Brooks: Minnesota Legislature unites to help a soap maker and her celebrated bear fat soap (2024)

In most political stories, somebody wins, somebody loses and everybody gets mad.

This is not that story. This is the story of the time the Minnesota Legislature came together to help one soap maker make soap.

If that can happen in the middle of the flaming dumpster fire that is American politics in 2024, maybe there's soap for us all.

Minnesotans have the right to petition government for redress of grievances — and soap maker Marybeth Beseke had a bear of a grievance. One of the most popular products she made and sold at her shop, the Cottage in Hinckley, came from a byproduct that local hunters would otherwise throw away: bear fat.

You can make soap from almost any fat, Beseke learned growing up. Her granny, and later her mother, made batches of soap from lard at the kitchen sink. Homemade lard soap — fat plus water plus lye equals soap — was the only kind of soap that didn't make Beseke's sensitive skin break out in a rash when she was a child.

Eventually, she too learned how to render the fat, handle the caustic lye and calculate the ratio of fats to oils to fragrance. By then, she was working as a nurse at Mayo Clinic, scrubbing her hands raw with disinfectant during her shift, then soothing them with her own glycerin-rich soap back home.

But it was bear fat soap, created on a "dare from my sweetheart, who felt I could turn any fat into a bar of soap," that was a real hit with her customers at the little holistic health store she opened in Hinckley.

For years, hunters have been dropping bags of snowy white bear fat into the freezer in her garage. Many were strangers, just happy to hear that somebody had finally found a use for the stuff.

"Hunters, they're stewards of the land. They don't let anything go to waste," Beseke said. "They give me the fat, I use the fat and I'm more than happy to give the soap away."

Beseke can spend up to two years transforming a bag of donated bear fat into bars of soap. Rendering, resting, mixing the bear grease with her proprietary blend of coconut oil, almond oil and rainwater. Bear fat soap, she said, has "so much fat, so much hydration, it almost doesn't know what to do with itself."

"Think about what that does to your skin," she said. "I don't need to use lotion, even in winter."

A few years ago, Beseke took a few samples along on a trip to Grand Marais, hoping the chic shops three hours north of Pine County might be interested stocking her wares.

That's where she learned that Minnesota bans the sale of products made from adipose tissue — the fat — of a wild animal. You could sell products made from other parts of game species — the hide, the meat, the tendons, yes — but not the fat.

If she wanted to keep selling bear fat soap, the law would have to change. Rewriting state laws usually involves teams of lobbyists, years of lobbying, crowds of activists waving placards in St. Paul.

All Marybeth Beseke had was herself and a bunch of bars of soap that Minnesotans seemed to like. And that, it turns out, was more than enough.

Beseke set out to change the law. Every step of the way, she found people willing to help. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources gave her advice, she said, and so did the Minnesota Trappers Association. Every step of the way, somebody stepped up to help.

"Happy politics," she called it.

She reached out to her state representative to gauge his interest in a bear fat soap law. Turns out, state Rep. Nathan Nelson, R-Hinckley, was a fan of both bear fat soap and constituent service.

"I use it for shaving. There's a moisturizing there that I don't see with anything else," said Nelson, a loyal customer of the Cottage in Hinckley. "It works really nice."

Nelson would spend the next two years pushing a bill to help one of his constituents, a constituent who didn't even share some of his political views.

"I'll tell him, 'Nathan, I don't agree with that,'" Beseke said with a laugh of their occasional political disagreements. "But in the end, I'll ask him, 'You're still my friend, aren't you?' And he'll say, 'Yeah, of course I am.'"

The DNR had no objection to closing the adipose tissue loophole, and even helped refine the language on the bill Nelson introduced in 2023. But the legislative year is short in Minnesota and the to-do list is long. Bear fat soap didn't make it out of committee that year.

He tried again this year — a member of the minority party, pushing an extremely niche bill through a crowded legislative calendar. But the Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee had 5 extra minutes at a hearing in March, and Chair Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, gave it to Nelson and Beseke to make their case.

Charmed, the committee tucked Nelson's bill in one of the massive omnibus bills that rolled out the door at the end of the 2024 session.

"A lot of times, the work that we do isn't fun," Nelson said. "Most of the time it's necessary. But this one was kind of fun. … It was a joy to work with Marybeth. It's probably one of the only pieces [of legislation] I've ever passed that's really only for one person. Although I'm sure there's others that will benefit from it."

Bear fat soap will be legal again as of Aug. 1, so bookmark thecottageinhinckley.com when it's time for soap and change.

"This has been a real ride," Beseke said. "And a whole lot of fun."

Brooks: Minnesota Legislature unites to help a soap maker and her celebrated bear fat soap (2024)
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