Monday, September 29, 2008

If You've Got a Problem...

A point for the PLCB: they're trying to be responsive. Tucked away in their website is this Customer Satisfaction Form. They ask if you found everything you wanted (and if not, what "specific items" were not there; so don't bother putting in something like "a good selection of premium bourbons"), if you found the store hours satisfactory, and how you found the store's appearance, quality of service, and the convenience of the store's location. There's also an open field for suggestions on improving service.

At least they're trying. Though again, as I pointed out, why bother? You've got us over a barrel, we'd have to buy booze at the State Store System anyway. Oh, wait...if things really suck, we might go over the border more. Wonder what percentage of Pennsylvanians live within 15 miles of the border? Wonder how many liquor stores are on the other side of that border?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

PLCB's Joe Conti: MIA?

Check out this "happy talk" story in MarketWatch about PLCB Chairman PJ Stapleton being confirmed to his 4th term as a PLCB board member (by a vote of 47-0 in the Senate). A couple pertinent quotes:

"As I continue to work with fellow board members Tom Goldsmith and Bob Marcus, as well as the more than 4,000 valued employees of the PLCB team, I will remain mindful of the confidence and goodwill the Governor and the Senate have shown me.

Hey, that's mention of the contributions of PLCB CEO Joe Conti? Or even a mention of his name?

"The next four years will be exciting for the PLCB. We are planning many changes to our statewide network of 620 Wine & Spirits stores. These will be highlighted by vast improvements in the look and feel of the stores, and a renewed commitment to customer service and employee education.
If I might be permitted...WTF? You don't need to improve the stores: you've got a frickin' monopoly, Pennsylvanians have to shop there. And you don't need to educate your employees...they're not even allowed to recommend specific wines! At least, that's the excuse we've always been given for them knowing next to nothing. Maybe that's all lies. On the other hand, if you're educating them on how to handle customers who ask for things they've never heard of, without being a jerk about it, more power to ya.

"We will also maintain our focus on vital regulatory functions, ensuring that the beverage alcohol industry adheres to the laws of the commonwealth; and on
alcohol education programs, helping to reduce the serious problems of underage and high-risk drinking. Finally, we will continue to look for ways to operate more efficiently and economically, to generate revenue that will benefit all citizens of the commonwealth."

Well, God forbid you should focus on regulatory functions that benefit the ability of the citizens of the Commonwealth to get a good drink at a fair price. And yo, I think you know what you can do to operate more efficiently and economically: get the State out of the booze business.

I cannot understand why we put up with this one day longer. This is a bureaucracy that simply should not even exist.

And again: it's about the money

Even in other states, even in other counties, "control" of booze sales is not really about safety, or consumption, or morals. If you believe that, you've bought into a lie. It's about the money. Read this story from the DelMarVa Times about why the Wicomico County Council decided to keep their County Liquor Control Board and county-owned liquor stores. I'll bold the important parts.

Liquor vote fails
Privatization booted back to discussion
By Greg Latshaw -- August 20th

Advocates of liquor stores run by the government in Wicomico County won a victory Tuesday when a vote to get state legislators involved failed by a wide margin. County Council members voted 6-1 against a resolution that asked the General Assembly for the power to hold a controversial county referendum on privatizing area liquor stores.

Permission is needed because state law created the Wicomico County Liquor Control Board under Article 2B. Despite bearing the county's name, the liquor board is considered autonomous from the county, other than the law that requires it funnel annual profits to the county. The other three government-run liquor stores in Maryland include Montgomery, Somerset and Worcester counties.

Privatizing retail and wholesale liquor stores is an issue that has polarized council members who say they are split on the value of eliminating an agency that contributed $400,000 last year and an average of $288,000 during the last 13 years.

On Aug. 5, a task force made up of business members, public officials and service organizations issued a report that stated while oversight shortcomings exist with the liquor board, there is no guaranteed way to match its revenues.

Tuesday's vote will likely send the debate back into months of work sessions. The earliest any referendum could take place, if given state approval, would be November 2010, Council President John Cannon said following the meeting.

"What substitute there will be for the revenue stream is our greatest concern," said Cannon, who is opposed, in principle, with government competing with private enterprise. "(The) council recognizes that we have more time and will take advantage of it."

Wicomico County Liquor Control Board Chairman Stewart Haemel praised the vote, saying the council made a wise decision in not tampering with a system that has a $1 million net impact. He pointed to the six-figure contribution to the county coffers, as well as the agency's payroll for its 30 employees of about $600,000. (That's a $400,000 "contribution", and a $600,000 payroll. "Payroll," as in 30 jobs that the county is paying for to collect booze taxes, when they could be paid for by private companies...that would also collect booze taxes. Am I missing something?)

"This might come up again," Haemel said. "But it seems to me that there are many people who want the system to stay how it is."

Council Vice President Stevie Prettyman, a vocal critic of the liquor board and the lone vote for Tuesday's resolution, shrugged her shoulders when asked after the meeting about the vote.

"It boggles my mind," she said.

Indeed it does, Stevie.

Once Again: Sauce for the PLCB Goose Ain't Sauce For the Beer Gander

I've told you how the PLCB interprets The Almighty Liquor Code to their own benefit. Well, they're at it again. The upcoming Pittsburgh Whiskey and Fine Spirits Festival (Nov. 14, 6-9, a benefit for the Nat'l MS Society, details here) is sponsored by the PLCB. Now, when there's a licensed wine festival in Pennsylvania, PA wineries can sell bottles of their wines. At this festival in Pittsburgh, the PLCB is going to have an "On-Site Store," from which you can "Take home a bottle of your new favorite spirit, many not available anywhere else in Pennsylvania".

I'll remind you that you are absolutely not allowed to purchase beer at a beer festival; not from Pennsylvania breweries, not from any brewery, wholesaler, or importer. Not allowed. Does this make sense? Why do you ask? It's a State-mandated and supported monopoly, silly, it doesn't have to make sense.

Abolish the PLCB. Re-write the Code. Treat us like adults. Treat us fairly. Is that so much to ask?

Reason #12: Show Me The Money

Sorry about the long hiatus. I got side-tracked during August when we were traveling and vacationing, and then September got really busy. One of the two blogs had to take a backseat, and STAG won out. I was thinking about more Reasons, though, and now I’m ready to give them to you. The fight carries on; the Reasons continue to build...and here's the latest.

You may have picked up by now that when it comes to government, I lean heavily libertarian. Shrink government, stay out of other country's affairs, and give citizens the privacy and latitude they deserve. Still, we do need regulations on the alcohol serving and retail industry, just as we need them in other industries. Meat and dairy alone should prove that. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle set off a national furor about the conditions of America’s food supply (not, of course, the furor Sinclair wanted to set off about the miserable working conditions of America’s poor, but that’s unenlightened self-interest for you), and there seems to be a similar, if less frenzied, reaction to the revelations in Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, and the revelations that came out of mad cow disease.

The Almighty Liquor Code does have some consumer-friendly provisions. Bars and restaurants are required to keep the proper tap markers on draft beer (which kind of makes the state’s nebulous growler regs a bit more re-assuring: who needs labels on growlers when you can see the damned thing being filled?); they are also required to break all liquor bottles when they are empty to prevent them being refilled with something cheaper. Yay.

Perhaps the most notably consumer-friendly regulation in The Almighty Liquor Code is the one about keeping beer taps clean. Here it is:

5.51. Cleaning of coils, tap rods and connections.
(a) Coils, tap rods and connections, used in drawing malt or brewed beverages in licensed establishments, shall be thoroughly cleaned at least once every 7 days at the sole expense of the licensee dispensing the beverages on draft. The cleaning of coils, tap rods and connections by one licensee for another licensee is prohibited.
(b) The following methods of cleaning coils, tap rods and connections have been approved by the Board:
(1) Live steam.
(2) Hot water and soda solution, followed by thorough rinsing with hot water.
(3) Another method which thoroughly cleans the coils, tap rods and connections, and leaves them in a sanitary condition. (Okay, actually, this is just stupid, but you get the point.)

5.52. Certificate or record required.
(a) Coils, tap rods and connections may be cleaned for the licensee by a person, other than another licensee, thoroughly equipped to do so by a method enumerated in § 5.51 (relating to cleaning of coils, tap rods and connections). The licensee should obtain from the cleaner a certificate showing the date cleaned, the name of the person by whom cleaned and the method utilized. The certificate shall be kept on file at all times for inspection by the Board.
(b) Coils, tap rods and connections may be cleaned by the licensee himself by a method enumerated in 5.51. The licensee shall maintain and keep a record of the date of each cleaning and the method utilized. This record shall also be kept on file at all times for inspection by the Board.

5.54. Responsibility for condition of equipment.
The licensee has the sole responsibility of maintaining equipment used in dispensing malt or brewed beverages on draft in a clean and sanitary condition. The mere fact that records of licensees indicating that coils, tap rods and connections have been cleaned are no defense to disciplinary action under the law and the provisions of this subchapter if the coils, tap rods or connections are at any time found to be in an insanitary condition.

This is one of the best regs about draft beer in the U.S.; other states either have no regs about it, or point proudly to a requirement to clean lines once a month. We should be proud to live in a state that looks out for their beer drinkers this way.

And we would be, if the state gave a damn about enforcing it.

Reason #12:

Like They Care

Hey, I used to tend bar. I "cleaned" the taps and kept the cleaning log. This consisted of disconnecting the tap from the keg, flushing the line with hot water (as hot as I could stand...or get...or felt like), and shoving a brush up the faucet. Then I’d write the date in the log and sign it...and maybe write in last week’s date, too, and sign that. And when the PLCB Inspector came around (the one time he did in 15 months), all he wanted to see was our inventory and tax paperwork. I asked him if he wanted to see the log (because I actually took it a lot more seriously than I implied above), and he said, "No, that’s okay." Great…*

It’s not just at the retail level, either. I remember walking through a brewery cold room a few years ago with a head brewer. He stopped beside a keg and said, "You know, I could take the cap off and piss in there, and send it out, and I wouldn’t actually be breaking any laws. If I were a farmer, and I did that to a milkcan, they’d throw me in jail!"

So…glass of draft? Or maybe a White Russian instead. Just keep in mind: those open cartons of cream sit in the bar fridge for over a week sometimes…

It shouldn’t really come as such a shock that the PLCB doesn’t spend a lot of time on enforcing laws that protect the consumer’s expectations of good quality booze for their money. After all, what’s their two-fold major mission? Making the state money by selling booze, and protecting the citizens of the state from drinking too much. They’re already protecting us from Demon Rum; why bother to make sure that Demon Rum washed his hands after using the little incubi’s room?

What do they enforce, other than laws about the money? Well, they do enforce laws about nuisance bars – noise violations, public urination, crime, prostitution – and that’s a good thing. The last thing we need is letting freaks take over our bars more than they already have. I blame the dope-ass licensing system enshrined in The Almighty Liquor Code for creating an atmosphere that practically ensures that there will be nuisance bars, but that’s grist for a future Reason, and the PLCB deals with the mess as best they can.

They enforce lewd display laws…’nuff said. They enforce underage drinking laws quite vociferously, although under-21s in the State don’t seem to have any more or less trouble getting booze than in other states. (Funny how that is…) And, of course, they enforce that all-important reg about not having domestic animals on the premises (sorry, Penderyn).

The PLCB should be abolished, and the whole Stalinist State Store System taken down, because it is geared towards nothing more than enforcing laws that benefit the bureaucracy; any benefit to the citizens is indirect. Its useful functions – health regulation, taxation, education, and enforcement – would slot right into state agencies that are already quite competent at those jobs. The few consumer-protection regs on the books are only laxly enforced.

Wouldn’t it be even better if The Almighty Liquor Code were re-written for the benefit of the drinking taxpayers, and focused on making sure we got good quality drinks, in clean and healthy premises? (Er…but not too squeaky clean.) A new Code, streamlined, consumer-friendly, understandable, clear.

And maybe lighten up on the domestic animal thing, so we could bring our dogs to the neighborhood bar if it’s okay with the owner. Because that would be nice.

*Look, don’t get nervous about the quality of your draft beer. Some bars definitely take this very seriously. Some have invested in expensive cleaning hardware (you wouldn’t believe some of this stuff: ultrasonics, force-pumped sponge pellets, light beams…) and the training to use it, others hire accomplished services that come around and clean their lines every week. Keep in mind that cleaning tap lines is expensive. You’re talking about dumping all the beer in the lines between keg and tap, lines that sometimes run more than 30 feet, a loss of beer that quickly adds up when you’re looking at Belgian drafts that run $200 and up for a keg.

But the reason they take it so seriously isn’t because of the regs. They do it because they know that properly maintained draft lines mean properly kept beer that tastes the way it’s supposed to, and that means that discerning customers will return and that means more profit.