While gathered around the television on Super Bowl Sunday, listening to the incessantly oversimplified Manning vs. Brees analysis of the game that would soon follow, several friends and I decided that we would find the commentary considerably less annoying after a few beers. On tap then was the question of what to drink. Being a discerning drinker (some would say this is an understatement, as I have been called a beer snob several times); I cast my vote in favor of Victory. I figured the diversity (and quality) of that brewery’s offerings to be so wide as to provide plentifully for even the pickiest taste buds. I was wrong. Two roommates spoke adamantly on behalf of Natural Light, a brew whose unassuming (to put it kindly) flavor and bottom-shelf price tag have made it a collegiate staple. Unable to bridge the gap in our preferences, we resolved to take an every-man-for-himself approach; we would buy six packs. In most states this decision would have come with few ramifications, but not in Pennsylvania, where archaic beer laws have made it illegal for beer distributors (much less grocery and convenience stores) to sell six packs. We were thus forced to trek to a pizza shop on the outskirts of town where I paid $11 for a six pack of Victory’s Prima Pils. Though I said nothing at the register, I wondered why six beers cost so much. There are three factors at play here, I thought. First, Victory uses extremely high quality ingredients that cost considerably more than those used by the big brewers (Anheuser-Busch, Coors, etc.). Second, the company’s small size means that it does not have the purchasing power of its larger competitors, so it does not receive major discounts on its already pricey ingredients. Finally, the point that concerns us; Pennsylvania’s beer laws are tilted against the six pack consumer. The fact that no grocer, convenience store or beer distributor can sell six packs means that places like the pizza shop (known in the law as “eating places”) have relatively little competition and can mark up prices almost at will.
Thankfully, State Senator John C. Rafferty Jr. (R., Montgomery) has introduced legislation to change the antiquated laws. His proposal, if passed, would allow Pennsylvanians to purchase anything from a six pack to a case at their local distributor, grocery, or convenience store. Though the idea seems simple, straightforward, and rife with common sense, it is being met with opposition.
The resistance comes primarily from the Malt Beverage Distributors Association of Pennsylvania (MBDAPA), a lobbying group that represents over 450 of Pennsylvania’s 1,300-plus beer distributors. The association has demonstrated its efficacy, recently winning a suit against a Sheetz convenience store that sought to sell beer. The store, located in Altoona, had been granted an eating place malt license by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB), but the state Supreme Court revoked the license on the grounds that the store did not allow for on-site consumption, a necessity under the current law. The MBDAPA has a similar suit filed against Wegman’s, a grocery chain that holds licenses to sell beer at thirteen of its in-store cafes. Oral arguments in that case are set to begin in April.
The group fears losing its monopolistic hold on beer sales in the state to big grocery and convenience chains that, using their purchasing power, could undercut the distributors’ prices. It is joined in opposition by tavern and bar owners who would lose their almost unchecked ability to arbitrarily markup prices. These fears are not unwarranted, though they evoke little pity. Since the establishment of the state beer laws over seventy years ago, Pennsylvanians have been the victims of a lack of competition.
The current law has created two tiers of distribution, with the distributors selling by the case and “eating places” selling by the six pack or single beer. There has been little competition within the tiers and none between them. The relative security of distributors and taverns to price according to their wishes has meant higher prices for PA drinkers and larger profits for vendors. Senator Rafferty’s proposition would allow new players into the market and drive down prices. As a means to further increase competition (and, politically, to placate the MBDAPA), Senator Rafferty should allow an amendment that would give distributors the ability the hold more than one license. This would allow distributors, generally small, family run businesses, to expand to multiple locations, consequently increasing their purchasing power and giving them a better chance to compete with the larger chains.
The MBDAPA also contends that sales at the proposed locations would increase underage drinking throughout the state. This argument begs the question of whether the group has actually read the proposed legislation, for one of its key components is a 100% carding provision, a policy that would require vendors to check identification for all consumers, regardless of how old they may look. The strength of this provision is currently on display at the two Wegman’s locations I have visited, Harrisburg and Downingtown. Both locations have multiple, large and clearly visible signs espousing the policy, and both provide for anecdotes in its regard.
In the Downingtown store last month, I was carded as I bought a six pack. Then, on my way out, I spotted a 22 ounce bottle of a beer that I had wanted to try for some time (Stone brewery’s Ruination IPA, too hoppy even for my hop-preciative taste). I grabbed it from the shelf, and returned to the same cashier I had visited less than a minute earlier where I was carded again. When I gave him an inquisitive look he merely pointed to a sign above the register that read something along the lines of “You will be asked for identification EVERY time.” We shared a laugh. In Harrisburg too, the policy is enforced without exception. Buying a six pack there I was carded by a close friend who knew well my age. “The rules are the rules,” he said with a smirk. While these are only two instances of potentially millions, they serve to show the strength of a 100% carding provision.
In all, the MBDAPA’s arguments fall short of convincing. The legal protections for distributors and “eating places” must be torn down and new competition introduced for the benefit of the consumer. Not only will Senator Rafferty’s proposal lower prices, it will make purchasing beer more convenient. Travel time and distance to purchase beer will be lessened for most, as convenience stores are often closer to homes than distributors or “eating places.” Also, being able to purchase six packs at distributors will allow people to sample new beers, as they will no longer be burdened with the risk of purchasing a full case only to find they do not enjoy it. This added benefit will help small brewers like Victory whose beers, priced between $30 and $80 per case, are often too pricey for those who have not previously tried them. To allow for even further convenience and sampling options, the legislation should be amended to allow distributors, grocers, and convenience stores to sell single beers as well. Whether or not this suggestion is heeded, the passage of the current proposal would be a major victory for Pennsylvania beer drinkers.
Kevin Stepp is the Co-Activities Chairperson of IGC. He can be reached at KS634276@wcupa.edu