Pennsylvania lawmakers seek to loosen state's beer laws
By Steve Esack

Pennsylvania's Prohibition-era alcohol laws seem to be breaking down, but in hesitant steps.

On Wednesday, Lehigh Valley shoppers can buy wine from a grocery store, rather than a government-owned and operated "state" store. That's now possible because of a four-month-old-law allowing wine to be sold in privately owned businesses.

Beer drinkers soon could get more shopping freedom, too, if the House acts Wednesday. The Senate already has passed a bill that would allow beer distributors to sell six-packs and growlers, and consumers to have up to 16 12-ounces of beer shipped directly to their homes each month. It was unclear Tuesday if the House will act on it.

"[Such a law would] give our customers exactly what they've been asking for, to come into our store and buy the beer they want the way they want it," said Mark Tanczos, owner of Tanczos Beverage in Hanover Township, Northampton County. "That's what business is all about being able to serve our customers' needs."

This alcohol-fueled flow of legislation is being driven by a concerted effort among lawmakers and Gov. Tom Wolf to move the state away from 1933 alcohol regulations while also hoping to fill the state's tapped-out coffers this year.

"There's been this push on both of these fronts for many years to free our alcohol laws," said Nate Benefield, vice president of policy at the Commonwealth Foundation, an anti-tax, pro-business Harrisburg think tank. "People are capitalizing off that and off the revenue of that to help the state budget."

The wine law, Act 39, allows grocery stores, hotels and restaurants to sell bottles of wine, along with beer already on shelves, to consumers. It is estimated that the law will generate an additional $149 million in revenue for the state, although projections are running short thus far.

On Wednesday, consumers for the first time can purchase wine at Wegmans at 3900 Tilghman St. in Allentown. The company has plans to offer wine at all its 17 Pennsylvania locations.

As Wegmans and other stores add wine, there's less shelf space for the beer they have offered since a 2010 state Supreme Court decision. The court decision and Act 39 have eaten into profits of locally owned beer distributors and craft brewers. On Monday evening, the Senate unanimously approved a bill aimed at the state's beer industry.

The bill would allow distributors to sell whole and mixed six-packs, growlers and any other configuration of suds to consumers. It would let taverns sell alcohol at 9 a.m. on Sundays without the need to have food prepared and ready to serve. It would allow consumers to have up to 192 ounces of beer shipped directly from the manufacturer to their homes.

In a nod to spirits drinkers, it also would let consumers buy mixed drinks at the state's sporting venues that already sell beer.

There is no reason why a beer distributor should be allowed to sell cases and 12-packs but not six-packs, said Sen. Chuck McIlhinney, R-Bucks, chairman of the Senate Law & Justice Committee, which oversees liquor regulations.

The bill, should it pass and Wolf sign it, also would allow beer distributors to better compete with supermarkets, said J.J. Bromwell, manager of Link Beverage in Coopersburg.

Before supermarkets got the right to sell beer, distributors used to be the primary place to sell craft brews to consumers, he said. But not everybody wanted to buy an entire case. Now customers will be able to buy the quantity they want.

Bromwell said his distributorship used to get 50 cases of beers made by Pizza Boy Brewery Co. But now, he said, he only gets one case, and supermarkets get the rest. The bill, Bromwell said, would allow his store to get more cases of craft beers benefitting both small breweries and consumers.

"Breweries like Pizza Boy want more exposure for their beer and they know people are not committed to 12 or 24 of them," Bromwell said. "They want four beers."

They will only get them if the House Rules Committee and full chamber votes on the Senate bill Wednesday. If the House fails to act, the beer bill dies.

steve.esack@mcall.com

Twitter @sesack

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