Debate: Should PA’s liquor laws be changed?

Think Beer…Drink Beer - Last week's Yards Brew­ery, in North­ern Liber­ties, hos­ted a de­bate on wheth­er the state's li­quor laws should be altered.

Pennsylvania laws that re­quire res­id­ents to pur­chase beer only from dis­trib­ut­ors, and li­quor only from state stores, have long de­term­ined just how the busi­ness of booze is man­aged throughout the state.

But change is slowly com­ing to our state’s li­quor laws. 

It has been a long time com­ing, but changes in con­sumers’ buy­ing habits, com­pet­i­tion from neigh­bor­ing states, and even in­flu­ence from Pennsylvania’s craft beer scene seem to have fi­nally con­vinced Har­ris­burg that it is time to mod­ern­ize.

With this in mind, the Yards Brew­ing Co. hos­ted a Beer Law For­um on Feb. 9 at the brew­ery, 901 N. Delaware Ave. It fea­tured pan­el­ists Lew Bryson, a Phil­adelphia beer and whis­key writer (he’s on­line at lew­­, and Pennsylvania state Sen. Charles McIl­hin­ney (R-10th dist.), whose dis­trict in­cludes parts of Bucks and Mont­gomery counties.

McIl­hin­ney has served on com­mit­tees work­ing to re­vise Pennsylvania’s li­quor laws and has writ­ten sev­er­al columns on the state’s beer laws for Philly Beer Scene magazine (on­line at www.philly­beer­

In fact, McIl­hin­ney’s pre­vi­ously stated views on the state’s li­quor laws — spe­cific­ally, per­mit­ting su­per­mar­kets and con­veni­ence stores to sell beer and wine — has led to some con­tro­versy in the craft beer com­munity. But the crowd on hand for the for­um seemed op­posed to many of Mcll­hin­ney’s po­s­i­tions.

In fact, dur­ing the in­form­at­ive and at times con­ten­tious ses­sion, the state sen­at­or com­men­ted a few times about be­ing “beaten up” by the audi­ence. 

In craft­ing his ar­gu­ment, the law­maker said he wanted to do what he could to open the mar­ket and em­power con­sumers while still pro­tect­ing Pennsylvania’s brew­er­ies and beer dis­trib­ut­ors. 

Mcll­hin­ney said beer dis­trib­ut­ors of­ten are made out to be the bad guys, but many have strongly em­braced craft beer and brought it to mar­ket as best they can un­der the cur­rent sys­tem.

If change comes too fast, these ad­voc­ates of craft beer could be put out of busi­ness, he said. 

“The beer whole­salers wrote the law after Pro­hib­i­tion; now even they don’t like it,” the law­maker said.

Bryson pulled no punches in stat­ing that he was tired of busi­ness as usu­al in Har­ris­burg.

“We need to give the en­tire sys­tem an en­ema,” he said.

Bryson took up the cause of con­sumers, brew­ers, wine and cider makers, dis­til­lers and bar own­ers who are frus­trated with the lim­its im­posed by the cur­rent sys­tem. 

Not only are buy­ers tired of the high­er prices they pay, he said, but the lack of se­lec­tion avail­able at many dis­trib­ut­ors, as well as prob­lems like poor cus­tom­er ser­vice and the strange lim­its on quant­it­ies — for ex­ample, Pennsylvani­ans have to buy beer by the case — makes the pub­lic long for the more sens­ible policies of oth­er states, he said.

ldquo;People here aren’t con­cerned about ten-dol­lar (cases of) Bud­weiser,” said Bryson. “With the twenty-first amend­ment you can write the law however you want … .”

Bryson poin­ted out that such flaws in the sys­tem tend to send res­id­ents on trips to states like New Jer­sey, Delaware and even Mary­land to buy their beer, wine and li­quor. 

Bryson also con­ten­ded that al­co­hol pro­du­cers want more free­dom to bring their products to the mar­ket.

But McIl­hin­ney de­fen­ded the state’s sys­tem, say­ing he feared that giv­ing su­per­mar­kets the op­por­tun­ity to sell al­co­hol could lead to large chains — like Wal-Mart or Costco — buy­ing up the li­quor li­censes.

He also is con­cerned that these chains would not carry craft or loc­al brands — though some in the audi­ence poin­ted out that in oth­er states that wasn’t a prob­lem. McIl­hin­ney said that, in his ideal world, he would like to see a totally free mar­ket. 

If free-mar­ket laws were ap­plied, the law­maker ad­ded, bars that wanted to buy their in­vent­ory from an­oth­er state could do so, and pro­du­cers could then by­pass the whole­salers and dis­trib­ut­ors if they wanted.

But McIl­hin­ney does not en­vi­sion a total re­write of the laws in the im­me­di­ate fu­ture. In­stead, he pro­poses an al­tern­ate plan that would tweak the ex­ist­ing sys­tem. 

“I want to modi­fy the deli li­cense,” he said.

In par­tic­u­lar, it would per­mit any beer dis­trib­ut­or to sell six-packs of beer, and not solely cases.  He then wants to al­low bars and res­taur­ants that already have li­quor li­censes to sell cus­tom­ers bottles of wine and li­quor to go. 

Once more bars are selling dir­ect, he’d like to slowly close the state stores, keep­ing them open only in areas not served by private sellers.

Bryson, on the oth­er hand, said that such li­cens­ing was con­vo­luted and reas­on enough to over­haul the li­quor code.

ldquo;Flush the whole thing,” he said at one point.

The pan­el­ists also dis­cussed con­cerns that by al­low­ing bars and res­taur­ants to sell wine and li­quor bottles to go, the ad­ded rev­en­ue could drive up the price of a li­quor li­cense to the ex­tent that the small-busi­ness own­er would find it hard to break in­to the mar­ket.

To com­bat that, McIl­hin­ney said, he’d want to greatly in­crease the num­ber of avail­able li­quor li­censes. Cur­rently, the num­ber of li­censes in any county is lim­ited to about one per 3,000 res­id­ents.

By the end of the de­bate, McIl­hin­ney presen­ted him­self as a much big­ger pro­ponent of open­ing up the mar­ket and chan­ging the status quo than he had in his writ­ten columns. But he also seemed to want to move much slower in chan­ging the sys­tem and pro­tect­ing the ex­ist­ing play­ers than many in the audi­ence would have liked. 

However, his open­ness to new ideas could be a prom­ising sign of things to come. •• 

More in­form­a­tion on McIl­hin­ney’s stance is avail­able on his Web site at www.sen­atorm­cil­hin­

Tim Pat­ton is a Fishtown res­id­ent, beer afi­cion­ado and brew­er. His column is ded­ic­ated to show­cas­ing everything that is great about en­joy­ing beer in the river­wards. He can be con­tac­ted at tim@stben­jamin­brew­

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