Debate over wine and beer in grocery stores to resume in 2020

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Beer battle
A 2017 law allowed Minnesota liquor stores to be open on Sundays, but wine and strong beer sales are still prohibited in grocery and convenience stores. Some Minnesota lawmakers want to change that.
Ivan Moreno | AP

When Minnesota ended a yearslong debate in 2017 and allowed liquor stores to open on Sundays, many said it marked the end of an outdated relic of the Prohibition era.

The same can be said of the state’s ban on the sale of wine and strong beer in grocery stores, said State Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary’s Point, who has been working for four years on legislation to allow grocery stores to sell the products.

“People want to go on when they’re buying their groceries and just be able to pick up their bottle of wine and check out right there at the same checkout, instead of going in the extra entrance or taking an extra trip someplace else. Forty-five other states allow for strong beer in grocery stores. It’s time to update our Prohibition-era laws to reflect 2019.”

One of those old laws allows Minnesota grocery and convenience stores to sell beer with a low 3.2 percent alcohol content. But stores saw those purchases drop when Sunday sales began.

Two beermakers, Heineken USA and Constellation Brands, recently told the Minnesota Grocers Association that they are no longer making 3.2 beer. The companies represent only a fraction of the 3.2 market. But Housley is using the news to bolster her contention that stores need more options.

“I’m not saying ban all 3.2 beer. I’m saying give the businesses the opportunity to sell stronger beer when they’ve lost so much of their product already.”

Minnesota grocery stores are able to sell strong beer, wine and liquor if they do it in a separate space with a separate entrance. Under Housley’s plan, there would no longer be any need for separation.

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State Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary's Point.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

Tony Chesek, executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, said Housley’s proposal would dramatically expand the number of stores selling wine and beer. That’s why his group has long opposed the change. Small liquor stores throughout the state would suffer, Chesek said.

“This would be the demise of the independently family-run businesses in the liquor industry, as far as off-premises is concerned. Yes. This is the final straw. If multiple licensing goes through and the grocery and convenience stores get what they want to get, they will put the vast majority if not all of the liquor stores in the state of Minnesota out of business.”

Gov. Tim Walz has not taken a firm position on the issue. On the one hand, he said he likes the current system for alcohol. But on the other hand, Walz is listening to the calls for change.

“I certainly welcome the discussion. I haven’t weighed in. I think we need to first and foremost make sure that the good regulatory system in place makes sense. But I know that there’s been an evolution with Sunday sales and other things. So, it sounds like to me we might tackle that issue this session.”

But a key lawmaker isn’t expecting a bill that allows wine and beer in grocery stores to ever reach the governor’s desk.

Rep. Laurie Halverson, DFL-Eagan, said she’s not convinced that it's all that inconvenient to buy wine and beer in Minnesota. Halverson, who chairs the House commerce committee, said she likely will take up a liquor policy bill next year, but she expects the measure will address things like distillery regulations and growler sales.

Halverson said she is concerned about how grocery store sales would impact small liquor stores. And there is no danger of 3.2 beer going away, Halverson said.

“Those things are going to be available for convenience stores to continue to sell,” she said. “So, if anybody is making the claim that they won’t be, and that these retailers need another option, that is not something that we’re aware of at this point.”