Old laws, raids leave Philly bar owners foaming

Mar 12 2010 - 3:15pm

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(MATT SLOCUM/The Associated Press) Bartender Sean McGuinness pauses Wednesday while working at the Resurrection Ale House in Philadelphia. An anonymous complaint that the Philadelphia bar was selling beer that has not been properly licensed with the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board led to raids on three upscale bars last week in which police confiscated three quarter-kegs and 317 bottles of beer that believed to have not been properly registered with the state.
(MATT SLOCUM/The Associated Press) Bartender Sean McGuinness pauses Wednesday while working at the Resurrection Ale House in Philadelphia. An anonymous complaint that the Philadelphia bar was selling beer that has not been properly licensed with the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board led to raids on three upscale bars last week in which police confiscated three quarter-kegs and 317 bottles of beer that believed to have not been properly registered with the state.

PHILADELPHIA -- A real brouhaha has beer lovers in the City of Brotherly love frothing over with anger.

State regulators say it's a simple matter of making sure bars and beer manufacturers aren't scamming the system. But bar owners say hard-to-spell beer names and typographical errors show how archaic Pennsylvania's Prohibition-era liquor laws really are.

It all came to a head after an anonymous complaint that a Philadelphia bar was selling beer that had not been properly licensed with the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, an agency created in 1933 to regulate the sale of alcohol.

That tip led to raids last week at three upscale bars, where police confiscated three quarter-kegs and 317 bottles of beer that were not believed to have been properly registered with the state. Raids at Memphis Taproom in Philadelphia's Kensington section, Local 44 in west Philadelphia and Resurrection Ale House downtown caught the couple who run them by surprise.

"I feel like there are a lot of typographical errors that caused this," said Leigh Maida, who received calls from staff around midday March 4. "The laws were really developed before there were so many kinds of beers."

Under Pennsylvania liquor law, manufacturers of malt or brewed beverages must pay a $75 annual fee to register each brand. About 2,800 beers are now registered in the state; manufacturers submit applications to the liquor board, showing the agreement they have with the wholesaler.

In the recent raids, a tipster contacted the state, said Sgt. William La Torre, commanding officer of the Philadelphia office of the Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement, which enforces the liquor laws. Statewide, police say there are typically fewer than 10 complaints a year about unregistered beer.

Maida and her husband, Brendan Hartranft, don't know who filed the complaint. They believe the problem largely results from archaic liquor laws and misunderstandings about formidable beer names that often get abbreviated.

The liquor code, they say, is no match for beers with names like Dogfish Head Raison d'etre and a dark ale called 't smisje BBBorgoundier. The rigid code also isn't able to account for when they abbreviate Allagash White Beer to "Allagash Wit" on their menus.

At one bar, Maida had a beer listed as "de dolle Oebier gran reserva;" the beer itself was "de dolle oerbier," but the police had it spelled as "de rolle oebier," she said.

Pennsylvania has some of the strictest liquor laws in the country, funneling the sale of wine and spirits through state-run liquor stores and regulating the sale of beer mostly through the state's approximately 1,100 licensed distributorships.

Distributors can only sell kegs and cases of beer; bars, restaurants and delis, which must apply for liquor licenses from the state Liquor Control Board, can sell six-packs. In recent years, a small number of grocery stores and markets also have gotten licenses to sell beer.

Maj. John Lutz, director of the Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement, said police are working with the board to try to figure out which of the recently seized beers are registered.

So far, 72 of the 317 bottles seized were being returned after police determined they were registered, Lutz said. No charges have been filed in the ongoing investigation.

"We're trying to sort out the whole labeling issue," Lutz said. "Anything that was just a spelling mistake, hopefully we've caught."

As part of their follow-up to last week's raids, police seized about 12 cases of beer from a distributor in northeastern Philadelphia, he said.

But with the growing number of breweries nationwide, enforcement of the state's liquor laws has become more challenging.

"When it comes to the registration of the beer, the burden is really on the manufacturer to register the beer," Lutz said. "With the number of microbreweries that have sprung up around the country, it has become very difficult."

Liquor code violations are heard by administrative law judges. The Liquor Control Board, for its part, said it's simply a matter of following the laws passed by the Legislature.

Nevertheless, the hubbub has many in the city's beer community crying foul.

Keith Wallace, owner of the Philly Beer School, which offers classes on beer, said the raids show how unrealistic the archaic system is.

The Liquor Control Board can too easily be used as a weapon by people who have a gripe with a bar or restaurant, he said.

"It's impossible not to be in violation of PLCB laws some way because they are so onerous," he said. "Nobody follows the law 100 percent."

 

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