THIS WEEKEND greets the biggest improvement in Pennsylvania booze history since they started accepting credit cards at beer distributors. For the first time in at least 84 years, state residents will be able to legally buy wine and spirits on Sunday.
Finally, you can wake up on the morning after a Saturday night kegger, head down to the liquor store and buy a decent headache remedy.
Of course, that’s not exactly what the legislature had in mind when it grudgingly OK’d Sunday sales for the first time since before Prohibition began in 1919.
This is a state, after all, where the liquor law is intended primarily “for the protection of the public welfare, health, peace and morals of the people of the Commonwealth.” There are large parts of the state, with considerable pull in Harrisburg, where they really mean it when they call it Demon Rum.
So, we won’t dwell on the notion that Sunday hours will allow hard-core types to party till Monday.
Instead, as the Liquor Control Board spins it, the new hours are the state’s first, big step into the new millennium.
“It’s part of the modern reality of 2003,” said board Chairman Jonathan Newman. “I know, Sunday has always been perceived as a day for families, for God, for religion. But today, Sunday is the second biggest shopping day of the week.”
The board will thus join Wal-Mart, McDonald’s and just about every other retail business in America by opening its doors on Sunday. The Blue Laws are dead, thank heaven.
More importantly, this is a sign of a more rational public attitude toward alcohol in Pennsylvania. No, the new rules don’t directly improve life for the state’s beer lovers. But alcohol is such a hot-button issue, when pols loosen the reins, it can’t help but give you hope.
Six-packs in grocery stores? Internet beer sales?
Well, not yet.
But remember when you had to buy your Cutty from an unsmiling clerk behind a sterile counter? A visit to a state Wine & Spirits store was as dehumanizing as getting your picture taken at the DMV.
Today’s liquor shops are far more pleasant.
You can get advice from the salesmen; they even have corkscrews for sale. This week, for the first time ever, a shop in Exton hosted an in-store wine tasting. Yes, the stores are still haunted by a perplexedly limited selection of specialties, but you don’t have to worry about running into Carrie Nation with an ax handle.
With Sunday sales, booze is no longer patently evil, as the liquor act maintains. It’s closer to becoming just another consumer product intended for responsible adult consumption.
As for beer, though takeout six-packs are available at delis and bars, you still can’t buy a case at your local distributor on Sunday. Admittedly, this may be a problem only for Eagles tailgaters who underestimate their capacity to polish off quarter-barrel kegs.
Newman said, “I think it’s a positive idea. But I haven’t heard any groundswell in support of it, yet.”
Sunday sales will be permitted initially at a sprinkling of 63 stores across the state. Just seven of them are in the city.
According to Newman, the stores were selected based on their sales and proximity to shopping centers that operate on Sunday. That means most of them are in the ‘burbs.
“We didn’t go into rural communities which would have had objections,” Newman said.
Nor did the LCB go into the inner city.
That’s partly because weekly sales at neighborhood stores are low.
But Newman added: “I’m constantly shocked every time we try to upgrade the stores in West and North Philly, the religious and political leaders oppose us.
“I just think it’s wrong to say that folks in certain sections of the city don’t have a right to access sales on Sunday. There are tons of people in West and North Philadelphia who have a right to shop for a bottle of wine on Sunday.”
That doesn’t mean you can’t find a sip of something warm on Sunday. As anyone in the neighborhood can tell you, when the State Store’s closed, there’s always your friendly speakeasy.
A pair of Khyber Pass refugees have opened the Abbaye (Third and Fairmount, Northern Liberties), a Belgian-style neighborhood restaurant that was formerly Pallete.
It’s owned by Meghan Wright, the former, longtime manager of Bridgid’s in the Fairmount section, and Marc Sonstein, who owned Griffin Cafe in Old City.
The two, who met while tending bar at the Khyber, are pouring plenty of Flemish foam.
I drained a glass of Resurrection, an abbey-style dubbel from Baltimore’s Brewer’s Art brewpub…A few blocks south, Eulogy Belgian Tavern (136 Chestnut St., Old City) is finally open. It offers 100 bottles and 15 taps…Barleywines, the super-hopped, high-alcohol ales of winter, are starting to show up on area shelves. The best-known of the bunch is Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Ale, but look also for Stone Brewing Old Guardian from California, Brouwerij ‘t IJ Struis (Netherlands), Victory Old Horizontal (Downingtown) and Dogfish Head Old School (Delaware), which brewer Sam Calagione says tastes like “a beer mixed with port mixed with a shovel upside the head”…The Jersey shore will see some new suds this summer at the Tropicana Casino, where its new Firewaters club will pour 50 beers on tap. Let’s hope it’s not 50 varieties of Budcoorsmiller…Farther up the coast, Heavyweight Brewing in Ocean Township, N.J., says it is doubling its capacity by expanding with new fermenters and storage tanks…
Tonight: Sly Fox Brewing (Pikeland Village Square, Phoenixville) breaks out its highly anticipated Ichor. Named after the Greek term for “blood of the gods, ” Ichor is the first Sly Fox brew to be bottled. At 10 percent alcohol, this Belgian-style tripel can be cellared for a year or more.
Next month: This year’s Book and the Cook Festival’s annual tutored suds sipping with beer author Michael Jackson will focus on homebrews. I’m fermenting a 5-gallon batch of Joe Sixpack Imperial Stout, which will be sampled during one of the sessions on March 22. Tix and info: 215-898-3900.
Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a bottle of Flying Fish Grand Cru Winter Reserve.