Outdated laws, a changed beer scene

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THE BEER, it is a-changin’.

There’s no better evidence of that than the fiasco that erupted last week when a phalanx of State Police barged into three local bars known for their beer selection and found themselves mouthing the words on an incomprehensible variety of strange labels with unpronounceable names.

You can just imagine Officer Krupke trying to pronounce “Cantillon Cuvee Des Champions. “

The flat-foots from the Bureau of Liquor Enforcement were hamstrung by outdated laws that bear no relation to Philadelphia’s exploding beer scene.

The regulation that requires breweries to register the brand names of beers sold in Pennsylvania was written in 1987. That was the year Schmidt’s closed its doors and left the city – once the brewing capital of America – without a single brewery. Local beer shelves were stocked with the likes of Bud, Schlitz, Pabst, Rolling Rock and, if you were lucky, Heineken. There was no Yards Extra Special Ale, no Victory HopDevil, no boutique porters and stouts.

The cops were operating with a 1987 mindset (or perhaps it was 1927) when more than a dozen of them, carrying loaded weapons, conducted a simultaneous raid aimed at what is, at worst, a clerical error. I usually don’t ask this of police, but: Is this really the best use of all that manpower? Was the public somehow endangered by the sale of an unregistered German lager?

More than half of the $7,000 in beer that they confiscated was, in fact, completely legit – an outrageous act of pure ignorance. These guys had no clue about the very product that was the target of their enforcement.

Yes, some of the beer was not properly registered – and that’s the part of this episode that is most troubling.

First, it’s plainly unfair to blame bar owners for selling unregistered beer that they purchased legally at a distributor. Is every bar, restaurant, arena and hotel operator in Pennsylvania now required to match his inventory against the state’s (poorly organized) register of more than 2,800 brand names?

But more importantly, that 1987 law is out of step with the reality of Philadelphia’s beer scene, circa 2010.

Beer is far more varied than the generic BudMillerCoors of the 1980s. Back then there were fewer than 100 breweries operating in the United States; today there are more than 1,500, and they produce at least 10,000 different beers.

Today, beer is an affordable gourmet product, stocked in the finest restaurants and collected by connoisseurs. Philadelphia’s beer scene is so well known, it actually attracts tourists, just like the Liberty Bell and the Art Museum. It generates millions in tax dollars and employs thousands.

Does that mean expensive beer shouldn’t be regulated? Of course not. But it does mean that the laws should reflect that change.

An example:

Among the beers confiscated was a handful of bottles of Lunacy, brewed by Heavyweight Brewing, in South Jersey. These were old bottles that the cops found in the cellar of one of the bars. I know that they were old because Heavyweight went out of business four years ago.

Now, it’s not unusual these days for bars to cellar beers. Varieties with high alcohol will mature with the years.

When those bottles of Lunacy were purchased, the brand was legally registered. But today, because no one bothered to file paperwork on a defunct beer from an extinct brewery, the bottles are locked up in the State Police evidence room.

The state’s brand-registration law, then, puts every vintage bottle in every bar at risk. That 10-year-old corked bottle of Chimay resting comfortably in the humidity-controlled basement of your favorite tavern might, one day, be illegal in Pennsylvania.

I’ll finish my rant by pointing out one obvious fact: The same state law that requires beer to be registered for sale does not apply to wine.

So the wine cellar at Le Bec Fin is a treasure. But the beer cellar at Local 44 is a crime scene.



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