YOU KNOW all those lawyer jokes? Forget ’em.
Starting today, Pennsylvania beer drinkers can buy a 12-pack at a beer distributor, thanks to a loophole in state liquor code discovered by a sharp-eyed lawyer.
Elsewhere in America – in New Jersey, for example – purchasing a 12-pack is no big deal.
But since the end of Prohibition, Pennsylvania, distributors have been forbidden to sell anything less than a case of 24 12-ounce bottles or a “single container” (namely, a keg) holding 128 ounces. For more than 80 years, lawyers and regulators had read that language to mean that anything less than a case had to be purchased, typically at a high markup, in a bar or deli.
It’s a seemingly arbitrary rule that has frustrated beer drinkers for generations and made the Quaker State a laughingstock in the beer industry.
Enter Pittsburgh lawyer Charles Caputo, who specializes in liquor law and represents the state’s beer-distributor lobby. He told me he read, and reread the law and wondered:
Why must that “single container” be a keg? Why can’t it be a cardboard box, one that contains 12 bottles?
At first, the reasoning seems a stretch. But Caputo pointed to previous LCB rulings that allowed distributors to sell as few as three magnum bottles as long as they were shrink-wrapped together by the brewery and contained at least 128 ounces.
Caputo reasoned: What’s the difference between shrink-wrapping three large bottles and encasing 24 smaller bottles in cardboard?
“This question was never presented to the [liquor control] board in this particular way,” Caputo said. “We believed that, as long as the package came from the manufacturer and it contained at least 128 ounces, it should be legal. “
Last year, Caputo filed a request for a so-called advisory opinion from the board on behalf of Rivertowne Brewing of Monroeville, Pa. The LCB sat on the request until Caputo last December asked Commonwealth Court to force the board to issue an opinion.
Without warning yesterday, the LCB caved and said it agreed with Caputo’s interpretation.
The only stipulation: The 12-pack must be sold “as is,” with no modifications in the original packaging by retailers. In other words, distributors cannot simply split a 24-bottle case into two 12-packs, a provision that will delay 12-pack sales at least a few days.
In a statement released yesterday, the LCB attempted to downplay its stunning ruling, saying, “Practically, this advisory opinion clarifies existing law . . . “
As Harrisburg has battled over liquor-law reform and the breakup of the state-store system, the biggest changes in Pennsylvania’s arcane booze laws have come through the LCB’s issuance of advisory opinions.
In recent years, the alcohol bureaucracy has issued new interpretations of longstanding rules to authorize temporary “pop-up” beer gardens and the sale of beer at grocery stores.
The Brewers of Pennsylvania, a trade association, blasted the ruling and said it would pave the way for the sale of 18-packs, a case size it said was favored by “foreign-owned mega-brewers” who use them as a loss leader, putting small brewers at a disadvantage.
“We strongly believe that the PLCB have exceeded their legal authority,” the organization said in a statement.
Others were more supportive.
Pittsburgh distributor Frank Pistella, a vice president of the Pennsylvania Malt Beverage Distributors Association, told the Associated Press, it’s “the biggest thing to happen to beer since 1933. “