Monday, February 16, 2009

Reason #15: The Case Law is Stupid

About fourteen years ago, I worked beer retail for a while at the distributor* that Matt Guyer would later buy and turn into the acclaimed Beer Yard. It was called the Beverage Store at the time, though some people still called it Kiley's. Not important.

Anyway, we were not far from Villanova, and about once a week we'd get some kid in who'd walk around, look confused, and finally walk up and ask where we had the sixpacks for sale. I was usually relieved, because this meant we wouldn't have to go through the bullshit of "What? I left my ID in the car!" (as if anyone ever really does that) or "Look at me, man, I'm 21!" Instead, I'd just say, "Sorry, we can't sell sixpacks; this is Pennsylvania. You'll have to go to a bar." And the look on their faces was always so worth it: jaw-dropped, flat-out, 'Say frickin' what?!'

Sad part is, they were right. It's ridiculous, but in Pennsylvania, when you go to a beer store*, you can't buy one bottle, you can't buy a four-pack, you can't buy a six-pack, an eight-pack, a nine-pack, a 12-pack, or even an 18-pack. Cuz that's illegal. You have to buy a case. Unless, of course, you really want to buy less, in which case you can go to a tavern (or a place with a so-called "deli license"), where you can buy a six-pack, or a 12-pack, or two six-packs...but no more than that. Cuz that's illegal.

Say frickin' what?!

Reason #15:

The Case Law Has No Reason To Live

Here it is, in all its dopey glory (The Almighty Liquor Code, Article IV, SECTION 441):

DISTRIBUTORS’ AND IMPORTING DISTRIBUTORS’ RESTRICTIONS ON SALES, STORAGE, ETC., paragraph b: No distributor*or importing distributor* shall sell any malt or brewed beverages in quantities of less than a case or original containers containing one hundred twenty-eight ounces or more which may be sold separately: Provided, That no malt or brewed beverages sold or delivered shall be consumed upon the premises of the distributor or importing distributor, or in any place provided for such purpose by such distributor or importing distributor. Notwithstanding any other provision of this section or act, malt or brewed beverages which are part of a tasting conducted pursuant to the board's regulations may be consumed on licensed premises.
The scary thing is, the bare bones of the Case Law aren't all of it. For instance, the two six-pack limit in the bar? What most of the six-pack shops in places like State College won't tell you when they're telling you that you are only allowed to buy two that you can then step outside the door of the licensed premises, step back in, and legally buy two more (assuming you'd want to pay bar mark-up on a case).

Want a really weird one? Check this out. Used to be, if a case at a distributor's* got damaged, like if the pallet jack caught the corner or someone dropped a case, the remnants of the case could be combined with another damaged case and sold, a "mixed" case. Big deal, right? Well, check this out from Paragraph f from the same section of The Almighty Liquor Code:

(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. (added May 31, 1996, P.L.312, No.49)

So...some distributors were "damaging" cases and combining them, because customers had gotten so interested in trying different beers (and not wanting to buy a whole damned case at a time of ONE). Big flippin' deal, right? Wrong. This practice scared and pissed somebody so much that just 13 years ago, they managed to get The Almighty Liquor Code changed to specifically outlaw it. (The legislator who put it in there retired; last I heard he was lobbying for the health care industry.) That's crazy, that's not just stupid, that's plain mean-spirited.

Why do we even have this uniquely stupid law? It originated in Repeal. It was part of a model law written up by the beer wholesalers and presented to the Legislature after Repeal; they figured that they'd try to get what they wanted in Repeal by saving the legislators the work of writing law. They put the case law in there to increase sales and decrease work: nobody's got to break up a case, and you have to buy at least a case at a time (and you had to pay cash on both sides of the transaction, too). The State went for it (with all the other dumb shit they put in The Almighty Liquor Code, are you surprised?).

But why is it still there, over 70 years later, when Pennsylvanians almost uniformly hate it? I've seen results of a poll asking Pennsylvania voters about a variety of issues: over 80% of them said they'd like to see the case law go away. MADD doesn't want it, Bible-thumpers don't care about it. So why has the Legislature fiddled and diddled with a variety of ways to change the case law but never yet done a damned thing?

What's that? Money must be involved? Aren't you the smart one! Bar owners don't want the case law to change because they've got a monopoly on six-pack sales. Some people have made the investment in a bar license just to sell six-packs. Distributors don't want to rock the boat: selling six-packs would mean completely re-designing their stores, putting in coolers and maybe carpet (most distributors' stores have all the charm of a garage). And everyone in the business is sure that breaking the case law will mean beer sales in supermarkets.

As a beer buyer, you're probably asking what the down side for you is on all this. The answer would be, not much, although it is an unknown. There is a chance that six-pack sales would change the draft beer scene, that six-pack sales would change the dynamics that keep small distributors in business, that they might even make it harder for craft brewers to stay in the market (though I think that last one is pretty iffy). But balance that against being able to buy beer like normal people: as little or as much as you want.

This is not actually a Reason to Abolish the PLCB. This is not an issue central to its existence. But take a look up there at the description of the blog: One person's reasons why the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board should be abolished, and The Almighty Liquor Code completely overhauled and rewritten... This is certainly one bit of The Almighty Liquor Code that needs to be re-written. Therefore...

The Almighty Liquor Code should be re-written to do away with all restrictions on beer sales by amount. No more case law, no more two six-pack limit, no more no re-packing cases. And when we get rid of it, let's have no deals, no complicated balancing acts, no bullshit. Just excise that part of the code. And when it comes to sales and percentages, let the individual businesses compete on their merits, and how well they serve the customers' needs.

Simple. Radical. Do it now, we can get around to the abolishing later.

*In Pennsylvania, we call the beer stores "distributors." You know, the place that sells cases of beer, because that's the only quantity they're allowed to? I don't know why they're called that.


Anonymous said...

Lew, 'round about the time England was going to wrack and ruin because of the popularity of "Mother Gin," the area that is now Belgium had a law limiting sales of genever to case-loads. The idea, which actually proved quite effective, was to restrict consumption by the poor (ie: laboring) class by making the purchase of genever prohibitively expensive.

I've often wondered if part of the PA case law was grounded in the same theory.

Lew Bryson said...

I'd guess that almost everyone in Pennsylvania assumes that the case law is based in temperance thought somehow... But I read about the origins of the case law in a state legislature report on the PLCB, coming from model legislation written by the beer wholesalers. Couple years later, I had that confirmed by the guy who was then the executive secretary of the state malt beverage distributors association. His old boss had been the clerk of the lawyer who'd written up the model law for Pennsylvania. desire for temperance, just a desire for easy sales. But the genever thing's interesting.

Rob K said...

When you see stupid anti-consumer laws like this, you can usually follow the money right to the wholesaler's door. When Indiana passed the law against direct shipments by out of state wineries, it was pretty easy to follow the origin of the law to the wholesalers, who were pushing the lie of kids ordering wine on the internet.

Lew Bryson said...

The funny thing, Rob, is that the wholesalers put the law in there, and now they'd just as soon it went away. Careful what you wish for...

But yeah, the middle tier, wholesalers, exist mainly because the law says they must exist. I'm sure they would still be around if the three tier laws went away -- there are food wholesalers and brokers after all, clothing wholesalers, and so on -- but they wouldn't be the same at all.

As three-tier weakens, smart wholesalers are working at building relationships with suppliers and retailers, and making solid connections to craft and specialty brands. That's the smart way to do it, because if the legal bottom drops out, you'll want a solid record of value.

Anonymous said...


Wasn't there an effort in the legislature to reform the case law about a year ago? I'm pretty sure I recall writing to my representatives about it and urging them to support the initiative. I haven't heard anything about it lately. A quick google search showed this BA forum post:

Do you know whats up with this?

Lew Bryson said...

Yeah, Justin, I asked my legislature contact about it: nothing's happening. Nothing happened, and nothing's happening. They hope to bring it up again, but it's looking like it's going to get watered down to a 12-pack law. Which, to borrow the immortal words of John Nance Gardner, isn't worth a pitcher of warm spit.

Rich said...

Ah, I'm home. You finally blog about the one of the laws I hate the most. You might say that it is NOT a PLCB issue per se, and I agree, but the PLCB does enforce this law, so therefore...abolish the PLCB and the law goes away, right? Maybe not so easy, but as you mention, the law is tweakable without and outright abolition of the PLCB...that's my speed. And if that happened I'd stop reading your blog and go happily to my bottle shop and purge the store of all worthy beer. No longer would I be a prisoner to the case...I could try a beer before I was forced to buy 24 of them, thus eliminating the possibility of having to throw away 23 beers, or give them away if I didn't like it. Imagine the novelty. Ah, to be a "normal" state.

Anonymous said...

There is one thing that is good about the case law - being able to get a case worth of beer without paying the 6 or 12 pack (or god forbid single) markup. I think we should be able to buy any amount of beer that we want, but buying an actual case where I live now (Northern Virginia) is very difficult.

Just thought I'd add a little perspective to how the case law could be a good thing for beer consumers.

Lew Bryson said...

To be fair, Chris, we also have a lot less problem with light-struck beers; they're usually inside a light-tight case.

But...I'd rather have the choice!

Anonymous said...

I'm thinking the case law may have had its origins in the singular post-Prohibition packaging system that was available in 1933.

We had no 12 or 6 packs, nor even any non-returnable bottles or cans at the end of Prohibition. We only had the traditional case of 24 returnable bottles (in every state), which was an inherent holdover from the early days.

If you wanted a sixer, you went to your local, and they'd put six returnable bottles in a little paper shopping bag with handles (many times with a brewery name printed on it) and hand them to you over the bar. I assume you paid the deposit on the bottles, too (two cents each, or a nickel for a quart).

I'm not saying that we shouldn't have advanced past this since then (many states have), just giving some historical perspective on the origins.