The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 26, 2013

It's time to roll out the beer bills

By Mark Fischenich
The Free Press

— Beer dominated the agenda of a state Senate committee Monday, and south-central Minnesota lawmakers bellied up to the hearing table with several proposed changes to Minnesota alcohol law Monday afternoon.

Sen. Kevin Dahle? Legislation creating the position of "licensed beer educator" -- someone who would be authorized to serve beer to a pre-registered group of beer students "for educational purposes."

Sen. Julie Rosen? Legislation to make sure Winnebago's inaugural Craft Brew Fest continues for another year.

Sen. Gary Dahms? A bill that would allow Schell's brewery in New Ulm to benefit from a state tax credit aimed at helping smaller brewers compete with the big boys of beer.

The local bills were part of a 12-pack of proposals before the Senate Commerce Committee Monday afternoon to change state law governing the production and sale of alcohol in Minnesota.

Official beer educator

Dahle, a Democrat whose district includes most of Le Sueur County, is sponsoring a bill that would put beer on the same standing as wine. Last year, lawmakers authorized the issuance of "wine educator licenses" so that certified sommeliers could legally serve different wines to participants taking a class in wine appreciation and etiquette or attending a wine tasting.

"We're just kind of including beer in something that was put in statute for wine," said Dahle, a Northfield school teacher.

Some might think there isn't that much to know about savoring or serving beer, other than it should be presented cold and -- for fancy occasions -- in a glass. A cicerone (beer drinking expert) knows that it's way more complicated than that.

Michael Agnew, owner of the Minneapolis-based business A Perfect Pint, offers full-service beer-tasting and beer-education events for corporations, private parties and the food industry. But under current state law, it's not entirely clear that Agnew can legally charge people for the beer they're tasting and being educated in.

"(The legislation) eliminates some difficulties in pursuing this career," Agnew said. "This just clarifies all of that."

Dahle said craft beers are becoming as original and unique as the wide variety of wines, and Agnew's website -- which provides reviews of dozens of beers -- demonstrates the way an educated beer drinker can learn to praise beer in as sophisticated a manner as the most snooty wine sipper.

About one German lager, Agnew writes of flavors including "luxurious caramel malt with hints of chocolate and raisin," whereas a certain Wisconsin wheat beer has "a lemony fruitiness (that) melds with cinnamon, bubblegum, and powdered sugar."

The committee didn't vote on the bill but will consider it for inclusion in a large omnibus alcohol bill later in the session.

Winnebago Brew Fest

Rosen, a Fairmont Republican whose district includes Winnebago, introduced her legislation by providing recollections of her own visit to June's inaugural Winnebago Craft Brew Fest. Rosen didn't mention if she found any lemony fruitiness or hints of chocolate and raisin in the beverages she tried there, but she praised the quality of the event pulled off by the town of 1,400 people.   

"It was flipping fun," Rosen said. "It was really fun."

By getting special legislation passed a year ago, Winnebago was able to attract brewers from Iowa and Nebraska because they were exempted from fees and brand registration typically required to sell beer in Minnesota. Rosen's legislation would continue that exemption for at least another year.

"They're expecting 1,500 this year -- up from 800," Rosen told the committee.

And attendance might grow beyond that estimate if Rosen brings her bill Ñ and her glowing review -- to many more legislative committees.

Commerce Committee Chairman Jim Metzen all-but-promised Rosen that the provision would be in the omnibus bill, on one condition ... .

"This is quite an event," Metzen said. "But you better let the members and the chair know the dates."

Schell's and Summit

Dahms, a Republican who represents New Ulm in the Senate, is making a second attempt to expand the state's definition of "small brewer." The definition matters because the state provides a nonrefundable tax credit -- $4.60 per barrel on up to 25,000 barrels sold each year -- to breweries manufacturing less than 100,000 barrels annually.

New Ulm's August Schell Brewing Company and St. Paul's Summit Brewing Company produce just more than 100,000 barrels, leaving them ineligible for the credit. Schell President Ted Marti was unable to attend Monday's hearing, but Summit President Mark Stutrud spoke on behalf of both breweries in support of Dahms' legislation to extend the credit to brewers of up to 250,000 barrels a year.

While that may seem like a lot of beer, Stutrud said it pales in comparison to the really big breweries. Anheuser-Busch, for instance, tops 100 million barrels annually.

The latest estimate on the cost to the state's coffers of expanding the credit was $390,000 a year.