Every 12-pack comes wrapped in controversy

YIPPEE! Pennsylvania beer drinkers can finally buy 12-packs at distributors, thanks to a ruling last week from our pals at the Liquor Control Board.

Well, yes . . . but before you start celebrating, there are good reasons to be worried.

Unelected bureaucrats are rewriting the rules.

The LCB calls its 12-pack opinion an “interpretation” of the existing law. But that’s just lawyerspeak for “we finally found a way to make this happen. “

For the past 80 years, Pennsylvania has been living under a fairly iron set of bizarre rules. Like, you can’t dance in a bar unless it has a special permit. Archaic, yes – but these rules were nonetheless written by elected officials who are answerable to the public.

The pols have been dragging their feet on reform, no doubt. But that can never justify unelected bureaucrats big-footing the process.

Sure, 12-packs and pop-up beer gardens and home deliveries – all the result of recent LCB “advisory opinions” – are nice things. But those who giveth can also chargeth you 15 bucks for a crappy bottle of table wine that costs $8.99 in Jersey.

Ask yourself: Do you really want the same ethics-challenged price-gougers who run the state’s $2 billion-a-year wine-and-spirits monopoly making rules for private beer retailers?

This screws your local bar.

You know all those spots where you can pick up your favorite beer to go? Places like Bottle Bar East, the Foodery, Local 44 Bottle Shop, the South Philly Acme, even your corner bar, where they stash six-packs to-go in a cooler next to the cash register – all of them operate with a standard R (for restaurant) license from the LCB.

And all of them must collect Philadelphia’s infamous 10 percent liquor-by-the-drink tax on every bottle, sixpack and, yes, 12-pack that they sell.

You know who doesn’t have to collect that tax? Beer distributors. Their suddenly legal 12-packs are 10 percent cheaper.

So, the LCB’s decision effectively devalues R licenses by providing an unfair competitive edge to distributors that won’t go away unless the city applies the tax to them, too.

A spokesman for Mayor Nutter’s office told me there are no plans to do that.

It could hurt small brewers.

Pennsylvania brewers have been urging the state to approve 12-pack sales for years. But this ruling also allows distributors to sell 18-packs, which the Brewers of Pennsylvania trade association describes as “predatory, loss-leader packages” favored by “foreign-owned mega-brewers. “

That’s because 18-packs of BudMillerCoors are typically priced less than 12-packs of craft beer. When it comes to parting with money, many consumers – especially younger ones – will trade quality for quantity.

I doubt many craft-beer drinkers are going to give up their IPAs for cheap stuff. However, the new rule could threaten the likes of Pennsylvania’s old-line breweries – Yuengling, Straub and Iron City – who don’t have the packaging equipment to produce 18-packs.

Distributors aren’t worried.

One Pittsburgh-area distributor called the 12-pack ruling “the biggest thing to happen to beer since 1933. ” It’s easy to see why: With craft beer pushing cases above the $40 level, the ability to sell a 12-pack helps distributors compete with more than 200 grocery stores with R licenses now selling beer statewide.

Well, maybe a little bit.

Grocery stores can sell anything they like, from six-packs to sushi. The list of products that beer distributors can sell, meanwhile, is limited to about 50 oddly specific items. For example, they can sell frozen pizza but not hot, freshly baked pizza.

(They can, however, legally offer you a selection of tasty pickled pigs’ feet. )

Still, sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for.

Some distributors I’ve spoken with wonder – with their shelves already overburdened with thousands of craft and import brands – where they’ll find the space to stock all those 12-packs.


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