By Bob Warner and Don Russell
IT WAS ELIOT NESS and the Untouchables, as played by the Keystone Kops.
More than a dozen armed State Police officers conducted simultaneous raids last week on three popular Philadelphia bars known for their wide beer selections. The cops confiscated hundreds of bottles of expensive ales and lagers, now in State Police custody at an undisclosed location.
The alleged offense: Although the bar owners had bought the beer legally from licensed Pennsylvania distributors and had paid all the necessary taxes, the police claimed that nobody had registered the precise names of the beers with the state Liquor Control Board – a process that requires the brewers or their importers to pay a $75 registration fee for each product they want to sell in Pennsylvania.
Based on a complaint from someone the State Police refuse to identify, three teams of officers converged last Thursday on the three bars, run by Leigh Maida and her husband, Brendan Hartranft. Checking their inventories against the state’s official list of more than 2,800 brands, the cops seized four kegs and 317 bottles, totaling 60.9 gallons of beer, according to police calculations.
In fact, according to Maida, more than half the beer removed by the State Police was properly registered – but the cops couldn’t find it on their lists because of “clerical errors” or “blatant ineptitude” between the police and the Liquor Control Board, with whom the officers were conferring by telephone.
She estimated the total value of the confiscated stock at $7,200, representing about 20 brands, some of which go by multiple names.
For instance, the cops grabbed Monk’s Cafe Sour Flemish Red Ale.
The beer has been sold throughout the state at dozens of restaurants and distributors for the last seven years. The brand appears on the state’s online list as “Monk’s Café Ale. ” It’s on tap seven days a week at the Center City bar after which it was named: Monk’s Cafe, at 16th and Spruce streets.
But that wasn’t enough to keep the State Police from confiscating 20 bottles and three kegs of the supposedly illegal ale at the three bars run by Maida and Hartranft – Resurrection Ale House, at 2425 Grays Ferry Ave.; Local 44, at 44th and Spruce streets, in West Philadelphia; and Memphis Taproom, 2331 E. Cumberland St., Port Richmond.
Maida said that the State Police also confiscated bottles of Duvel, a popular ale imported from Belgium that is widely advertised and available in at least 200 bars throughout the city and suburbs. The beer appears on the PLCB list as “Duvel Beer,” while its label reads “Duvel Belgian Golden Ale. “
“No actual investigating was done,” Maida said in an e-mail to the Daily News. “The police sent a shoddily typed list to the PLCB, some drone fed it into the machine verbatim and returned what came back, without . . . even trying to offer us the benefit of the doubt by double-checking on some of the so-called unregistered beers. “
While acknowledging that it appears that some of the confiscated brands had not been properly registered, Maida said that about half appeared on the state’s registration list in some form.
“My main beef with this whole convoluted situation is that the PLCB is the sole regulator of a set of products that they do not even know the names of,” she said.
State Police Sgt. William N. La Torre, commanding officer of the Philadelphia office of the Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement, said that he was not aware of any beers that had been mistakenly confiscated.
La Torre said that the beer would be kept in a secured location, as evidence, until the case is resolved, probably in six to eight months. If an administrative-law judge finds that the bars possessed unregistered brands, the State Police typically would seek a forfeiture order to destroy the beer, he said. Depending on the temperature of the storage location, some of the beer will likely turn sour in that period.
Maida said that the couple’s attorney had told them that they have until 6 p.m. tonight to compile evidence to prove that the confiscated beer is properly registered.
“The onus is on us to prove our innocence,” she said.
She added: “It’s McCarthy-like. They swarm in here and confiscate this product because they don’t know what the product is. “
La Torre noted that Resurrection had been warned last year when it served an unregistered beer from Maryland – Resurrection Ale, made by Brewer’s Art, in Baltimore. Maida acknowledged that violation – the beer had been a gift in honor of their new business, she said, but the resulting citation made the couple extra-careful about compliance with the Liquor Board’s rules, she said.
La Torre said that the investigation was sparked by “a citizen complaint. “
“It doesn’t matter where the complaint is coming from,” he said. “If there is merit to the complaint, we have to follow through with it. . . . We received a complaint regarding the licensee bringing in unregistered beers and we confirmed with the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board that certain brands were not registered. “
Francesca Chapman, a PLCB spokeswoman, said that the registration requirement helps the state assure payment of state beer taxes and helps prosecutors identify alcoholic beverages in drunk-driving cases or any other type of prosecution.
Industry sources complain that brand registration is typical of the onerous regulations that make selling beer in Pennsylvania difficult. For example, while it is the responsibility of the brewer or importer to submit the necessary paperwork and registration fee, it is the tavern or restaurant licensee who may be liable for selling unregistered brands, they said.
Registration is further complicated by the growth of under-the-radar one-offs: unique, limited-production, highly sought-after draft beers that appear briefly – perhaps as quickly as an hour – on tavern taps. While they pay the necessary state and federal taxes, breweries sometimes do not bother to register the brands because they are produced in extremely small amounts.
Among the brands that the State Police reportedly sought during its raid was Pliny the Younger, recently named the No. 1 beer in the world by Beer Advocate, a popular online beer-rating site. The ale is made once a year by Russian River Brewing, in California.
Last month, about a dozen small kegs of the beer arrived in Philadelphia amid much hoopla. Several taverns, including the three operated by Maida and Hartranft, advertised specials for as much as $25 a glass.
In most cases, the kegs kicked in less than an hour.
Although it had been registered for sale in the past, Pliny the Younger currently does not appear on the state’s list of registered brands.
In an e-mail to the Daily News, Russian River owner Vinnie Cilurzo wrote: “It was a simple mistake on our part that we forgot to register some brands with the state of PA. We are a small mom and pop brewery and every once in a while something slips through the cracks.”
But apparently not just small breweries have failed to register brands. Heineken-owned Hacker-Pschorr, one of the largest breweries in Munich, does not appear on Pennsylvania’s registration list, though it is widely sold throughout the state.