifting the ban is increased tax revenue in border areas.

"We're surrounded by states that have Sunday sales," Reinert said. "It's not a coincidence that there's a liquor store at the foot of every bridge from Minnesota to Wisconsin. Every one."

The Sunday ban on liquor sales is also an impediment to the booming craft beer industry, Reinert said.

"If we're serious about providing a market that is fertile for growth and development, especially in the craft beer industry, which is seeing double-digit growth, we have to address some of these things that frankly are leftovers from Prohibition."

The Minnesota legislative session starts on Feb. 25, 2014.