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State law change benefits local breweries

BEMIDJI – Small craft breweries have been on the rise in Minnesota in recent years, a wave of popularity that has recently reached the shores of Lake Bemidji.

Bemidji Brewing Co. started selling its beer at Brigid’s Irish Pub in the last few weeks, a milestone that was years in the making. The brewery’s three members have seen what craft beer scenes in other states have to offer, and what Minnesota could look like in the future.

“I think we’re going to continue to see more local breweries pop up,” said Andrew Schmitt, director of Minnesota Beer Activists, a consumer advocacy group. “People want to be able to support their neighbors and local businesses and drink good beer at the same time.”

Craft beer’s momentum has been aided by recent law changes and consumers’ expanding tastes, industry leaders say.

Clint Roberts, executive director of the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild, said more people are being introduced to new beers. That was evident in the debut of their exhibit at the State Fair this year, “The Land of 10,000 Beers.”

“I would say a good portion of the folks in there were newbies,” Roberts said. “So that was really encouraging.”

The so-called “Surly bill,” named after the Brooklyn Center-based Surly Brewing Co., allowed breweries to sell pints of their beer on-site. Following that law change last year, several metro cities courted the company in hopes that they would move their proposed destination brewery to their town.

“It’s huge,” said Bemidji Brewing Co. member Tina Hanke of the Surly bill. She said the ability to sell directly to the customer not only helps the brewery as a business, but also helps build a sense of community.

“The option to have a pint of beer at a brewery is a relatively new thing in Minnesota. It’s been going on in other states for quite some time,” she said. “When you go to those places, you see that it’s a community feeling.”

Despite the recent momentum, Minnesota is not a national leader in the national craft beer scene.

Minnesota is 26th in the nation in breweries per capita, with one for every 147,331 people, according to the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association. Vermont, Oregon and Montana topped that list.

While the craft brewing industry grew by 13 percent in volume in 2011 nationwide, they remain far behind the juggernauts of the industry. Craft beers represent only about 6 percent of national beer sales, according to the Brewers Association.

Still, craft beer advocates see plenty of room to grow.

“It all comes down to people being excited about it and being energized about the product,” said Bemidji Brewing team member Justin Kaney, adding that amending laws to “appropriately reflect the beer culture that maybe Minnesotans would desire” could also help.

For example, Kaney said as a municipal liquor city, a brewery in Bemidji wouldn’t be able to sell half-gallon jugs called growlers directly from the brewery. But he said other breweries in the state have worked with their cities to overcome that through ordinance variances.

The team at Bemidji Brewing Co. would like to start its own brick and mortar facility in the future. Currently, they brew out of Harmony Co-op’s commercial kitchen in order to eliminate some overhead costs, limiting the amount they can produce.

Hanke has traveled throughout the country and Canada observing other breweries and business models. She said those experiences have inspired some ideas of what they’d like to do with their own home.

“It’s been great to see all of different possibilities and have those in my mind,” she said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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