Thursday, September 25, 2008

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.


Rich said...

OK, so you are arguing here that the regs for tap/line cleaning exist, but they are not enforced properly so it's a mute point. This, to me, should fall more under the PA Dept of Health, you know, the people that do the restaurant inspections and print the results in the paper? It's a sanitary issue, not an alcohol issue per se. Again, your point of streamlining governement is backed up here. So when the Dept of Health does an inspection they skip over the beer taps and lines? Maybe this has been superceded by the DoH, and they take care of the inspections? Just a thought...a good reason for streamlining the code but not necessarily a good reason for getting rid of the PLCB.

BTW...I stopped at Weaver's and State Line in Elkton, MD and Atlantic Liquors in Lewes, DE over the weekend...heaven.

Lew Bryson said...

One of my points, actually, Rich. We CAN abolish the PLCB because everything it's doing -- except selling booze in the State Store System -- can be done more efficiently by other state agencies. Streamline The Code, but also streamline the government.

Hey, I love State Line, but never been to Weaver's. Where's that?

Rich said...

Right along route 40 just up the road (west) from State Line a couple miles...more liquor and wine than State Line.

Lew Bryson said...

Damn. That's a lotta booze. Thanks for the tip; I'll check it out next time through.

Anonymous said...

Just promise us you won't bring anything back to PA, Lew. That could ruin the status quo here and endanger countless citizens of the Commonwealth. Think of the children!!

Rich said...

Back to the ARE allowed to bring back a certain amount for personal consumption correct? That's what I always thought anyway, although I forget the amount that is "legal".

Lew Bryson said...

I don't actually know if you are allowed any or not, Rich. Good question. Look, I know there are PLCB employees reading the blog, I can see you on my stats-tracking software: any of you guys want to chime in on this? Comments to the blog are anonymous unless you choose otherwise, and if you do name yourselves, I'd be happy to write a letter of reference when you apply for a loan to open your own store in the new PLCB-free Commonwealth!

Rich said...

I found this through was burried deep on the PLCB website somewhere...just click cancel when it asks you to print.

It looks like the answer is NO and after researching those laws it seems to confirm it although they are written in a way that is very confusing.

Lew Bryson said...

Of course they're written in a way that's confusing; it's The Almighty Liquor Code.

Looks like the only spirits or wine you can bring into the State is either from a foreign country (no more than a gallon) or through a military post store (a gallon a month). And it also appears that if they should decide to prosecute, a person would be liable for $25 plus costs (or 90 days in the jug) for each 'quart' bottle...and if they catch you again, they can seize the car/boat/airplane with which you transported the booze.

That's serious stuff. Anyone know the last time anyone got prosecuted on this?

Oh, and...there doesn't seem to be any such restriction on beer. Amazing, ain't it?