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 lewbryson.blogspot.com), 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.phillybeerscene.com).
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.senatormcilhinney.com
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 email@example.com