Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Corbett Officially Announces Support for Privatization of State Store System!

Big news today on the PLCB front: the front-runner in the Pennsylvania gubernatorial* race, Tom Corbett, announced yesterday that he supports "privatization of the state-run liquor store system." Here's the statement, from his campaign website:
“It is no secret that Pennsylvania and the next governor of this commonwealth will be faced with massive economic challenges left behind by the current administration.  As governor, I will present a plan for the privatization of the state liquor store system that helps to address the state’s need for additional funds, insures ongoing revenues and minimizes the impact on current workers,” said Corbett.  “Given the current economic climate in Pennsylvania, state government can no longer be in the liquor store business. We need to move our state out of the 19thcentury and refocus state government on its core functions and services for our residents."   
Of course, presenting a plan and getting the Legislature to pass it are two different matters, but having push from the governor will help. We'll certainly do our best to fuel the debate. 

What about the Democratic candidate, "Danny Boy" Onorato? He's been against privatization in the past, and when asked about Corbett's new statement, responded through a spokesman (in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: that he 
"would "consider any proposal" but currently does not support the privatization of liquor stores. "The current system generates hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue to help balance the budget..." said Brian Herman. Mr. Onorato plans to make the state system more "consumer-friendly," but is looking elsewhere for savings, he said."
Actually, the current system generates under $200 million; the taxes on booze generate "hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue," and that would continue. It would almost certainly increase as we eliminated "cross-border bleed," the PLCB euphemism for "people going to NJ/MD/DE to buy booze instead of at the annoying State Store System."And I'd love to know how he "plans to make the state system more 'consumer-friendly,'" given the current level of arrogance at the agency; they told Fast Eddie to piss off, do you really think they're going to listen to some jumped-up county commissioner?

As I've said before: I wouldn't suggest that anyone vote based on this single issue. But if you're wavering on who to vote for -- and in this particular race, it's like deciding to vote for Mr. Avuncular or Rendell Lite -- here's one candidate who's taken a solid stand on an issue you probably care about.

*And isn't that a great word? Goobernatorial?

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Poor bride...

Here's a story of just how handy and cooperative the State Store System is. A bride spends hours planning her wedding wine list: variety, quality, reasonable price. She takes it to the PLCB store, which, the agency tells us, has a better selection than the big stores in NJ and Delaware...and yet, they don't have the wines, and most of them would take weeks to order. ARGH! She has to re-do the entire list, even though she could get most of the wines at her local New Jersey.

Real world story, from someone with no axe to grind. Poor Pennsylvania. Poor us.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

What the Winos are thinking

I have to assume this thread on reflects what the wine-lovers are thinking. They don't like the PLCB, and who can blame them?

By the way, Keith Wallace is right: the two candidates for PA governor have different stands on the PLCB. Tom Corbett is not against reform of the PLCB and The State Store System; Dan "I Balanced Pittsburgh's Budget On The Backs of Drinkers" Onorato is dead-set against it. I do not encourage anyone to be a single-issue voter, least of all on this one; but if you need to make up your mind, factor it in, eh?

Apologies: I posted this over at the Session Beer Project blog first by mistake!

Nice summation

Take a look at this "Liquor Privatization Roundup" from John Geeting at his Lehigh Valley Independent blog. The payoff is key: "Restricting the PLCB's mission solely to public health regulation is the best option for the largest number of consumers, while the current system is only good for a handful of public liquor store employees and rent-seeking liquor license holders."

Other people are thinking and writing about this a lot more. Keep it going. I'll try to do keep it going.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Now! At the PLCB! Every Bottle is On Sale! FOR MORE!

That's right, Pennsylvanians: not only do you have to buy your booze here in Pennsylvania at the State Store System (under penalty of law), you're now going to have to pay more for it, across the board. As of January 4, every bottle -- wine, liquor, liqueur, wine cooler, and whatever Rock & Rye is -- will be going up in price by 50¢ to $2 (depending on size). What's the reason? Is it a new database for beer registration? More courtesy training? RFID tags so they can track down and kill underage drinkers? (Just kidding; they wouldn't really kill them.)

It's not a tax. (Really, Chairman PJ Stapleton said so, so, well, there you are.)'s handling fees. The PLCB tells us that this is the first time in 17 years they've raised the price because of this. My response: how would we know? How would we know? The PLCB takes all its costs out of the price of booze (and licensing and fines and so on), but although the annual report says how much gets spent, it doesn't really give details. So how do we know whether they've added in these costs before or not?

And honestly, why the hell wouldn't they? Joe "CEO" Conti keeps saying they're running it like a business; what business doesn't adjust prices for costs? And now he's saying they're going to adjust for costs every year, "We're going to look at these every July and hopefully though it will be a penny or two next July instead of the increase that we had to do this year to make up for 17 years,"he said to KDKA reporter Marty Griffin. And what business ups their prices by a penny a year? Come on, "CEO" Joe!

It's not just you that's going to pay, either: restaurants and bars will pay more too, and by the time it gets through to you, you're looking at $3-5 more for a bottle of wine, right? For handling. Am I alone in thinking that this would be a good time to tell them to get their damned hands off the booze?

Sure, private liquor stores raise their prices. But you know...when they do, you have a choice. You can shop around. You aren't required to shop in one store by law, and if you don't shop there, the cops will take away your booze and fine you. Unless you live in Pennsylvania.

Had enough yet? And if you haven't...why the hell not?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Le Kiosque Nouveau est arrive!

Oh, at last, at last! The PLCB's long-threatened wine kiosks have arrived!

And the Harrisburg Patriot-News very obligingly sent reporter Liam Migdail-Smith to try out one of the two prototypes. He chose the one at the Wegmans on Carlisle Pike in Silver Spring Township, and filed this report. The paper's Joe Hermitt also video'd the experience, which you can watch above.

It's amazing, really. These awesome new wine kiosks let you buy one of FIFTY THREE different wines (even more than the fifty originally promised!) just by...
  1. Making a selection by touchscreen (better than talking to a State Store System clerk, right?) 
  2. Scanning your driver's license (got any outstanding warrants? Just kidding!) 
  3. Swiping your credit card ("swiping" is just a technical term) 
  4. Signing a touchpad (dontcha just love those electronic pens?)
  5. Activating the breathalyzer by touchscreen (don't get flustered when you forget this step, like the reporter did)
  6. Blowing into the breathalyzer to prove your BAC is below 0.02 (maybe you'll get instructions too; and yes, that is much lower than Pennsylvania's legal limit; the PLCB's just being careful about your safety (and their liability)) 
  7. Waiting for the breathalyzer results (don't look nervous, you're fine! ...although the PLCB does admit "It is possible the machine may detect alcohol when a consumer hasn't been drinking, but the PLCB will err on the side of caution." No worries, though, she'll be right...s'long as you're buying Yellowtail, right, mate?)
  8. Standing still in front of a video camera so a PLCB employee at a remote site can confirm you are the person on the license (they probably hired really attentive folks for this, so don't think about how mortifying a 'false positive' would be at this point; they will probably shred your license, though...)
  9. Moving to the correct door (apparently identified by flashing lights; don't worry about the wrong one lighting up, because no one else can use the damned thing until you're done already, buddy!) 
  10. And about two minutes after you started (assuming nothing in this chain of events goes wrong), you can pick up your bottle of wine!
That is SO COOL! What will they think of next?! They're probably working on sending wine to your house by pneumatic tubes or little trolleys on overhead wires or something!

People in other states are making fun of us as you read this. Hell, people in this state are making fun of us as I write this! Want to read something funny? Check out the official PLCB press release on these technological marvels. My favorite part? "The entire process will take less than 20 seconds." A close second: "The kiosks are a way to give our customers an added level of convenience in today's busy society." HA!

Ask yourself some questions.

First, and most important, what is so important about "control" that makes this better in any way than what they do in a majority of states: buy bottles of wine right off the grocery store shelves?

Second, think about your elderly parent trying to buy a bottle of wine from this thing. Now...think about them trying to buy one while you're waiting in line behind them, just wanting to get a bottle and go home, because there's only going to be one per store. Like that picture?

Next, think about why no one seems to mind that the major investors on this single-bid contract are major political donors?

Then think about this: the PLCB says they're not paying for the kiosks, that Simple Brands LP (no link given because they have no website...and isn't that odd for this ostensibly "hi-tech" company?) is making money in other ways: the advertising on the kiosks, for instance, and...hey, wait a do the wines that get into the kiosks as your only choices get picked? The PLCB says they're picking them, but that would seem to be a problem for "ad revenue." Is this a slotting fee scenario? Because I thought that was illegal for booze. Far as that goes, what's Wegmans get out of it? The lure of the kiosk? Garces Trading Company, anyone?

Oh, and ask yourself this: what kind of smart-ass answer will the kiosk give you if you tell it you'd like a nice bottle of cabernet franc?

Finally, after you've asked all those questions, ask yourself this: isn't it time you wrote your legislator and told them that they should support Mike Turzai's bill to abolish the State Store System?

Abolish the PLCB! Rewrite the Code! KILL THE KIOSKS!

Friday, June 11, 2010

"There is no such wine."

David Falchek blogs about wine ("Empty Bottles") for the Scranton Times-Tribune, and does a nice job. He also...doesn't think much of the PLCB and the State's monopoly on booze sales. Read this classic tale of just what I'm talking about when I say that the State Store System doesn't exist to serve the citizens or to "protect" them through "control." It exists to serve the State and the employees; it exists to take your money.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Do you know everything about vodka, yellowtail wines, and schlock liqueurs?

The PLCB is advertising an opening for Director of Product Selection. Good pay, too, starting at just under $61,000 to over $90,000, depending on experience.

Could someone with a freakin' clue please apply for this job?

Lawsuit looming over PLCB's monopoly extension at Garces Trading Co.

And it's about time.

Brownstoner, the Philly real estate blog, is reporting that the Washington Square West Civic Association, State Rep. Babette Josephs are joining with about a dozen Philly restaurants -- Le Bec Fin, Tria, Lolita, Fergie's, and Caribou Cafe among them -- in filing suit against the PLCB over the "wine boutique" they've placed in Garces Trading Company. It's not fair to work with one restaurant owner, they say.

The following quote pretty much summed it up for me, especially the first sentence:
"I have nothing but admiration for Jose Garces—this issue is not about him," Jon Myerow, the owner of Tria, said in a statement. "The issue is that of all restaurants being able to compete on a level playing field. In no other state has the alcohol governing body entered the restaurant industry to compete against the very businesses it regulates, all while partnering with hand-selected competitors. The incredible amount of choice we enjoy when dining out shows the free market at its best. If restaurants are forced to compete against the state, eventually there will be fewer restaurants."

Right. Remember Dominic Origlio's line from the PLCB hearings?  "I would be remiss without mentioning what I believe is the underlying cause of these regulatory and enforcement problems. Pennsylvania's beer industry is regulated by its competitor -- the Liquor Control Board, a state run corporation which sells wine and liquor."

Inherently unfair; now expressly unfair. Get Pennsylvania out of the retail booze business. Today.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

PLCB renews liquor license for convicted felon's nuisance bar: way to go, Joe!

Watch this video from Philly's NBC10, then tell me: is there any doubt that this is not just an agency that has outlived its usefulness, but one that is not even competent to perform the duties it has? After watching this report, I have to conclude that the PLCB has either made a policy of lying to the public, or has fostered such an atmosphere of incompetence that they actually don't know what they're doing. This is an agency in need of such re-working that it's time to do away with it. Tear it down, and start over, without the mistakes.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Beer Raid Resolution

Heard from Leigh Maida that the Memphis44Resurrection Raids are officially over; they got closure. All the details are here. What does all this come to? Well, for this incident, exactly nothing. Less than nothing: the BLCE blew thousands of dollars of your money out their collective asses to accomplish...a warning letter about a non-event.

Overall? A LOT of people learned just how archaic PA's booze laws are. That's a win for us. Don't let up!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Thank God: Wine Kiosks Still Viable!

It looks like my usually reliable source was wrong: the wine kiosks live! I'm so happy; I was really looking forward to seeing these wastes of money in operation. Thank you, PLCB, for restoring my faith in your bad decision-making capability!

Check out this latest hot wine kiosk news, in which PLCB Chairman PJ "PJ" Stapleton threatens that prototype wine kiosk deployment will take place at the Wegmans in Silver Spring Township, Cumberland County (which also sells beer!), and the Giant Food Store in Susquehanna Township, Dauphin County (which does not...). These are both hot-spots of wine-savvy grape mavens, I guess. Or maybe they're down the road from someone's house, I dunno. They're close to PLCB HQ, of course, and, like Jose Garces's restaurant -- I'm sorry, his grocery store, they were hand-picked by the PLCB to receive the largesse of extended monopoly.

According to the article, "The LCB has been testing the machines in a warehouse in Mechanicsburg for three months, making mostly technical and mechanical alterations to ensure the kiosks work properly, Stapleton said." I'll just bet. Wouldn't you like to have been there to watch the bottles full of water (you don't think...would they actually use real bottles of wine?!) come rolling out? The excitement as the teleoperator (were they in a completely different room of the building?!) determined whether the person utilizing the vending kiosk was the person their ID said they were, and were sober? There's a beaut: did they actually get someone drunk to test that?

I can't wait to drive to the Weggymans and try this dope device out. I may even buy a viddie-cam to share the moment with you. Won't that be fun!

Folks...the way to get wine sales into supermarkets -- which is clearly where the people who actually buy wine in Pennsylvania want them -- is to dump the State Store System and go to private sales: put wine on the shelves, not in some souped-up gumball machine. It's something we should have done 50 years ago. Here's hoping the kiosks are the final straw that demonstrate just how asinine this system is.

Oh, almost forgot: cui bono?You need to ask? Read this again, and then think: ask not what you can do for your State; ask what your State is doing to you.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

How losing six-pack sales may win us six-pack sales

The Malt Beverage Distributors Association (MBDA) is, and has been fighting the whole idea of six-packs in supermarkets (and convenience stores) for years. I can't blame them -- it's not really fair that Wegmans can sell six-packs while distributors cannot -- but it's not really fair that we can only buy them in bars, either. I also question the wisdom of pursuing it at this point, when beer has been sold in some Pennsylvania supermarkets for over a year. I'll explain that in a moment. Meanwhile, here's what they had to say about it, from the MBDA website. 
On April 14, 2010 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard oral argument in the Wegmans case. Representing MBDA was Robert B. Hoffman of Eckert Seamans law firm, who had successfully argued the Sheetz case for MBDA before the same Court in 2008.
Robert Heim of the Dechert law firm was brought in to argue on behalf of Wegmans.
It was an active court with the justices asking many questions of all parties. Those questions focused on whether it was sufficient that the Wegmans' Market Cafes qualify as a restaurant and whether the fact that they were part and parcel of and located within Wegmans made any difference. MBDA argued that the PLCB needed to look at the economic reality of the beer sales, which indicate that Wegmans Supermarket, not Wegmans Restaurant, is making the sales. Wegmans responded that it is within the PLCB's discretion to decide if interconnections between a supermarket and a restaurant disqualify a restaurant from holding a license to sell take-out beer. Wegmans [sic] contention is critical because, if correct, the standard of review that the Supreme Court must apply is to determine if the PLCB abused its discretion. The Supreme Court cannot simply substitute its own judgment for that of the PLCB's. However, if as MBDA contends, the issue is not one of abuse of discretion but simply whether or not the Liquor Code allows supermarkets to sell beer, which is what Wegmans Supermarket is doing, then the Supreme Court can apply its own analysis of whether or not the PLCB correctly interpreted the Liquor Code in reaching its decision to allow Wegmans to have a license
MBDA made a very strong argument, both factual, during the multiple Wegmans hearings that stretched over two years and still continue today with regard to other supermarket chains, and legal, as to why Wegmans is not entitled to a license. We believe the Court will carefully consider all the issues raised and issue its decision by late 2010.
I grew up in Lancaster County, so let me use a farm analogy. The MBDA is locking the stable after their horse already ran away. Pennsylvanians have been buying beer at supermarkets for over a year. They have seen that the MBDA's arguments are hollow, bogus, bullshit. "Kids" aren't buying beer at supermarkets, children aren't irreparably freaked out by seeing beer for sale at supermarkets (any more than my nieces are in New York), drunks aren't hanging around the stores or running over people in the parking lot. What is happening is that beer distributors' businesses are slumping in value, because a large hole has been poked in their monopoly; people who wouldn't go into a bar to buy a six-pack are going into the Giant Eagle. 

More importantly, if the MBDA should prevail in this court case, and the Supreme Court rules that these licenses are will be a disaster for the MBDA. If you give Pennsylvanians beer in supermarkets for a year...and then take it away, I guarantee you, they'll be furious. Their legislators will hear about it, the newspapers will write about it, hell, I'll sing about it! 

The MBDA should not have put all their eggs in the litigation basket. They should have been lobbying for the Legislature to fix up the very best deal that they could get. Instead...they're locking the stable door. Bad move. There were smarter plays to make. Winning may lose them everything. 

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Get Mom Vodka For Mother's Day? Why not?

If you've never heard of the Independent State Store Union, you're missing some fun. They're the union that represents the managers of the State Store System, and they have a real love-hate relationship with the PLCB and the state's monopoly on liquor and wine sales: they love to complain about the PLCB, and they apparently hate alcohol and working late. They put out press releases all the time, critical of the PLCB's  policies and the Board members themselves; they're usually inadvertently hilarious in their earnestness.

Recently, they sent an editorial to the Centre Daily Times suggesting that the serious abusive drinking situation at Penn State could be shorter hours in the State Stores. You can only assume that they'd expect to get the same pay for those shorter hours, but that probably has nothing to do with their idea, it's all about the children. They do display a disturbing disgust with alcohol, considering their job is selling it: "the PLCB continues to promote a carnival-like alcohol atmosphere for drinkers..." I haven't seen any tilt-a-whirls at my local State Store, but I'll keep an eye out for them.

Their latest press release is here...oh, to hell with it. I'll just reprint it. It's a press release, right, and this is the press, right? Fair use! They're upset that the PLCB has an ad campaign suggesting that folks buy their mothers a nice bottle of vodka for Mother's Day. Actually, they're freaking out about it.
"Your Mother's Day promotional radio ad program costing $142,000 is more damaging to the common good of all Pennsylvanians than the mere dollars expended.  You refuse as Board and chief staff members to make any decision that is contrary to the most outrageous marketing strategies of the alcohol beverage industry no matter what effect they have on the public good.  You are collectively the number one drug pushers in Pennsylvania.  As puppets of the alcohol beverage industry, you have abdicated any role of being a regulator against the bottom line interests of the industry," says Ed Cloonan, Information Director for ISSU.
Cloonan continues, "Your Mother's Day radio/print hawking promotions makes a joke of alcohol education for women.  In advance of Mother's Day 2011, you will be able to send coupons and frequent drinker credit rewards to pregnant women."
ISSU is asking all five gubernatorial campaigns to replace the three PLCB Board members, the CEO, the Director of Marketing and Merchandising, and the Director of Retail Operations as quickly as possible after the winning candidate assumes office in a new administration."

Where to begin?The guys who manage the stores that sell booze are accusing their bosses of being "drug pushers," they stoop to the lowest sort of neo-prohibitionist hype-drivel ("frequent drinker credit rewards to pregnant women," forsooth!), and...they're calling for their boss to be fired. Now, I'm all for calling for my boss to be fired if they deserve it; I did it while in federal service in 1989...but I did it in my exit interview. Because publicly saying your boss should be fired -- for selling drugs!-- is usually tantamount to submitting your resignation. This is a big Reason to abolish the State Store System: to do away with counter-intuitive foolishness like this.

This report on WHTM (ABC affiliate in Harrisburg) shows what a mountain is being made out of this molehill. This is all -- pardon the expression -- bullshit. No one mentions the key point: selling and buying a bottle of vodka is perfectly legal in Pennsylvania (as long as the person selling the bottle is a State Store System employee or an employee of one of the very few licensees that offer bottle service, and the person purchasing it is of legal age). Giving it to a legal age woman is legal, whether or not she has children of any age. To suggest otherwise is sexist, foolish, and offensive.

In summation, I'm actually neutral on this, as far as the PLCB goes. I still say that a state agency acting like a retail business is simply absurd. But I don't see this as a particularly bad example of that absurdity, like, say, the Courtesy Contract was. On the other hand, the ISSU is a great example of the kind of bizarre situation that a state retail monopoly on booze sales can generate. Kill the State Store System as a favor to the ISSU: they hate selling alcohol...let them find a new, cleaner job selling something else.

Full disclosure, as always. I have a horse in this race: I got Cathy gin for Mother's Day, and I thought of it before I heard the ads (and I'm pretty sure she won't see this before tomorrow morning). She likes gin, and there's no reason she should suffer just because I usually prefer beer and whisky. So she's getting a hand-assembled gin bouquet; I think it turned out rather well.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Video on the Hearings

In case you missed it (I did, and I'm in the damned thing!), Stephen Metzger put together a video report on the hearings, including the kick-ass moment when Representative John Taylor shouted down Major Lutz of the State Police. Check it out here.

The PLCB Hearings, Part I

By rights, I should have posted this here, but the other blog gets a lot more traffic. So rather than double-post, here's a link. This covers the testimony of Leigh Maida (of Memphis Taproom, et al) and Dominic Origlio (of Origlio Beverage), the two raided business owners. Next installment: Joe "CEO" Conti, Major Lutz of the State Police, and Artie Tafoya of Appalachian Brewing. Final installment: comments after the hearing from legislators, video, the after-party, and summation. And then...maybe some follow-up, which is sadly lacking. Until then...

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Joe "CEO" Conti weeps for his threatened empire

Philadelphia Daily News political columnist John Baer writes on Representative Turzai's privatization plan here, and it's a good one. His first reaction to Turzai's idea: "I'll drink to that." It gets better from there.

Baer talks to Joe "CEO" Conti at the end of the piece. It's too good, too delicious not to quote Conti's "Why me, Lord, why me?" cri de I will.
Also, CEO Joe Conti tells me that past studies say that over time the LCB provides the state more money than a private system promises. He adds, "The board and our agency work diligently to increase the revenue we return to taxpayers, and we let the Legislature and the governor deliberate over privatization.
As if you could stop them! And let's not forget that you're fleecing the taxpayers to get that 'revenue' in the first place. But I like Baer's response to Conti's "and we let the Legislature and the governor deliberate over privatization" line:
"I hope they do - if not this year, then soon."

Yeah. That's about all this Repeal-era relic deserves.

Turzai Rides Again: new plan to dump the State's retail monopoly in the legislature

Representative Mike Turzai of Allegheny County has introduced legislation to eliminate the state's retail monopoly on wine and spirits sales. This is a well-considered proposal, one I can definitely get behind. Check the points (and my comments):
  • Privatizes wholesale operations by auctioning off 100 wholesale distribution licenses to the highest responsible bidder (key point: we do not want to leave wholesale in the hands of the PLCB)
  • Auction off 750 retail store licenses (more than we have now)
  • A biennial license renewal fee and a transfer of license fee, similar to other license application and transfer fees currently in place, will be assessed by the PLCB (make them both substantial)
  • Auction off the inventories of the current state stores
  • PLCB would be required to divest itself from the retail sale of wine and spirits over a two-year period (smart; it will take that long (and give us the chance to snaffle some bargains))
  • No person or business may own more than 10 percent of the wholesale distribution licenses statewide; no person or business can own more than 10 percent of state stores statewide (crucial, and I'd like to see provisions similar to those in the gambling licensing that keep felons out of the business, and state representatives, too; no paddling your fingers in this while you have influence).
  • The state would move to a gallonage tax, which would range between $2 and $6 per gallon for wine and spirits (generally lower than what we pay now, and... No more Johnstown Flood Tax, no more Johnstown Flood Tax!)
  • The PLCB will retain its enforcement, licensing, inspections and alcohol education authority (with, I hope, more oversight than they have now)
  • State and local police will have concurrent jurisdiction to enforce state liquor laws (excellent!)
  • All store employees must be 21 years of age (okay; not a problem, although 18 year olds can serve wine and spirits at bars now)
  • PLCB employees who wish to continue being employed by the Commonwealth will be given preference in applying for other state jobs; there would be tax credits for private businesses who hire them, or tuition assistance for college or technical school (very fair, and a major point)
Honestly, the only quibble I would have is the number of retail licenses (but if you allow beer distributors to expand their license to include selling wine and spirits for a one-time fee -- a large one -- I see a beautiful solution). This covers almost everything I would put in a bill.

Discussion? And what can we do to help?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

I got some questions about this...

Just sent this e-mail to the members of the PA Senate Law and Justice committee (and my own Senator, Robert Tomlinson). I'll be at the hearings on Tuesday, and I'll report on what happens.

Honorable Senators,
I'll be attending Tuesday's joint hearing conducted by the Law and Justice Committee and the House Liquor Control Committee regarding the recent Bureau of Liquor Control enforcement (BLCE) "raids" in Philadelphia. This is a matter of great interest and concern to me (and to quite a few others, as evidenced by the public outcry at the injustice of these events). I've taken the liberty of creating the following list of questions I'd like to see addressed at these hearings. I hope you would consider them.

•    What purpose is served by brand registration? How does this arcane and clearly imperfect process best meet that need? If that need can be met by simpler means, why not do away with beer registration altogether?

•    Why was the cost of registration recently raised from $25 per brand to $75 (especially when other states have registration fees as low as $1)? Can there at least be an exemption of registration for brewpubs that only sell beer on-premises?

•    Why was the response to this complaint three simultaneous raids carried out by multiple armed BLCE agents, during lunch hour? Why not one plainclothes agent armed with a clipboard to straighten out what is clearly a bureaucratic issue?

•    What is being done to insure that the BLCE's “anonymous complaint” process is not used to harass licensees, either by competitors or malcontents?

•    Where is the oversight on the BLCE? The PLCB repeatedly said, in the aftermath of the raids, that it was not responsible for the actions of the BLCE; the State Police also distanced themselves. For that matter, who does the PLCB answer to, other than indirectly to the Legislature, through the Liquor Code?

•    At the heart of things, is the PA Liquor Code just too byzantine and confusing for licensees – and enforcement agents! – to understand? Could the Code be substantially simplified without undercutting taxation and enforcement?

•    And of course: why does the State continue to hold a retail monopoly on the sale of wine and liquor? As an American citizen in 2010, how is it possibly fair that I cannot legally travel 15 miles into New Jersey, buy a bottle of wine, and bring it home to drink? The monopoly is unfair, and there are no compelling reasons in the public good to continue it.

As I said, I will be present on Tuesday to see how the hearing proceeds, and to report on those proceedings. I hope the hearing is fruitful, and brings progress to the process of making Pennsylvania's liquor laws more fair, more transparent, and more responsive to the desires of the citizens of the Commonwealth.


Lew Bryson

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Terrible PLCB news!

I just heard from an internal PLCB source who's been pretty reliable that the wine kiosk idea is dead. That's really bad news, because I was hoping it would be a public relations disaster for the PLCB. I'll just have to see what I can do to shove it up their nose anyway.

By the way, speaking of public relations disasters? The courtesy contract was renewed.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Another voice calls for simplifying the liquor Connecticut

Just saw this editorial from Chris Powell in the Middletown (Conn.) Press. His thesis: the reason there are so many "mom and pop" liquor stores in Connecticut is because it's about political patronage. Take a look at these bits:

Through licensing regulations state government has erected many barriers to entry, particularly barriers to doing business on a large scale with low cost and efficiency. There are more than 40 categories of liquor permits and they are tightly controlled. Supermarkets can sell only beer, not other alcoholic beverages. State government controls the hours of operation for alcohol sales, and Sunday sales are banned. The state also controls and pushes up liquor prices...
Liquor takes up 100 pages in the Connecticut General Statutes, but state regulation is just a start. Then there are the usual municipal zoning regulations. State law even allows towns to forbid liquor sales on their own, and some towns still do, as if their own liquor traffic is properly foisted on neighboring towns.
The scheme has been to diminish competition, drive costs up, put more people into the business, and make them dependent on political favor.
Sound familiar? Go read the rest. We're not alone, either in our problems or in our desire for a solution.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Why does beer brand registration exist?

In the wake of the beer registration massacre and fiasco, a question pops to mind: why does Pennsylvania law require beer brand registration? The answer -- as it is many times with The Almighty Liquor Code -- is not so easy to find. It's a lot like the case law: we've been doing it for 78 years, and no one has any real idea why we started.

What will people tell you? Well, how about Francesca Chapman, the PLCB's usual spokeswoman? Don Russell asked her why in his story in the Daily News, and she said that "the registration requirement helps the state assure payment of state beer taxes and helps prosecutors identify alcoholic beverages in drunk-driving cases or any other type of prosecution."

We'll get to the second part down below. For the first part, I don't see how registration helps in tax payment. Because of the three-tier system and PA's other laws about beer, there is a paper trail a mile long on every beer sale in the Commonwealth: beer comes into the wholesaler -- paperwork -- it goes out to the retailer -- paperwork. And the state can demand the paperwork at any time to see if there is beer on premises that did not go through the taxing process; same thing with self-distributing brewers. You can't escape the tax unless both parties are willing to engage in behavior that could very easily leave them without a license -- and therefore without a business. No one has seriously suggested that taxes were being evaded by selling unregistered brands.

Who's next? Unnamed "Harrisburg enforcement officers" in Rick Nichols piece on the raids in today's Inquirer say the reason is to "protect consumers." Nichols ponders, "How else to know whether the beer is from Victory (legit) or a backyard home-brewer (not)?" I hope he's being facetious (and I'm sure he is). Because if it's a bottle, it has to have a federally-approved label; if it's a draft, by law it's supposed to be dispensed from a tap with the name of the beer it's pouring clearly displayed. (and that's a law that I DO wish would be enforced more often...but that's another story). Does registration do anything? Not at all: again, there's already a paper trail in place that shows where the beer came from, and besides...nobody bothers counterfeiting beer labels. This is ridiculous on the face of it.

There's one more. A brewer I was talking to told me he'd attended a meeting where then-PLCB chief counsel Francis X. O'Brien Jr. about 8 years ago. They asked him why there was a need for brand registration (you'd think he'd know, right?), and O'Brien said it was for criminal cases involving drinking: underage drinking, DUI, and the like. If beer cans or bottles were found on the scene, the prosecuting attorney could use the brand's presence on the registered list to prove that the beer was beer, and thus contained alcohol. My first thought: you gotta be kidding! Then I remembered this court case in Reading a few years ago -- the story's funny, but the facts are serious: they actually needed to prove that Miller Genuine Draft was beer. I don't really think we need a whole system of brand registration just to prove that beer is beer. Could we, I don't know, "stipulate" that in the "rules of evidence" somewhere? Not to mention, it does them no good if the drunk was drinking draft!

I see no good reason for a brand registration law, not even the registration fee (it's less than $300,000 for the whole current list, and the BLCE just blew through about half that with these raids anyway). Unless...take a look at the registration form, particularly the second page. Is registration all about making sure what wholesaler has an exclusive on the brand; is this about marking your territory? If it is...I'm sorry, but once again, I do not understand why it is the state's concern. Let the wholesalers worry about enforcing their exclusivity contracts. There are civil courts, are there not? Does any other industry get this kind of enforcement support from the State? Maybe the dairy industry, but milk ain't beer. If this is what brand registration is about, and wholesalers are still caught with unregistered beers (and the registration list isn't worth the electrons it's printed on anyway -- Don, excellent work here!)...

Why are we registering beers at all? I really want to hear tough questioning on that when the hearings on these raids are held next month.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Vintage beers okay: nothing to worry about!

Just got off the phone with a PA brewer (who prefers to remain anonymous...and as long as the BLCE keeps that up, so will I), who told me they'd talked to the brand registration folks at the PLCB and had this to add to the discussion. Vintage beers -- older beers that are no longer brewed, or beers from defunct breweries like Heavyweight or King & Barnes -- that have already been purchased by a retailer are not in danger of causing a citation for unregistered beers. Once beer is purchased by the retailer, assuming it was registered when purchased, it is "grandfathered in," and the retailer doesn't have to worry. So if you're a bar owner or a distributor or a deli, and you've got beers you're aging? Don't worry about it.

Well, not exactly. Note that wholesalers are not afforded this protection, and there is nothing to keep the BLCE from checking their list, not finding those aging beers, and confiscating them. But you can't be fined or suspended for having them, and you can file paperwork to get them back.

I'm not sure just how good I feel about this.

Call for suspension of confiscation

I just sent versions of the following to my state senator, representative, and Gov. Rendell:

RE: "Please consider suspending confiscations of "unregistered beer."

I'm sure you're aware of the recent actions of the Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement in Philadelphia. BLCE agents raided three bars last Thursday -- on the basis of an anonymous tip -- to look for beers that were not registered in Pennsylvania. Some 60 gallons of beer, with an estimated value of over $7000, was seized. Monday night, the BLCE raided a major beer wholesaler in Philadelphia and seized beer as well. This is not a case of tax evasion: all taxes were paid on the beer. They were just not registered; an oversight.

These raids have caused consternation among the retailers potentially and actually affected by the actions; the responsibility for registration is the manufacturer's, not the retailer's.

The raids were unnecessary: send a PLCB bureaucrat to the wholesaler who supplies the beer, and give them the power to accept a fee and register any unregistered brands on the spot. I would suspect you'd see 100% compliance.

The raids were a public relations disaster; just have a look at the coverage in the Philadelphia papers.

The raids were of suspicious motivation: why were these three widely-separated bars (all owned by one couple) singled out; what "civilian" would even know that a violation was taking place; why does the BLCE insist on keeping the identity of the complainant secret?

The raids were also, sad to say, poorly implemented: the PLCB's list of registered brands is poorly maintained, and at least one beer, "Duvel", is being confiscated because of a clerical error. Duvel is registered and has been registered for years.

There are already calls for hearings to investigate the matter from Reps. Robert Donatucci and John Taylor. I would strongly urge you to call for an immediate suspension of further confiscations (taking place under Section 4-444, para C of the state Liquor Code) until such hearings can take place. An immediate suspension would allow a cooling off period, and allow the hearings to take place at a measured pace.

Thank you for your kind attention to this matter.

Lewis Bryson


Today's Inquirer reports that there is some action being considered in Harrisburg on the beer registration raids.
But in Harrisburg, several lawmakers are wondering whether the registration regulation - as well as other portions of the state's liquor code - are in need of updating. Rep. Robert Donatucci (D., Phila.), who chairs the House Liquor Control Committee, will be holding hearings to determine just that, Lynn Benka-Davies, the committee's executive director, said yesterday.
Well...that's a start. But what we should be doing is using this issue as the fulcrum to plant our lever to topple the whole thing, to bring down The Almighty Liquor Code.

Here's your course of action. First, instruct the BLCE to immediately stop enforcement activity on the registration law. Cut their budget, if necessary. Don't cry: this kind of thing happens all the time, it happened during Prohibition. It's an admission that a law needs fixing. The law serves no good purpose.

Next, quick-fix the beer registration part of the Code -- by deep-sixing it. Don't try to "fix" it, don't do the stupid Alabama thing where they lifted the 'cap' on beer ABV from a ridiculously low 5% to a higher but no less nonsensical 13.9% out of some misguided vision that they were preserving something. Brand registration is a relic, a fossil; the important thing is tax collection. Unless someone can come up with a really good reason to keep brand registration, dump it. Because the way it's being implemented and enforced is broken.

THEN...create a group to examine The Almighty Liquor Code with an eye to completely rewriting it. The group should include sitting legislators, PLCB reps, industry reps (brewers/importers, wholesalers, and retailers), a lawyer specializing in PA booze law, a rep from an anti-alcohol group (because their agenda has to be considered to get buy-in), and, most importantly, consumer representation...because we keep getting forgotten and locked out.

Rewrite the Code! Clean up the beer laws. Dump all the fossil relic crap that no one even remembers the reasons for why it's there. Privatize liquor and wine sales. Fix the licensing system. Level the market. If three-tier is left in place -- which I'm not against -- make it more fair to all involved. Break up the functions of the PLCB. Re-cast the Johnstown Flood Emergency Tax. Create new incentives for self-policing (stuff like rewards for seizing fake IDs, for instance).

Don't be afraid. Citizens: neighboring states don't have these laws, and yet their alcohol problems are not greater or worse than Pennsylvania's. Licensees: if you get involved in the process instead of balking it, you can help make it beneficial by freeing you to do more with your business (full-service "all-alcohol" retail stores, inventory delivered to bars by wholesalers at reasonable prices, the ability to amass wine cellars on par with New York restaurants, less paperwork). Brewers: you can stop looking over your shoulders. PLCB employees: jobs will be created, opportunities will be created, and if the process is at all fair, you will be provided for (early retirement packages, preferential hiring on state jobs, loan packages to open your own private wine stores, etc.).

We have put up with this shit for almost 80 years. It's time to reap the fruits of Repeal.

Not just Philly

Reader David Staab reports on Facebook that three BLCE agents were at Shangy's (the well-known "Beer Mecca" in Emaus, PA) yesterday.

Is this a state-wide "effort"? Gotta be more satisfying than trying to close nuisance bars (the bars noted in State College were the scenes of open underage drinking, countless noise violations, and a murder, but it only took the PLCB four years to close them...and Stapleton's so proud of that he brags about it in the linked editorial). Write your legislator now. This pointless harassment of PA business needs to be stopped.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Beer Raids Part II: dropping the big one

Just saw this on Don Russell's Beer Radar blog. The BLCE raided Origlio Beverage last night. Some points from Don's post:
The Bureau of Liquor Enforcement agents arrived about 7 p.m. last night and conducted a search of the warehouse, specifically looking for Origlio’s share of brands they’d confiscated from the bars last week. This includes: Duvel, Monk’s Cafe Sour Flemish Ale, Hacker-Pschorr and Russian River Supplication.
They reportedly confiscated only the Supplication because they would’ve needed a tractor trailer for the rest. They ordered Origlio not to distribute any of the other brands.
I'm guessing they didn't bring a tractor trailer because they had no freakin' clue how big these brands are in this market.

Here's my question. If the taxes on these beers were paid -- and I have no doubt whatsoever they were -- is the BLCE really holding up thousands and thousands of dollars worth of beer, crimping the business of hundreds of Philadelphia bars, restaurants, and distributors, putting jobs at jeopardy...all over a piddling $600 in registration fees? (That's $75 each for Duvel, Monk's Sour, Supplication, and 5 H-P brands listed on Origlio's website.) Are you shitting me?

Another quote from Don, because he said it just fine:
What we’re witnessing isn’t just bureaucratic incompetence or the result of outdated laws. This is an act of unrepentant arrogance. As one local restaurant operator remarked of the BLE, “They don’t answer to anybody. They’re running amok.”
What have I told you time after time? It's the arrogance of this agency that is simply jaw-dropping.
I'm going to have to quote Buddy "I married a PLCB manager" Hobart to express what I feel about this new initiative. "What I say to the skeptical," said Buddy Hobart, president of Solutions 21, "to those of us in the world who believe we've arrived and don't need to improve: Look up the word arrogant in the dictionary." When you find that page, I believe you'll find the PLCB logo next to that definition
They do, however, have some shame. The PLCB has an auto-response going now for e-mails about the raids in which they deny any responsibility. Here's what it says:
This is in response to your inquiry regarding the recent raids of three Philadelphia-area bars, conducted by the Pennsylvania State Police, Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement ("BLCE"), in which the PSP, BLCE apparently confiscated beers that may or may not have been properly registered for sale in Pennsylvania.
The raids in question were conducted by the PSP, BLCE, not the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board ("Board"). The officers involved are employed by the PSP,BLCE and not the Board. The Board and the BLCE are two distinct agencies.  Therefore, your inquires should be directed to the PSP, BLCE Harrisburg Headquarters. Their contact number is 717-540-7410.
As always, should you become a subject of ridicule or public outrage, the Chairman will disavow any knowledge of your actions. I always knew the PLCB was arrogant. I didn't know they were also gutless buck-passers, but it shouldn't surprise me. The BLCE is funded by the PLCB, they exist to enforce the PLCB's regulations.

As I keep saying, the thing to write your legislator. Tell them things have gone too far. The PLCB, the BLCE, it doesn't matter which; they're out of control. It's time to break them, to bring them to heel. Rewrite the Code. People keep telling me it can't be done. I don't see any other thing to do.

New Facebook page

This seemed like the right time to grab hold of the wave -- this blog just had its biggest day ever for hits yesterday, five times the previous highest day, and almost as much as the biggest day I ever had on Seen Through A Glass -- so I started a Facebook group: "Abolish the PLCB -- Rewrite the Code!" If you're on Facebook, come join us. We'll have tips on how to contact your legislators and what to say, advice on how and when to write letters/e-mails to newspapers, and maybe...we'll start talking about rallies and events. Stay tuned. This might be approaching critical mass.

State Rep John Taylor: "a ridiculous use of enforcement manpower"

Last Thursday's raid on three Philly bars -- all owned by the same couple -- for "unregistered beer brands" has caught fire in the media. Hundreds of comments are swamping stories on the Daily News website, stories like the one today where Rep. John Taylor (whose 177th District is home to the Memphis Taproom, one of the bars raided) blasted the raids.

THE TOP Republican on the House Liquor Control Committee said yesterday that the State Police engaged in "a ridiculous use of enforcement manpower" last week when more than a dozen officers staged raids on three Philadelphia bars, suspected of selling beers not registered in Pennsylvania.
"I don't know why they would use that many people to track down an issue like this that could have been handled with a routine inspection," said state Rep. John Taylor, whose legislative district includes one of the bars, the Memphis Taproom, in Port Richmond.
Taylor puts his finger right on the problem. Here's what I said in a comment on Andy Crouch's Beerscribe blog:
Why is a “raid” necessary? Here’s an option: instead of five armed cops walking in on a lunch crowd and seizing beers, how about one bureaucrat comes by with a clipboard to see if unregistered beers are on the premises? If any resistance is offered, backup is a phone call away, and resistance won’t look good on the complaint. Find the unregistered beers and — here’s another thought — get the wholesaler on the line and arrange for payment of the fee and registration on the spot. Done, under the radar, no business disruption, the beer’s registered, the state’s happy, and it costs so much less than sending five cops (and looking like idiots in the press).
I remember having this same thought about ten years ago when I went to my first State College Micro Expo beer festival (a festival that was largely regulated to death, unfortunately). As I arrived about half an hour before the fest started, one of the fest organizers was being lectured -- hectored, really -- by a red-faced PLCB enforcement agent about unregistered beers at the festival. "There are unregistered beers at this festival," he shouted, "and they will not be served, or I will shut this thing down!" The organizer took care of it -- a pain in the ass, but what are you going to do? -- and later told me that the PLCB had first contacted him about the problem less than two days before.

And I thought to myself then...wouldn't it have been better all-round if instead of getting up in the guy's face like that, the PLCB agent had instead said, I understand there are some beers coming to the fest that are unregistered. Let me help you with the paperwork, you cut me a check, and we'll get that all squared away in time for the fest? No stress, no screaming, and the state...has revenue. Wow. Would that make sense? What am I missing?

Oh, and in case you were wondering? The PLCB went after the unregistered brands at the fest...because of an anonymous tip. Best guesses were that it was a local distributor (Zeno's certainly wouldn't have done it: they were making money hand-over-fist that day selling beer to happy geeks). Kinda makes you think that this "anonymous tip" thing should go away too.

Monday, March 8, 2010


Here's the story on Action News. I especially liked this part:
Authorities stress if Hartranft thinks any of the confiscated beer is registered all he has to do is show them the paperwork. "We would happy to have for them to come down, show us they are registered. If they are they can sign the property record and take custody of them," explained Sgt. La Torre.
That would be the same Sgt. La Torre quoted in the Daily News today, I suppose.
State Police Sgt. William N. La Torre, commanding officer of the Philadelphia office of the Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement, said that he was not aware of any beers that had been mistakenly confiscated.
La Torre said that the beer would be kept in a secured location, as evidence, until the case is resolved, probably in six to eight months. If an administrative-law judge finds that the bars possessed unregistered brands, the State Police typically would seek a forfeiture order to destroy the beer, he said. Depending on the temperature of the storage location, some of the beer will likely turn sour in that period.
Maida said that the couple's attorney had told them that they have until 6 p.m. tonight to compile evidence to prove that the confiscated beer is properly registered.
And if they don't get the evidence by...oh, by two hours ago, they can't get the beer. The Sgt. La Torre on the TV, some time later on than the newspaper interview, sounds like a much more conciliatory man. I reckon he don't need a weatherman...

More details (thanks to Don Russell and Bob Warner)

The Daily News has more details on last week's raids here (be sure to read the comments; public anger is high on this one). Highlights:
  • four kegs and 317 bottles were seized, which will be kept at "a secured location, as evidence, until the case is resolved, probably in six to eight months." If the beers are found to be unregistered, they will be destroyed (if they're found to be registered, well, they might as well be, after 6-8 months in unrefrigerated storage).
  • Leigh Maida estimated the value of the beers at $7,200, and said over half of them were properly registered; beers like Duvel and Monk's Cafe Sour, both of which are sold all over the state (but the name on the list doesn't match the label exactly...which would seem to be the fault of the State).
  • "State Police Sgt. William N. La Torre, commanding officer of the Philadelphia office of the Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement, said that he was not aware of any beers that had been mistakenly confiscated." 
  • Francesca Chapman, a PLCB spokeswoman, said that the registration requirement helps the state assure payment of state beer taxes and helps prosecutors identify alcoholic beverages in drunk-driving cases or any other type of prosecution. (Because just taxing every beer that comes in isn't enough? Because looking at the label won't do it? If you're not putting the right name of the beer on the "list" to begin with, how much help is it?)
  • La Torre said that the investigation was sparked by "a citizen complaint. It doesn't matter where the complaint is coming from," he said. (I would say that if the "citizen complaint" came from the owner or employee of another beer-related does matter.)
Nice work. Now...let's dig further into this. Sgt. La Torre is hardly in any position to decide whether where the complaint is coming from "matters." No offense to the officer, but he's a tool being used by the complaining party, and his willingness to protect that person does him no honor. One of the basic principles of American justice is the right to face your accuser. Brendan Hartranft and Leigh Maida, the owners of the three businesses, their partners, and their employees deserve to know who chose to lodge this complaint specifically against them, while these supposedly unregistered beers are sold at bars across the city, the region, and the state. Why not get lists from the wholesalers who delivered these beers and raid every single bar and distributor who received them? Is the BLCE a tool or is it an enforcement agency?

The reasons given for brand registration do not hold up. TAX EVERY BEER, and it doesn't matter what beers are brought in. Every retailer, bar or distributor, is required to keep paperwork on where they buy beers -- wholesaler or direct from a self-distributing PA brewery -- so that's your assurance of payment of state beer taxes. Why do you need to identify the alcohol beverage in a DUI, and why isn't the label identification enough? This is the Internet age: Google the damned thing if you need to know (and you won't be able to identify a draft beer anyway, so what's the point?).
Which brings up another question. Is brand registration actually about ensuring that wholesalers are getting every sale they should be from retail accounts, and retailers are not buying from the "wrong" wholesaler? If it is, why is the state in that business? That should be a problem for the wholesaler to bring in civil court; why are we spending tax dollars to proactively enforce that?

Again, this is an issue for the Legislature. Rewrite the Code. Abolish the PLCB.

    Saturday, March 6, 2010

    The Memphis 44 Resurrection Raids: and why you should care

    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 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'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: 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.

    Wednesday, February 17, 2010

    Senator Rafferty Comes Out Swinging

    I have no time to blog about this -- working feverishly on PA Breweries 4 -- but big news yesterday in Harrisburg: State Senator John C. Rafferty (Montgomery-R) held a "rally" for reforming PA's beer laws, the main aim being to allow six-pack sales in grocery stores, convenience stores, and distributors. Read about it here, here (one of Karen Heller's best columns), and most of all here, in Rafferty's own talking points memo (this is a PDF, just to warn you). I'll be back to talk about this when I'm done with the book.

    Two things, though. First, thanks to Stan Sheetz, CEO of the PA-based convenience store chain, for really pushing this issue. Second, to the distributors and six-pack store owners and employees who stand to face competition and possibly job losses from this issue: this day was bound to come. Instead of burning your time, money, and customer goodwill by fighting it in courts or the press, step up and compete. Cooperate to get the best possible bill for yourselves. Here's a plan: go for the package store system they have in Massachusetts. Instead of just "fixing" beer sales, do away with the State Store System and make beer distributors eligible to be "all-alcohol" stores, and that's where people buy their booze, from private stores, supplied by privately-owned wholesalers or directly from the suppliers. How's that sound? Radical, hey?

    Double-posted to Seen Through A Glass.

    Wednesday, February 10, 2010

    Wine sales? Keep them in the State Store, please

    With the opening of the first State Store grocery just around the corner on Tuesday, here's something to make you think about just how unfair that is. Read about why it just doesn't make sense to serve wine in Pennsylvania. Then think about why some of you don't understand why it would make sense to get rid of the State Store System monopoly. And come to your senses, will you?

    I swear, I'm going to stop buying anything at the State Stores, law be damned. The more I think about it, the more I like the idea of a mass protest that someone thought up: a thousand wine lovers go to NJ, and walk back across the Ben Franklin Bridge with a bottle of New Jersey-bought wine. Are they going to arrest us? This is more than ridiculous: it's insulting.

    Tuesday, January 26, 2010

    Virginia's new governor talks privatization

    Virginia's new governor wants to privatize liquor sales in the Old Dominion State, and he's willing to talk plainly about it; no pussyfooting. More power to him. We need someone like this in PA, eh?

    (I dunno about that host guy's leather jacket, though...)

    Thursday, January 14, 2010

    Big anti-PLCB piece in Philadelphia Weekly

    The issue of Philadelphia Weekly that came out yesterday features a lengthy anti-PLCB screed by Tom Cowell; nice work. (There was a good editorial on the wine kiosks the day before in the Lebanon Daily News, too.) The blog got some mention (bottom of page 2), but much much more importantly, Cowell had clearly been reading it and getting ideas: the number of stores compared to Chicago, how relatively little money we actually get from a complete monopoly on booze sales, the stupidity of the rebranding scheme, the way the PLCB is really just the tool of the legislature.

    Which is exactly why this blog is here, to inspire thought and action. Cowell took it and ran with it, talked to union head Wendell Young, found some more issues (the patronage inherent in the State Store System, for example), and got a new crowd of folks stirred up. I'm very happy to see it happen.

    Keep spreading the word. PRIVATIZE IT NOW!

    (And if you feel like supporting me in the comments to this piece...feel free, but remember to keep it on track: it's all about abolishing the PLCB and rewriting The Almighty Liquor Code!)

    Wednesday, January 6, 2010

    Wino 9000

    Okay, it's silly and juvenile, but I'll admit it: I giggled. Take a look at someone who has treated the wine kiosk ideas with exactly what they deserve: derision.

    Tuesday, January 5, 2010

    New Year's Resolutions

    It's that time of year when we think about how to make ourselves better in the coming year. I'm thinking about how to make this blog better.

    Write more Reasons. I haven't written a Reason in months. I will do that.

    Get the Winevolk involved. We've barely touched what is possibly the second-worst aspect of the State Store System (after what they've done with bourbon): the wine selection. Plenty of room to rip 'em a hole: signage, storage, selection, selling...just to name a few.

    Beat up The Almighty Liquor Code. Pennsylvania could be made a lot more pleasant place to enjoy a drink -- not get all liquored up, but enjoy a drink -- if certain ridiculous things were added to and subtracted from The Almighty Liquor Code. Make more suggestions on that.

    Get the mainstream media more involved. Letters to the editor, e-mails to reporters, call-ins to radio shows. Get everyone up to speed on just how dopey this system is.

    Get some video going on. You know what I mean: video of those wine kiosks in operation, right here on the blog. I'm gonna be a vidstar!

    Bring the beer. Though I continue to complain about the State Store System, we all know that this state's kinda messed up on beer, too (and it ain't just the case law). Beer gets more attention.

    That should do. Happy New Year, Pennsylvania!