Wednesday, June 25, 2008

How Other People Shop for Booze

Yesterday I was in New Jersey.

I did stop at a liquor store.

It was big. It was full of booze: spirits, wines, beers, even mead. I did see wondrous liquors, a rainbow of cordials, and I did take a bottle of St. Germain down from the shelf and fondle it (noting as I did that it was on sale for $6 off).

It was well-marked. I did see large signs declaring wines from Italy, South Africa, Chile, New Zealand (where I did see a marvelous array of wines with shelf talkers and swell prices), California, New York, France, Spain, Portugal; dessert wines, sparkling wines, jug wines, and fighting varietals; wines in coolers, wines in cases, wines to be sampled. Wines on sale: every non-sale bottle of wine was 20% off on Tuesdays! Amazing.

It was friendly. I asked about a wine, "Passion Has Red Lips," and the clerk didn't sneer or look at me blankly...she looked it up, and another clerk made helpful suggestions. They apologized when they could not find it.

The beer was chilled, and displayed in its myriad assortment. It was nicely priced, and so convenient to buy, by the single bottle, or six-pack, or 12-pack, or case, all there with the wine and spirits.

Whiskey? Oh, my yes, a nice assortment, and an amazing assortment of gins, vodkas, brandies, cognacs, and even armagnacs.


I did buy a little. And took it to my car.

And I did drive back to the land of the PLCB.

Growlers: a response from the PLCB

I asked the PLCB about growler regs for a newspaper piece I'm working up, and I got a response this morning. My thanks to Ms. Chapman for a thorough response with a minimum of bull...and I gotta figure the PLCB knows about the blog: my tracking software has registered multiple daily visits from a PLCB computer since about the third week the blog was up. Cheers to the fairness, which is why I have tried to be as fair as possible myself.

Here's the response; I've bolded some interesting bits, (and added some comments and "interpretation"):


Your query on growlers was passed on to the PLCB press office. It seems plausible that everyone you ask might have a different idea of the law, because there are different restrictions on beer sales depending on the type of licensee selling the beer.

There is no specific language in the Code addressing growler packaging . In many cases the customer provides the actual container, whether it is a growler he's purchased from the brewery, or something else. (This would certainly seem to indicate that the PLCB doesn't care what growler a brewpub fills, or what the label says, or whether it's sealed.) All the language concerns the maximum or minimum amount of beer that a customer may take off the premises.

Here's a summary of what is in the Code concerning take-away draft beer, and the actual code:

Brewpub licensees, MAXIMUM of 192 ounces. These are establishments that serve food and beer on the premises, and sell for off-premise consumption. They have the same take-away limits as restaurant, hotel and eating-place licensees. (Note that this seems to imply that growler sales by restaurant, hotel, and 'eating-place' licensees are legal. No problem there.)

[Relevant code: SECTION 4-442. Retail dispensers' restrictions on purchases and sales

(a)(1) No retail dispenser shall purchase or receive any malt or brewed beverages except in original containers as prepared for the market by the manufacturer at the place of manufacture. The retail dispenser may thereafter break the bulk upon the licensed premises and sell or dispense the same for consumption on or off the premises so licensed: Provided, however, That no retail dispenser may sell malt or brewed beverages for consumption off the premises in quantities in excess of one hundred ninety-two fluid ounces: Provided, further, That no club licensee may sell any malt or brewed beverages for consumption off the premises where sold or to persons not members of the club.]

Brewery licensees, MINIMUM of 64 ounces. These licensees only brew beer and only sell for off-premise consumption.

[Relevant code:SECTION 4-440. Sales by manufacturers of malt or brewed beverages; minimum quantities

No manufacturer shall sell any malt or brewed beverages for consumption on the premises where sold, nor sell or deliver any such malt or brewed beverages in other than original containers approved as to capacity by the board, nor in quantities of less than a case or original containers containing sixty-four ounces or more which may be sold separately; nor shall any manufacturer maintain or operate within the Commonwealth any place or places other than the place or places covered by his or its license where malt or brewed beverages are sold or where orders are taken.]

FYI, this 64-oz. minimum is a result of Act 15 of 2003, actually passed specifically to reduce the minimum from 128 oz. and permit growler sales at breweries . (Note that this means half-gallon and two-liter growlers are legal at all retail locations; and explains why Weyerbacher was selling gallon growlers; they did it before the 2003 rule change. Anyone still have one of those gallon growlers?)

The only other thing to keep in mind is that local municipalities may have open-container laws that could restrict growler sales. (Which begs the a growler an "open" container?)

I know you're familiar with the law governing non-growler sales:

Beer distributor, MINIMUM of 128 ounces (kegs, cases). Off-premise sales only.

Restaurant or eating place licensee, MAXIMUM of 192 ounces. (Two six-packs to go.)

If you want to peruse the whole Liquor Code, you can find it online at

Please don't hesitate to call us directly if you need anything else.


Francesca Chapman Deputy Press Secretary

Friday, June 20, 2008

Reason #9: Can I Get A Ruling?

Anyone know about growlers? Growlers are jugs of draft beer, filled and capped at the retailer level (bar, restaurant, club, brewpub), that have become popular since the rise of craft-brewed beer. I've got one in my fridge right now; some Grisette I bought at Sly Fox last week (and very nice: dry, refreshing, kind of like a spicier, brisker saison, just had some with lunch).

I remember buying beer by the pound this way in Kentucky back in the 1980s: bring in your jug (I had a plastic milk jug, cleaned out and dried), have it weighed empty, fill it from the tap of your choice (I got Busch, just for the experience), have it weighed full, and pay the poundage fee on the difference. Brewpubs and the bars and bottleshops that do sell growlers in the Commonwealth generally only fill two sizes, half-gallon and two-liter, which simplifies the pricing.

The devil is in the details. Some places will fill practically anything; my Sly Fox Grisette, for instance, is in a growler clearly labeled as Iron Hill. Some places will not fill anything but their own growlers; not even unlabeled ones. Some compromise by slapping their own label on whatever growler you bring in. Some places insist on "sealing" the screw-on caps with a heat-shrink plastic band or tape; some don't. Some places won't do it. Weyerbacher, for a while, would only fill gallon growlers.

Why all the confusion? Check the Code...I dare ya.

Reason #9:

What to do about growlers?

This is a very small thing, to be sure. Growlers are a tiny little part of a relatively small niche of Pennsylvania's beer sales, which are about as privatized as it gets in the Commonwealth...but even here, the PLCB gets involved. Talk to different brewpub servers and brewers, talk to bar owners, talk to deli license guys, and you'll soon find out that the PLCB has all kinds of rules about growlers.

Or do they? I've been combing the PA Liquor Code for the past week, and I've got a request into the LCB itself. But I can't find any reference to this kind of off-premises sale of draft beer --about labeling, or sealing -- except for this, about containers and packages from the manufacturer which does kind of mention it, in context of sales at breweries and brewpubs:

SECTION 4-440. Sales by manufacturers of malt or brewed beverages; minimum quantities

No manufacturer shall sell any malt or brewed beverages for consumption on the premises where sold, nor sell or deliver any such malt or brewed beverages in other than original containers approved as to capacity by the board, nor in quantities of less than a case or original containers containing sixty-four ounces or more which may be sold separately; nor shall any manufacturer maintain or operate within the Commonwealth any place or places other than the place or places covered by his or its license where malt or brewed beverages are sold or where orders are taken.

As for actual filling and selling... There's language about cleaning the taplines, about putting clear labeling on the tap knobs, about off-premise sales...but nothing about growlers.

Until I hear otherwise from the PLCB, I'm going to have to assume that there is no allowance for growlers in the Code other than that they should be at least 64 oz. That in itself would be fine: why exactly do we need such regulation? The bartender almost always fills the thing right in front of you, so you know what you're getting and labeling would be superfluous (though useful if you were getting multiples: "Licensee shall provide a Sharpie and labels so customer doesn't open the Pilsner instead of the Maibock", now that would be a good law), the cleaning is usually up to you as much as to them.

But the problem is...if there is no law about growlers, what's all this stuff brewers tell me they're hearing from their local enforcement officer? "Interpretation"? Of what? Tea leaves? There is no law to interpret! All you're really doing is selling a big glass (or small glass keg), so there's no regulation needed, but where do these guys get away making stuff up?

The PLCB should be abolished because of the arbitrary nature of the interpretation of the PA Liquor Code, brought on by the density of the Code and the nigh-unrestricted power of the local PLCB enforcement agents. Growlers are harmless sales of beer; any policy on their sale should be left up to the individual licensee.

Common sense in the Code, common sense in its enforcement. That's what's needed.

Photo credit: Adem Tepedelen (thanks to Scott @ East End for permission!) *and I did edit the original post: thanks to Scott again for pointing me to that 64 oz. reference.

More PLCB blogging

Check out these pages from a blog called tleaves, done by some engagingly clever folks from the Pittsburgh area. Like me, they (or at least one of them) are driven mad by the PLCB. The post title that first caught my eye: It'd Probably Work Better if it Were Run By Drunkards.

But it was this post that let me know I'd found a true kindred spirit, someone who really understood just how messed up the PLCB has made retail liquor in Pennsylvania. Because I, too, had tried to buy a bottle of Luxardo maraschino liqueur at a State Store, and met with the same response: "There's no such thing." Actually, the first response I got was "We don't sell grenadine." Good God.

Good to know at least one other blogger out there is as pissed off as I am.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Reason #8: The Octopus

You remember the brilliant "winebot" idea? How the PLCB was going to get a contractor to open automated "wine kiosks" in grocery stores? I told you how they were going to use fingerprints and other biometrics to identify you and confirm your age.

Subject...identified...Nate "The Wino" fixed address...please wait a minimum of...30 seconds...before handing your purchase to the underage person standing beside you with the cash in...his...hand...thank you for shopping at the Wine Kiosk!

But I missed something, which I just noticed in a Chicago Tribune reprint of a Morning Call story. Check this out.

Union head [Wendell] Young [IV, president of Local 1776 of the Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents state store clerks and assistant managers] said the bottles would be etched at the time of sale with identification numbers that could be traced back to the buyer.


Reason #8:

Too Much Information

Like that idea? After all, who needs to register guns when you can register bottles of wine? Once they register the bottles that are being sold in the kiosks, why would they not register every bottle sold in the store? And then...anyone remember the guy in Lebanon, PA, who told his doc he had "a few beers after work" and the doctor dropped a dime on him and had his driver's license suspended, based on a DUI conviction from three decades before?

I testified about the futility of keg registration before a joint committee of the PA legislature back a few years. One of the other people testifying was a guy who'd lost his underage son in a drunk driving accident. He wanted the State to tag every bottle of liquor and wine sold at State Stores, every keg and case sold at beer distributors, on credit or cash, so that any empty could be traced back to when/where/who bought it.

I thought that was crazy at the time -- I still do! -- and the legislators didn't seem wild about it either. But with the wine kiosk thing, it appears that the PLCB doesn't think it's necessary to get legislation to do the identistuff, which is seriously troubling.

But how far off is it now? When I buy booze at the State Store, I use my debit or credit card, and I get a receipt with every bottle listed on it. How do I know that information isn't saved? It may be paranoid to think they save it, but it may be optimistic to think that they don't. And once again, we have no other options.

I'm no conspiracy theorist. But when it comes to not keeping info on what I'm buying, booze-wise, I'll trust the corner booze store before I trust the State. For one thing, if I've got corner booze stores, I can buy at any one I want, and the info doesn't get compiled from the aggregate; if I buy anywhere in PA, that's potentially on my record. For another, there are more ways to opt out of privately-owned data-gathering schemes.

The PLCB should be abolished because granting the State too much information, more information than it needs, is not a good idea in these days of data-mining and info-insecurity. How much booze I buy, what booze I buy, and where I buy it is no one's business but my own...until I start abusing it. I've got nothing to hide, but it's not everyone's business.The PLCB clearly has a mindset that disagrees with that.

This reason may seem a bit whacky, a little hard-shelled. Me, I find the idea of this state agency that doesn't seem to feel that it needs further legislative authorization to start gathering this kind of information about me...troubling. We could write that into law, but it would be easier to just do the right thing: privatize booze sales in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Reason #7: One Problem, Everyone's Problem

Take a look at this story. The PLCB's special order system broke down, and restaurants and taverns have been unable to place weekly booze orders. That specific problem is bad enough, but what makes it worse is the universality of it.

Reason #7:

A Monopoly of Errors

When the PLCB screws something up, it's screwed up for everyone, across the Commonwealth.

When the PLCB "de-lists" something, no one can get it any more.

When the PLCB puts something on "special order" status, that's how everyone has to get it.

When your local State Store has a great set of clerks (or just one real gem), you're well-off; but if it is staffed by wine-ignorant drones, you're simply screwed.

All of these are true because we have no choice. None. The PLCB State Stores are the only legal choice for booze purchases for every Pennsylvania licensee, and unless a citizen goes outside the state to drink, or purchases booze out of state and then drinks it out of state, everything we drink in the way of spirits and wine (excepting always Pennsylvania wines, which may be bought at the vineyard or the vineyard's stores) must come from the State Stores.

If a tavern-owner in some other state is disappointed in the service he gets from his supplier, well, he either gives them specific hell and expects results, or he changes suppliers. If a restaurant owner in some other state wishes to drop a load of bucks to amplify his wine cellar, he can bid on collections at auction. If either one is in Pennsylvania? Forget it. You're dealing with the PLCB, and you cannot switch suppliers, nor can you buy wine from private sources, because the PLCB is a state-owned and state-regulated monopoly, and if you try to get around that monopoly, not only will you find that it's hard to do, it's illegal, and you stand a very good chance of losing your license, your business, and your personal freedom.

Now, there will be those who say, "Exactly. It's the law, and you knew that when you bought the license. Why are you complaining now?" Did you read this? Do you really think it's right that when this sole-source supplier screws up, you have no recourse? That would seem to be a basic right of businesspeople.

The PLCB should be abolished because it is a monopoly, and leaves tavern/restaurant operators, and private citizens, no choices in what is supposed to be a free market economy. We have choices in food purchases, choices in gasoline, in churches, in clothing, in insurance, in banks, even in which hospital emergency room we are taken to...but if the PLCB stops carrying something -- Elijah Craig 12 Year Old bourbon, for instance, a delicious award-winner and a personal favorite -- or puts it on special order status -- Cycles Gladiator Cabernet Sauvignon, for instance, a former special that was quite nice at $10, but is now a 12-bottle minimum order -- that is how it goes and you have no other choice. You cannot walk down the street or drive to the next town: you're hosed across the Commonwealth.

All because Repeal seemed like a bad idea, and because keeping the profits from selling booze seems like such a good one, public good and taxpayer convenience be damned.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Reason #6: the Pennsylvania Legislature

I have to be fair about this; I don't like to, but I have to. The PLCB's constant refrain to criticism -- "We just enforce the rules, we don't make them." -- has a strong underlying validity to it. Yes, there's a certain latitude of interpretation to that enforcement that is sometimes mean-spirited and sometimes mindlessly arbitrary (I've got a story to tell you one of these days that will absolutely curl your hair on that aspect); yes, the PA Liquor Code -- "the rules" -- is positively byzantine in its overwrought complexity; and yes, they are hampered by their duality of mission. But at the base of that, the PLCB can indeed point to the Pennsylvania Liquor Code, Title 40 of Pennsylvania law, and claim "We were only following orders."

And whose fault is that?

Reason #6:

The Politicians' Plaything

The Pennsylvania Liquor Code (hereafter referred to as "the Code") is a plaything of various interests in the Pennsylvania legislature. The most recent example of this kind of thinking is the whole Sheetz/Wegmans uproar, in which politicians who are aligned with either the beer distributors or the New Drys say they are contemplating changes to the Code to keep beer out of grocery stores. Now you'll note that nothing has actually happened yet...and you'll also note that the "six-pack bill" is still diddle-fiddling around in committee.

It's been my experience that no changes to the Code are ever simple. I remember that when the Code was changed to allow beer distributors to accept credit cards -- wow! -- I talked to the legislator who introduced the bill. She told me that it was initially one sentence that would be added. By the time everyone was done tacking things on? "Pages," she said.

The legislators appear simultaneously fascinated and terrified by changing the Code. Fascinated, because the State's monopoly power with wine and liquor sales (and yes, "monopoly" power over beer sales, because you cannot sell beer in PA without a state-issued license) gives the legislators such opportunities to reward or punish groups and individuals, or raise oodles of tax revenue (the PLCB, after all, didn't institute or increase the Johnstown Flood Emergency Tax). Terrified, because almost anything you do to booze law is going to piss off some constituency.

Sometimes it's not the Legislature, it's the Governor. For reasons unknown (because I'm pretty sure the reasons stated weren't the most important), Governor Rendell suddenly added a highly-paid CEO to the PLCB's towering structure of managing bureaucrats in late 2006, a post that was filled by an out-of-work legislator, apparently with no interview process. The appointment stunk of patronage, and precipitated the resignation of Jonathan Newman, possibly the PLCB's most popular Chairman ever (words that might otherwise never have been strung together in that order...I mean, the mind boggles). It's unclear why the position was needed, but at $100,000+ a year, we've got it to pay for, you and me, taxpayers. Plaything. Patronage source.

And some of the stuff doesn't even make sense. Take a look at this one, for example, a change that was added to the infamous "case law" section of the malt beverage sales part of the Code in 1996:
(1) To salvage one or more salable cases from one or more damaged cases, cartons or packages of malt or brewed beverages, a distributor or importing distributor may repackage consequent to inadvertent damage and sell a case, carton or package of identical units of malt or brewed beverages.
(2) Repackaging is permissible only to the extent made necessary by inadvertent damage. Repackaging not consequent to damage is prohibited.
(3) The term "identical units" as used in this subsection means undamaged bottles or cans of identical brand, package and volume.
So...what this means is that if a distributor dropped a case of Sly Fox Dunkel Lager and a case of Sly Fox Pikeland Pils, for example, and three cans from each case burst, he would be forbidden by law to combine those two cases and sell a mixed case. He would be forced to send them back to the wholesaler. God help him if he were crazy enough to mix the cases on purpose, because, you know, chaos might result.

What drives this kind of meddling, making the requirements of a wholly unloved law even stricter? I don't know, because the legislator who proposed it retired and went into lobbying (for a medical group, so the obvious answer doesn't apply).

What I do know is that the Code has rarely been touched by the legislature with results that made things simpler or better for the consumer...the consumer, of course, better known as the taxpayer, or the voter, or you. The upside of this is that while we are virtually powerless to affect the actions of the bureaucrats at the PLCB, we can do something about the legislators. All that's required is passion. Passion for privatization, passion for simplification, a passion for Pennsylvania's alcohol policy to enter the 21st Century. As it is, we're barely past 1934.

The PLCB should be abolished because the Code would be better off simplified and streamlined, without an entrenched, unneccesary, and expensive bureaucracy to serve as a patronage pit for politicians. Do away with the PLCB: privatize booze sales, put licensing and inspection in the hands of the Dept. of Agriculture, tax collection in the purview of the Dept. of Revenue (they've got some experience with that), put the anti-alcoholism and underage drinking prevention programs under the Dept. of Health, and fully hand over enforcement to the State Police. Give a re-write of the Code over to a commission that includes interested consumers for a change, and charge them with writing a simpler, more understandable Code.

You'll lose the revenue stream from the mark-up in the State Stores (and we could stand to change the Johnstown Flood Emergency Tax to a more reasonable amount (and God knows, a better name)), but you'd make up a lot of it by getting the PLCB payroll and lease payments off the books, and getting more taxes on sales made in PA rather than across the border. Offer early retirement to PLCB employees, bump them up in hiring preference for other state jobs, offer them low/no-interest loans to start their own stores, and, eventually, realize that this was a business that the State should never have been in at all, and that this is not an employment plan.

It would be complicated, and probably messy, but only for a while. More to the point, it would be the right thing to do. There's a feeling of reform in the air in Pennsylvania; why not blow that wind of change through the barroom and liquor store, while we're at it?

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

More flummery

I've posted about some PLCB stuff on my other blog because it's more about beer. Still applies to this audience, so go read it there. We need to re-write the Pennsylvania Liquor Code.