Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard about the Philly beer raids that occurred last week. Blogs and forums have been a-buzz about this, and the general feeling about the situation seems to be outrage, which, as a Pennsylvania resident, I can definitely sympathize.
You can check out this quick video about what’s going on.
To summarize, 15 armed State Police officers conducted simultaneous raids on Resurrection Ale House, Local 44, and Memphis Taproom, the three Philadelphia beer bars owned by Leigh Maida and Brendan Hartranft. Now, why the heck would they do that?
Well, the PLCB requires that brewers (or their importers) pay a $75 fee to register the names of all beers sold in state of Pennsylvania. An anonymous citizen filed a complaint against the owners of the three bars, stating that they were selling unregistered beers, even though said beers had been legally purchased from licensed PA distributors.
And so, three teams simultaneously descended upon the three locations to check their inventories against the official registry, a list containing nearly 3,000 brands. The police officers confiscated four kegs and 317 bottles, which is right around 2 bbl of beer, valued at $7,200.
Shortly after the bar raids, the BLCE raided Origlio Beverage, the distributor that the bars had purchased from. They searched the warehouse specifically for the brands that had been confiscated from the three bars, seizing what they could, and demanding that Origlio stop sales of what they couldn’t fit in their vehicle.
Okay, so, this sounds fairly justified, right? The bars and distributor were selling unregistered beer, which is against the law, and therefore, the beer was confiscated. But as it turns out, more than half of the confiscated beer actually did appear on the registry, the cops simply couldn’t find them on the list. Whaaa?
Apparently, some of the names on the list did not exactly match the name on the product. For example, “Duvel Belgian Golden Ale” is listed as “Duvel Beer” on the registry. And the cops couldn’t figure this out. Huh.
Leigh Maida, one of the owners of the three bars, was quoted as saying, “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.” Amen.
So where is all this confiscated beer, and what’s going to happen to it? State Police Sergeant William N. La Torre, commanding officer of the BLCE, said that the beer would be kept in a “secured location” as evidence until the case is resolved, which could take several months. If it is determined that the beer is indeed unregistered, it will be destroyed. That’s thousands of dollars down the drain for the bar owners. Ouch.
There are several things that are disturbing about this situation.
Firstly, why the heck is there a registration process in the first place? Francesca Chapman, a spokesperson for the PLCB, said that the requirement helps assure that beer taxes are being paid, and helps prosecutors to identify alcoholic beverages in DUI cases. Right. Pretty sure the owners would have to have paid taxes on the beer since they legally purchased it through a PA distributor. And as far as identifying alcoholic beverages… Ever heard of the internet?
Equally disturbing is the fact that the bar owners and distributors are the ones getting in trouble for this, since all of this beer was apparently legally purchased, taxes paid and all. Does the PLCB seriously expect every single bar and distributor in PA to constantly check their inventory against an always-updating list of nearly 3,000 brands? Seems like a pointless exercise to me.
Furthermore, why single out these three bars, when the same beers are being sold in bars across the state? And how about the fact that during the three-bar raid, some of what was confiscated at one location was left alone at another?
And honestly, was it really necessary to have a team of 15 armed officers conduct a simultaneous raid? Is that really a good use of our tax dollars? State Representative John Taylor called it a “ridiculous use of manpower.” He said, “I don’t know why they would use that many people to track down an issue like this that could have been handled with a routine inspection.” Yyyyep.
And how does this whole registration process affect our PA beer bar’s cellars? If a bar purchases a registered beer, then puts it away to age, what happens if the brewer doesn’t bother to maintain the beer on the registry? The police can just barge in and take away a bar’s collection of vintage beers. Apparently, as long as the beer was registered at the time of purchase, you can’t get in trouble for this, but that won’t stop the BLCE from confiscating the bottles in the first place. To get these beers back would mean more paperwork, and who knows how the bottles are being stored in the meantime, and for how long.
This law is just obsolete; in no way does it reflect the current craft beer scene. There is more to beer than the big macros; there are thousands upon thousands of beers made and sold in the US. It’s ridiculous to expect brewers to register every single beer they want to sell in PA, and it’s ridiculous to expect bar owners to check their inventories against such an enormous list.
As Lew Bryson pointed out on Wednesday, there may be some action as a result of these raids. This whole situation has got lawmakers in Harrisburg thinking that maybe, just maybe, the state’s liquor code needs updating. Representative Robert Donatucci, chairman of the House Liquor Control Committee, plans to hold hearings on whether or not PA beer regulations are antiquated. Let’s hope something good comes of this.
The thing that’s really sad about the whole situation is the fact that some anonymous person purposefully singled out the owners of these three bars, presumably based on some sort of grudge. Yes, this is an assumption, but it seems likely considering that there are any number of bars they could have ratted out, but they specifically chose the three owned by Leigh Maida and Brendan Hartranft. That is just bad form, and something that I’ve come to think would never happen in the craft beer industry. Really big shame.
Now that I’ve said my piece, what do all you readers think? Whether or not you’re a PA resident, I’d love to hear if this story has struck a chord with you. My opinion is pretty clear here… I think this stinks. But I’m hopeful that some change may come about as a result. Thoughts?
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