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February, 2004

A Not-so Clear Case

This one's for Pennsylvania. The rest of you may want to read it just for personal amusement, but I'm writing it for my fellow Pennsylvanians. We in the Keystone State have a strange burden to bear when it comes to buying beer: the case law. 

And here it is: Pennsylvania Liquor Code, Article IV, SECTION 441.  DISTRIBUTORSí AND IMPORTING DISTRIBUTORSí RESTRICTIONS ON SALES, STORAGE, ETC., paragraph b: No distributor or importing distributor {that's Pennsylvanian for "beer store," to you out of state types} shall sell any malt or brewed beverages in quantities of less than a case or original containers containing one hundred twenty-eight ounces or more which may be sold separately: Provided, That no malt or brewed beverages sold or delivered shall be consumed upon the premises of the distributor or importing distributor, or in any place provided for such purpose by such distributor or importing distributor. Notwithstanding any other provision of this section or act, malt or brewed beverages which are part of a tasting conducted pursuant to the board's regulations may be consumed on licensed premises. 

The first part is the gist: beer stores in PA have to sell beer by the case. They can't sell less than a case, like a 12-pack or a six-pack or a single.

All I want to know...is why?

Look, a lot of Pennsylvanians have a lot of beefs with the PA Liquor Control Board and the Code. They want to demolish the State Store system (even under its new, "friendlier" name of "Wine and Spirits Shoppes." Wheee.), they want to break up the three-tier system, they want beer and wine sales in grocery stores, drug stores, convenience stores, and gas stations. I know high-end restaurant owners would love to have some changes made in the laws that would let them fairly compete with restaurants in other states in the matter of building a serious wine cellar. The repeal of the 18% "emergency tax" on liquor enacted back in 1936 to help pay for cleanup of the Johnstown flood of that year -- yeah, really -- would make a lot of people happy. 

Me, I don't get the case law. 

I understand why the three-tier system is there. It came out of Prohibition, and was designed to keep the big brewers from having monopolistic control over retailers, particularly bars. It was a good idea, and, with some changes, I feel it would remain a good idea, particularly considering the even bigger brewers we have today. 

The State Store system is a pain, but it's going to collapse one day, and...er...I can go to New Jersey real easy, so I don't really care that much. PA should, but if they don't WANT my booze taxes, that's their problem. 

The Johnstown tax is just stupid, and some day it will go away, but...like I said, I buy my booze in New Jersey, so the rest of you can fight that one.  

Personally, I don't really want to see beer sales in convenience stores and grocery stores, because I kind of like not having to buy my beer from a huge chain of stores that makes decisions based on shelf frontings and pennies per case. Besides, with the case law, where's the "convenience" in buying beer at a convenience store? Longer hours, maybe, but higher prices and you can bet much smaller selection.

So...Pennsylvania legislators, Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board members and lawyers, tell me:

Why do we have the case law?

Anyone? Does anyone have a CLUE why we have this bizarre provision in our liquor laws?

I'm going to ask my state legislators, and Governor Rendell, and  I'm going to write to all three members of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. I strongly encourage you to do likewise. I'll even make it easy for you. You can use Congress.org's one-stop website to send e-mail to Governor Rendell and both your Pennsylvania legislators; just click here. Send e-mail to all three of the PLCB members (Thomas Goldsmith, Patrick Stapleton III, and Board Chairman Jonathan Newman) by just clicking here

It doesn't have to be a long e-mail. Copy the paragraph of the Code up at the top of this page into the e-mail, and then just ask them: "Hey, Senator, why do Pennsylvanians have to buy beer by the case? No one else in the country does, why us?" Tell them all you want is an answer to that one simple question. 

If you get any answers, send them to me. I'll post them up here if I get enough. Should be interesting to see how many different answers we get.

I'll be honest with you. I do know why the case law's there. I found the reason about seven years ago, buried in a local library. But I'm going to stay mum for now. I want to see what kind of answers I get.

In the meantime, I'll leave you with paragraph f from the same section (the added emphasis is mine):

(1) To salvage one or more salable cases from one or more damaged cases, cartons or packages of malt or brewed beverages, a distributor or importing distributor may repackage consequent to inadvertent damage and sell a case, carton or package of identical units of malt or brewed beverages.
(2) Repackaging is permissible only to the extent made necessary by inadvertent damage. Repackaging not consequent to damage is prohibited.
(3) The term _identical units_ as used in this subsection means undamaged bottles or cans of identical brand, package and volume.
((f) added May 31, 1996, P.L.312, No.49)

What's all that mean? It means that if your local distributor hits a case of Yards Love Stout and a case of Stoudt's American Pale Ale with the pallet jack and breaks some -- or if he breaks the cases on purpose -- and then puts the remaining bottles together in a case and sells it as a case of "Pennsylvania Black & Tan"...he's breaking the law. 

And that little bit of stupidity was added in 1996, so someone still has an interest in perpetuating this kind of nonsense. I don't know who it is...maybe I'll ask my state legislator.

 

Copyright © 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: October 12, 2004