If you don’t live in Pennsylvania, this is going to sound a little weird: When I go to the beer store (a state oddity), I have to buy at least a case of beer.
It’s not because of my terrible thirst; it’s the law. We call it the case law, and it’s been in place for more than 70 years, since shortly after the repeal of Prohibition. You can’t go to the store and buy six-packs, 12-packs, or single bottles.
We can buy six-packs at licensed premises, like bars and restaurants — if they offer the service. Not all of them do, although some people buy a bar license and sell only six-packs, an interesting end run around the law. But there’s a catch there too. You can’t buy more than two six-packs at a time — though if you step out the door, you can step back in and buy two more.
Pennsylvania’s case law is uniquely convoluted, but much of the rest of the United States suffers under similarly irrational beer laws. Mississippi has a 6 percent cap on alcohol levels in beer, even though the state allows sales of 18 percent fortified wine. Utah doesn’t allow private citizens to buy kegs; apparently, they’re considered Weapons of Mass Drunkenness. A number of states have separate licenses and stores for beer with 3.2 percent alcohol by weight and for “high-alcohol” beer.
Relief is in sight: Stupid beer laws have been falling. Florida did away with its beer-bottle law, which restricted the sale of beer in anything other than 8-, 12-, 16-, or 32-ounce bottles and cans, in 2001 — although the sale of beer in bottles larger than 32 ounces is still not allowed. Montgomery, Alabama, now allows the sale of draft beer rather than just beer in cans and bottles. South Carolina recently “popped the cap” and now allows beer with more than 6 percent alcohol by volume, though the upper limit is now 17.5 percent. Dry towns across the South are reconsidering their booze bans to draw restaurant business.
In Pennsylvania, there’s a bill in the state House that would allow six-pack sales at beer stores and allow bars to sell up to three six-packs. It’s considered a pretty safe bet for passage — Pennsylvania voters have said in polls that they want to see the end of the case law. The state’s small brewers are all for it; it makes their more expensive beers easier to sample. Even Mothers Against Drunk Driving is in favor of the change, because it lets people buy beer in smaller quantities.
Great, right? It’s great for consumers, maybe, but highly disruptive for the tavern and beer-store owners. The case law has shaped their business — down to the fact that beer stores have concrete floors and wide aisles for moving pallets of cases around, and they lack nice shelves and glass-front coolers and display units. The guys who laid out big money for bar licenses to sell six packs — they can run as high as $500,000 — may wind up expensive curiosities. As one store owner told me, “I’ve got to change my whole store to accommodate this.”
Montgomery bars are spending big bucks on keg coolers and draft lines and learning about line maintenance and cleaning glassware. South Carolina stores need a lot more shelf space for the hundreds of new beers that are now legal, and the state’s craft brewers are scrambling to learn how to brew big beers to compete with out-of-state double IPA’s and barley wines. Restaurants in formerly dry towns have to compete with chain restaurants drawn by the new opportunity.
It’s easy to brush this off as part of doing business, as a lot of beer bloggers are doing. The tavern owners in Pennsylvania have had a 72-year monopoly on six-pack sales, and we’re supposed to feel sorry for them? Beer-store owners had the luxury of never having to open up a case and stack sixers in the cooler. Hey, get to work!
That’s cold, almost a bit Stalinesque. Some of those businesspeople worked hard within the system to bring Pennsylvania a variety of beer that is second to none. The six-pack-shop guys went deep in pocket for a more expensive bar license so they could sell us the single bottles we craved. The laws were ridiculous, and I’m glad to see them disappearing. But these guys were our beer comrades, they fought the revolution with us, and now we’re going to send them into exile, saying essentially, work harder or starve.
I’d feel worse, but I suspect they’re going to land on their feet. They were, after all, the men and women who were beating the hell out of the system already. The beer-store owner I talked to was one of them. “I’ll have to put in shelves, and I maybe won’t be able to carry as many beers,” he said. “But I’ll do it.”
Faced with consumer demand and a change in the law, what else would you do? Beer is a highly regulated product, and changes in those regulations are part of the risk of business. Looking at the accelerated pace of regulatory change affecting alcoholic-beverage sales over the past 15 years — increased taxes, labeling and advertising guidelines, keg registration, and stiffer D.U.I. laws — it’s only going to get riskier.