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.