288 Ounces to Freedom

Photo courtesy of www.michael-angelos.com

Photo courtesy of www.michael-angelos.com

By: Michael Jones, Staff Writer

Pennsylvanians! How often do you shake your fist at having to buy your beer and your wine and whiskey at store that doesn’t also sell your hummus? Or Out-Of-Staters, how many times have you walked into a gas station looking for a six-pack only to be told that you will have to go grab a whole case at the local distributor? Have you ever asked “Why?” Most will mutter to themselves some, arguably righteous, yet still defeated diatribe, towards our very Commonwealth and go find the local beer retail store. Here is a brief history of alcohol laws in Pennsylvania, since Prohibition, to make you relish in your freedom.

There was a time long ago, a time I don’t like to think about, where alcohol could not (legally) be found across This Great Land. Fortunately, the people in charge got something right for a change, and repealed our bastard Eighteenth Amendment with the blessed Twenty-First Amendment [1]. This gave states the right to control the sales of alcohol to their own liking.

Out of this volatile time came two systems of alcoholic regulation, and states across the country were attracted to one or the other [2]. Many states felt a system called the License Method was best suited for their constituents. This system gave individuals the power to sell and purvey alcohol. The state would auction off licenses and the licensee could sell alcohol from his grocery or gas station.

The second system is the Public Monopoly System. Here, states would maintain control of the distribution of liquor and wine.  This, in the eyes of many anti-alcohol politicians, was the easier stick to wield following Prohibition. It was believed to be the best way to keep alcohol out of the hands of citizens, make profiteering impossible, and curb an industry that corrupt politicians would love to enter into [3]. As you could guess from the dichotomous differences in the systems, Pennsylvania became a Public Monopoly state.

Afraid of the rampant bootleggers from Prohibition and fearing the lawless, brothel like saloons, then-Governor Pinchot, a staunch anti-alcohol Republican, studied other nations systems and believed the monopoly system was the best way to keep Pennsylvanians from drinking [4]. Historically, beer and wine were categorized together. In the formative years of the end of prohibition, the state separated them because they felt beer was less problematic than liquor, and thus needed less regulation [5].

Beer, however, was still seen as a problem because it is alcoholic. So naturally, the regulation of beer would stifle sales, not promote it. The government, while relinquishing direct control over the sale of beer, instituted the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) to oversee the sale of alcohol throughout the Commonwealth [6].

With the rebirth of the alcohol industry the infrastructure had to be rebuilt as well. Here, we have adopted the three-tier system [7]. The brewer sends their malted beverage to the wholesaler, with whom the breweries have a lifetime contract to distribute their beer within a geographical territory. The wholesaler can then sell the beer to any licensed distributor. There are two different kinds of distributors under Pennsylvania law, an importing distributor (ID) and a distributor (D).

ID’s can purchase beer from breweries and other authorized sellers outside of Pennsylvania. An importing distributor can sell to other licensees and directly to home consumers. Distributors can only purchase from in-state wholesalers and ID’s. They can only sell for at-home consumption and to restaurants and bars for “on-premise” consumption [8]. On-premise means restaurants and eateries with license to sell beer that is to be consumed on-site. Additionally, bars can sell up to 192 ounces (the equivalent of a twelve- pack) to go.

At a distributor you, the customer, can walk in and pick up a minimum of case of beer.  This is because in seeing the repeal of prohibition coming, the beer wholesalers began to write model legislation. Prolific beer writer, Lew Bryson writes, “The case law was their dream weapon; customers had to buy at least a case, and they didn’t have to unpack the cases. Pennsylvania [legislature] went for it” [9].

Is this law archaic? You bet! But as I’ve always asked when people complain, “What’s wrong with more beer?” If you walk into a store and buy a six-pack, you will be paying more for those six bottles than for six bottles within a case. If you can’t finish a case of beer before it’s expiration date (which is generally 3-6 months), you’re doing something wrong and you need to invite me over more.

There have been recent developments within Pennsylvania beer law that have loosened the metaphorical tie around the consumer’s hands, so that they do not necessarily have to purchase beer at their friendly, neighborhood distributor. If you’ve noticed within Wegmans, Whole Foods, and even the dirty bird itself, Giant Eagle- you may find beer. The PLCB has granted licenses to supermarkets that have attached restaurants. And while the Malt Beverage Distributors Association argued it was illegal for the PLCB to grant supermarkets licenses because of a clause within the laws that prohibits owners of licenses from “conducting other business on the licensed premise”, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania found that the restaurants and groceries just have an “interior connection” and are thus separated [10]. (There is much more to that argument, but that is for another article).

While it would be of great convenience to you and I to grab beer at any grocery store or gas station, this would dismiss an industry that has been established since prohibition, our beer distributors. The right path would be to continue having beer retail store, but allow the customer to purchase in whatever quantity they desire. Let the grocery stores stick to produce and meat. Don’t you want to get your beer from people who are knowledgeable and passionate about their craft? I do. But, hey, as long as beer is legal I’ll be happy. Cheers!


[1] Mihir A. Munshi, Share The Wine – Liquor Control in Pennsylvania: A Time for Reform, 58 U. Pitt. L. Rev. 507, 510 (1997)

[2] Id. at 511

[3] Id. at 517

[4] Id. at 515

[5] Id. at 517

[6] In re In re El Rancho Grande, 496 Pa. 496, 506 (1981)

[7] John Faust, State Power to Regulate Alcohol under the Twenty-First Amendment: The Constitutional Implications of the Twenty-First Amendment Enforcement Act, 41 B.C. L. Rev 659 (2000)

[8] Malt Beverage Distributors Association of Pennsylvania, Digest of Malt Beverage Laws, MBDAPA.org, http://www.mbdapa.org/documents/Digest_Malt_Beverage_Laws.pdf

[9] Written Interview with Lew Bryson, Beer & Whiskey Writer. (October 10, 2014)

[10] Malt Bevs. Distribs. Ass’n v. Pa. Liquor Control Bd., 607 Pa. 560, 575 (2010)