Beer: The fight over where you buy it in Pennsylvania
HARRISBURG — Beer-buying Pennsylvanians are seeing a growing number of options where they can pick up a six-pack or two, though Pennsylvania still remains home to some of the nation’s most restrictive beer sales laws.
This week, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board licensed nine more convenience stores that sell gas to carry takeout six-packs, despite a pending state Supreme Court case that could theoretically invalidate those licenses. In the meantime, it was another step toward loosening the control over takeout beer sales that, for decades, has been largely the province of bars and larger-quantity beer distributors.
The evolving options for buying beer in Pennsylvania — primarily at convenience stores and supermarkets — aren’t the result of more liberal beer laws; it’s quite the opposite.
The Pennsylvania Legislature remains gridlocked on the issue, with lawmakers whipsawed by the clashing interests of bars, restaurants, distributors, wholesalers, in-state craft brewers, multinational brewers, supermarkets, convenience stores and others. Often, the fate of proposals to change beer laws has been tied to the thorny issue of state control over wine and liquor sales in Pennsylvania.
As you drink a cold one over the Memorial Day weekend, here is a look at some of the fresh changes in how and where beer is sold and what could be on the horizon.
Last year, Pennsylvania’s beer distributors suddenly received the go-ahead from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board to sell beer by the 12-pack. For years, lawmakers had debated the right to allow beer distributors to sell in such a quantity, but the provision routinely stalled amid opposition.
One beer distributorship owner called the move “the biggest thing to happen to beer” since Prohibition ended in 1933. The PLCB’s legal opinion was spurred by a routine inquiry months before from a couple of distributors, who to that point had been limited to selling by the case or keg.
CONVENIENCE STORES AND SUPERMARKETS
Some big changes have emerged in courts after a fight by owners of supermarkets and convenience stores with the cash to hire lawyers. In general, the PLCB has been on the side of supermarkets and convenience stores. The businesses have increasingly sought licenses, in combination with a couple of important changes in commerce.
Convenience stores and supermarkets are growing in size and increasingly adding a prepared food business along with the space to stock beer and meet the state’s requirements — 400 square feet, meal service, restaurant-style seating for 30 people and separate points of entry — to sell it.
Sensing an existential threat, distributors have begun mounting court challenges and, thus far, they have lost important decisions.
In 2010, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court allowed beer sales at in-store restaurants run by the Wegmans supermarket chain. All 17 Wegmans supermarkets in Pennsylvania now sell beer.
In 2014, a Commonwealth Court ruling permitted the sale of beer on the same property as gasoline, as long as the points of sale are separate. That’s despite wording in the state liquor law that bans alcohol sales licenses in locations, places and properties where gasoline is sold.
The state Supreme Court is considering an appeal by beer distributors in a similar case involving a Sheetz convenience store, though a ruling may not happen before 2017.
In the meantime, the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association estimates that an additional 50 or so convenience stores or supermarkets are seeking approval to start selling beer.
The organization says close to 400 supermarkets and convenience stores have licenses to sell beer. That includes a couple dozen that also sell gasoline, said David L. McCorkle, the organization’s president and CEO.
PAYING TOO MUCH FOR BEER?
Public data on beer prices in Pennsylvania are either completely unavailable or extremely hard to come by, said Eric Shepard, the vice president and executive editor of Beer Marketer’s Insights in Suffern, New York.
That’s because individual bars and distributorships sell most of the beer in Pennsylvania, instead of chain stores that report data to data collection agencies, he said. Thus it is hard to compare beer prices in Pennsylvania to other states.
In any case, the existing system apparently has been good for the smaller brewers: The market share of all craft brews, including Yuengling, is 29.6 percent in Pennsylvania in 2015, according to Beer Marketer’s Insights.
That’s up about 10 percent since 2012, reflecting the growing popularity of craft beers, Shepard said. The national market share of craft brews is 17 percent, according to the publication’s figures.