Pennsylvania's evolving retail beer laws

Retail beer laws in Pennsylvania over the years have been called byzantine and outdated. Here is a glimpse of what's new. Photo: Associated Press

Remnants of Prohibition continue to dog those who enjoy alcoholic beverages. Perhaps in no way more obvious to the general public than the three-tier distribution system, which was established to keep producers (breweries) separate from distributors separate from retailers separate from customers.

The three-tier machine still lumbers along across the country and does not show signs of dramatically changing any time soon — too many jobs, too much revenue and too much status quo at stake to change.

At the state level, however, laws have changed over the years to gradually give customers more and better access to the legally-produced alcoholic beverages of their choice. In some states, this change has come faster than in others.

Take my home state of Pennsylvania, for example. While shopping malls, gas stations, and many retail businesses began opening for limited hours on Sundays in the 1980s, the blue laws concerning the sale of beer, wine, and spirits on Sundays stuck around until they were finally modified only this past decade.

In this alcohol-control state, where wine and spirits are sold exclusively by the state, beer may be sold by the case (commonly referred to as “the case law“) at beer distributors and in smaller quantities at specialty stores and restaurants. At the latter, the selection is often more limited and the cost of the take-out beer business becomes more expensive and subsequently is passed along to the customer.

Customers have therefore been left with the choice of buying smaller quantities at higher prices or larger quantities (frequently, much larger) than they likely wish at cheaper prices. A conversation between two beer aficionados looking for a special beer in the past has typically ended with, “I couldn’t find it anywhere else, so I bought a case from the distributor. I’m not even sure if I’ll like it.”

Perhaps the other most visible sign of change in Pennsylvania over the past couple of years has been to allow grocery stores with restaurant operations meeting certain specifications to sell beer for both in-store consumption (excuse me, in-restaurant) as well as to take home.

Though, I was reminded by Lew Bryson, Managing Editor of Malt Advocate and creator of the Why The PLCB Should Be Abolished blog, that “Beer has been sold at grocery stores and gas stations in Pennsylvania for years. I bought beer at a small grocery store near Philly 10 years ago; I got a growler of draft beer at a gas station in Easton last year.”

While those in other states may be dumbfounded by a Pennsylvanian’s joy at being able to find beer at the grocery store or gas station, they might first consider just how much “progress” this really represents for Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania, particularly in the Philadelphia metropolitan region, has enjoyed access to a wealth of both locally-brewed beer as well as beer imported from other states and countries. Having the ability, however, to buy a single bottle or a six-pack has always been a bit more of a challenge, particularly at reasonable prices.

Now, in the past few years, the deep pockets and buying power of large grocery chains like Wegmans and Giant Eagle have moved in, opened bona fide dining operations in a corner of their grocery stores, and setup a takeout beer business to rival many beer distributor selections. The main difference is that the grocery stores are selling single bottles, mix-‘n’-match six-packs, and twelve-packs.

A maximum of 192 ounces of beer may be purchased to go in a single transaction. That settles out to sixteen 12-ounce bottles of beer. Purchased beer may also be consumed on site in the store’s restaurant.

While many will agree that it’s nice to have access to beer in a grocery store, the current environment does not allow for beer to be sold in the “regular” grocery store aisles and purchased at the “normal” checkout counters. Instead the beer is sold from a separate area, typically far from the main grocery shopping area of the store. This can result in the need for two separate purchases—one for the beer and one for the groceries. Convenient? Well, a little yes and a little no in my books.

Here is where it really doesn’t really work in my argument. I’m thinking that if I have a bunch of errands to run like, let’s say, for example, get gas, buy the groceries, pick up dry cleaning, buy cigars, pick up pizza, transact bank business, buy a birthday card, get helium balloons filled for a party, buy propane for the grill, get postage stamps and mail a box from the post office, and on and on. Oh, yeah, and don’t forget to buy beer!

Would I love to be able to do this all under one huge roof? Maybe. Would it be the most convenient thing ever? It could, maybe. I suppose that’s the concept behind the mega shopping malls. But, the thing is, I don’t expect it…and would never think to ask for it. So then, in that case, what does putting beer in a grocery store do for me? Frankly, not much. It eliminates one stop along my route of errands. Maybe it does.

Take a real-life personal example of mine. A few days back, I needed baker’s chocolate, a corn muffin, and one 750ml bottle of beer. (Don’t ask what any of these three things had to do with each other; a strange combination, to be sure.)

I went to the designated beer checkout counter. By the way, these special checkout counters are clear on the other side of the store. I was told I could pay for the corn muffin and beer together, but the baker’s chocolate would have to be paid for at the grocery store checkout counter.

Why? Great question, though one with not such a great answer. It turns out that only food that can be considered consumed in one sitting can be purchased along with beer at the beer checkout counter. I suppose that fits the restaurant criteria?

In any case, I take my muffin and beer (which, by the way, I haven’t mentioned is not permitted to be bagged by store employees—something to do with underage liability. Yes, seriously.) and walk across the store to the main checkout area to buy the baker’s chocolate. Two purchases. A long walk. Enough inconvenience to be annoying.

What I’m also afraid of by potentially running beer “specialty stores” (e.g. distributors) out of business is reduced availability of the really special beer that a grocery store may never have the wherewithal nor the motivation to carry in their stores.

Or have I become so conditioned in Pennsylvania to get my beer from a “specialty store”, like a distributor, that I don’t see a huge consumer convenience gain by putting it in grocery store chains—that I don’t really get so passionate about the debate?

Another primary concern of mine, however, is the existence of a level playing field and consumer access to products at a fair price. In that case, perhaps it only comes down to one fairly simple question here: Why not amend the state laws to allow beer to be purchased in more places (co-mingled at grocery stores with other food products), but give the distributors the right to sell everything from single bottles to full kegs?

On one hand, it seems pretty simple to me. Still, it will be tough to compete with the deep pockets and buying power of the grocery store chains. But why not create a level playing field and let the market decide?

Continuing the conversation with Bryson, he agrees with me on some points, and adds that “the reason places like Wegmans and Sheetz are creating such a stir is because they’ve got the market power to truly change how beer is sold. It’s stunning to see people who’ve sold beer all their lives crying crocodile tears over how “dangerous” it will be if gas stations and grocery stores suddenly start selling beer”.

Were you wondering if there is an alternative? The alternative does not technically come from outside our state lines. It is completely against the law to drive across the border into a neighboring state like Delaware, New Jersey, Ohio, New York, or Maryland to buy beer to drive back into Pennsylvania for consumption.

Winds of change don’t always blow strongly and sustained in the same direction at the same time. In Pennsylvania, we’re slowly getting there.


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Bryan Kolesar

Bryan Kolesar has been tracking down great beer for over twenty years. From the most hard-to-find delicately balanced low alcohol beer to the big monsters weighing in at over 10% ABV, he has yet to find a style that does not have a story to tell and a taste to share. Though, when pushed, Kolesar has historically staked a claim to the Saison style as one of the most versatile and his favorite.

In 2005, Bryan co-founded The Brew Lounge blog/website as a canvas to illustrate the best of the craft brewing industry and to document his own travels within it. Though he has lived in Philadelphia and is currently headquartered in the city's western suburbs, Kolesar shares a wealth of information and images that he collects from his travels around the world and some of the best beers that he has tasted along the way.

In 2010, Kolesar came aboard the Communities section of The Washington Times to contribute stories from across the craft brewing industry as it continues more than ever its explosive growth amongst increasingly more of the mainstream alcohol-consuming public. 

While the beer - its tastes, aromas, and incredible pairing opportunities with food - is often the beginning of a story, he often finds it more interesting to dive into the stories behind the people, places, and events associated with the final product. 

Locally around Philadelphia, he has been named a Beer Writer of the Year finalist multiple times, hosted beer/running events during each annual Philly Beer Week, served as a Philly Beer Geek judge, paneled local beers for submission into the Great American Beer Festival competition, judged beer and food competitions, been featured in local publications chronicling the beer scene, and been named the "Best Beer Guy" of 2008. 

In addition to his beer-y pursuits, Kolesar works a professional career in the business world by day and dabbles in distance running, cooking, homebrewing, gardening, photography, and is a staunch advocate for animal rescue/adoption. He lives with his wife, Patty, of fifteen years and has been a long time, mostly suffering, supporter of local Philadelphia sports.

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