This past Thursday the Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement and the PLCB carried out three simultaneous raids on Memphis Taproom, Resurrection Ale House, and Local 44. The raids were the result of a complaint that the three bars were selling beers that are not registered with the State. (No one has, at this point, stepped forward to take credit for lodging this complaint; I'm assuming that they're hiding behind "Anonymous.") Each bar was visited by five armed officers -- again, simultaneously, presumably so no one would call the other bars so they could somehow hide cases or kegs -- who proceeded to check beers against the list of registered brands, and confiscated ones they couldn't find on the list. They evidently didn't look too hard: Brendan Hartranft, owner of Memphis, told me yesterday that they seized bottles of Duvel, a beer that's been imported into the US for over 30 years, and is clearly on the list.
I'm an old fart, so when I heard of this, I immediately thought of the raid on The Farmhouse in Emmaus, about 15 years ago. In that case, the folks at the Farmhouse -- which was quite the advanced beer spot in those days -- were doing a series of beer dinners, and had scheduled a winter beer dinner. Traditionally, the holiday beer dinner is the one where you pull out all the stops, and they wanted to have beers no one else had. They tried doing that the legal way -- by getting the beers registered -- but the PLCB dragged their feet and wouldn't clear the paperwork. Finally, the decision was made to get the beers without registration -- maybe not the best idea, but there you are -- and the result was that in the middle of the dinner, over 50 guests were shocked to see three carloads of armed BLCE march into the dining room, where one of them loudly proclaimed "This dinner is OVER!" The guests were asked to leave, and The Farmhouse was shut down for a full inventory of their alcohol. Other than the one unregistered beer...nothing was found. The manager told me that when the head enforcement agent left, he stopped long enough to shake his finger in the manager's face in rage, and yelled at him, "I know you have untaxed alcohol in here, and I'm going to find it!" He never returned.
So what's this tell us? First, that the PLCB is incompetent. Beers were seized at the three bars that were on the registered list, and I know of at least one beer that was not registered that was not seized at any of the three bars. As co-owner Leigh Maida said, "Some of what they confiscated at one location, they left alone at another. Some of what they took is listed plain as day on the PLCB list of registered beers." Brendan told me he does not intend to take back the beers that were wrongly seized. "I don't know what they've done with them," he said. "I don't even know they're my beers."
Second, that the PLCB has no sense of proportion. This violation is approximately equal to a parking ticket -- unregistered brands, for crying out loud? -- but they put fifteen officers on it for three hours, and who knows how much preparation time. Meanwhile there are countless nuisance bars, there are bars serving mislabeled liquor, there are bars all over Pennsylvania where patrons are being overserved...and they blew hundreds of dollars of our money out their butts following up an anonymous tip that someone was serving "unregistered brands"? Come on, guys: if you had the cyber-brains the Bensalem cops have, you could be cruising BeerAdvocate or Facebook and picking up a case like this every week! Seriously, just checking out BeerMenus.com would probably make your quota. But then you wouldn't be available for some "anonymous tipster" to launch you against someone they want to screw, so forget that, right?
That's a direct lead to Third, the idea that someone -- oh, let's say it: that some rival bar or restaurant owner, or maybe a brewer with their nose out of joint (An anti-Memphis44Resurrection commenter at Uncle Jack's site notes "They [Brendan and Leigh] started all of this when they drove to Baltimore to pick up an illegal keg and thumbed their noses at the local brewery" (and there have been suspiciously similar comments made in a number of Philly blogs/forums over the past six months). Which local brewery is left as an exercise for the student...) would deliberately rat out another small beer business leaves a very bad taste in my mouth. That's nasty. That's low. That's...shitty. And there's no excuse for it. None.
Which leads us, however, to the big one, Fourth: this is clearly a violation of PA liquor law. Just take a look, right here, and you'll see it's number 9 on the list of UNLAWFUL ACTIVITIES. There's not even any wiggle room here: "It is unlawful to sell, offer for sale or deliver any brand of malt or brewed beverages unless such brand has been registered by the manufacturer or franchised agent thereof with the PLCB." Period. If sale or offer of an unregistered beer has taken place, a crime has been committed. If you sell a beer without the proper paperwork being filed and approved and the $75 fee paid, you're in the deep stuff. It doesn't matter that many many bars and distributors across the Commonwealth are doing it all the time -- and they are, I know it, they know it, and God bless them, because the beer's good -- it is breaking the law.
Well... Why? Why is there a law? I think we're assuming that this is a tax issue. If a brand isn't registered, tax is not being paid, and nothing gives state booze agencies the giddy-up quicker than the thought of losing some pennies (we are talking about pennies, too: PA does have one of the lowest beer taxes in the country). But that's not what's happening in almost every case. The beer's going through channels, tax is being paid, it's just that the state doesn't even realize that it's being paid tax on unregistered brands. (If you're guessing that the state doesn't really care, so long as it gets its taxes...you're right.) It's not even the $75. The real problem is that the state wants the paperwork done, and the fee paid, even for brands that come in once a year, in tiny amounts -- again, no sense of proportion -- and the paperwork takes too long to clear (stop me if you've heard that before).
So let's say it. Brand registration is bullshit. It's a pain in the neck in a state liquor authority full of pains in the neck. Bring the beer in, pay the taxes, sell the beer to the customers. Done. Who needs the registration step? If every beer is taxed, the state gets all the tax revenue, and there is no incentive to break the law because the PLCB is being a pain in the ass with paperwork.
The real problem here is not the PLCB, of course. They went over the top with this one, and they cheerfully allowed themselves to be used as some assclown's goon squad -- which is really troubling -- but they were just following orders. Who gave the orders? The Pennsylvania Legislature, which continues to balk at simplifying and rationalizing The Almighty Liquor Code.
People have suggested sending your complaints to the PLCB through their comment address. You can do that, it's here: RA-LBconsumer@state.pa.us. But who you really should send your comments to is your state legislator. Ask them why brand registration takes so long and costs so much that it discourages businesses from registering. Ask them why brand registration is even in The Almighty Liquor Code. Ask them why the PLCB saw fit to mount such a ridiculous raid for such a pointless infraction. And be sure to ask them why the PLCB would disrupt a business on the word of an anonymous tipster, when that's a practice that's just ripe for abuse.
This is bad enough as an isolated incident. But it speaks volumes about how backwards booze law is in PA, and about how badly it is enforced. Simplify the Code. Abolish the PLCB.