…still not known. About two months ago, a few days after the initial raids conducted by Pennsylvania law enforcement officers on a small number of beer bars due to concerns over unregistered brands, I quickly put together a public records request designed to answer many of the questions raised by people both in and outside of the beer business regarding the whole affair. I frequently write FOIA and other information requests in my legal practice, so this didn’t require much additional effort. In its entirety, the request read as follows:
March 16, 2010
Open Records Law Officer
Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement
3655 Vartan Way
Harrisburg, PA 17110
Dear Sir or Madam,
This is a request pursuant to the Pennsylvania Open Records Law. I am writing to request a copy of the complaint(s) or report(s) that lead to the investigation of the sale of unregistered beer brands that the Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Liquor Code Enforcement undertook on March 4, 2010, at the Memphis Taproom, 2331 East Cumberland Street, Philadelphia, PA 19125, the Resurrection Ale House, 2425 Grays Ferry Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19146, and Local 44, 4333 Spruce Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104. I would like to receive copies of the above requested records, do not request to inspect the records, and do not request certified copies of the records.
I have also enclosed a copy of the Open Records Law request Form. Please do not hesitate to contact me with any questions.
As the initial one week deadline for the government’s response drew near, I received a standard response saying that the department required an additional period of time in which to respond. The second deadline occurred while I was away on a recent trip to Cambodia, Vietnam, and Germany, so I didn’t have the opportunity to post the government’s response until now. So here for your review, as an example of how government works, is the response I received from the Pennsylvania State Police regarding my inquiry.
I’ve somewhat distantly followed the developing story/drama out of Pennsylvania following police visits/raids (everything has two distinct sides here) to a small number of beer bars in the Philadelphia area. Others are pretty worked up about the situation, which revolved around a report that the bars were selling beers that were not registered with the state, and for some understandable reasons. First, the caveats: I can certainly appreciate the argument that requiring breweries to register their brands with the state liquor board is not a particularly meaningful regulation, but I can also appreciate the role such registration lists play with respect to both taking in taxes and keeping track of products with an eye towards consumer safety. It’s not a particularly unusual practice and breweries certainly have to deal with odder state regulations. I can also understand the concern that these regulations discourage brewer creativity and increase the regulatory burden on them to have their products registered.
But with these points said, most of the accounts I’ve read tend to hit hysterical hyper-speed all while quickly glossing over the underlying facts, few of which appear to be in dispute. The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) and the police apparently received a report(s) about bars selling beers that were not registered with the state. At least one of these bar owners acknowledged having run afoul of the law by procuring a keg from outside the state and driving it back to their bar and putting it on tap. Now this bar owner, and all others who frequently rotate their products, likely knows that a few of the brands they sell, especially specialty one-off releases, have not been properly registered with the state and that they are therefore violating the law in selling them. Someone, somewhere along the way, could very easily have noticed that a beer such as Pliny the Younger does not appear on the state’s list. Be it the distributor or the bar owner, rules are rules, stupid or not. And these bar owners know how heavily the beverage alcohol business is regulated and they well know the rules in Pennsylvania and they’ve cleared flouted them on occasion.
Now there is certainly another argument that the theatrical nature of the raids, from the undoubtedly one-sided reports we’ve been hearing, was over the top and that governmental (and certainly police) priorities could likely be better placed elsewhere. And there is without question room for criticism where the police confiscated beers whose names are somehow slightly altered from that found on the state’s lists and are actually lawfully registered. The parties, including distributors and breweries, should quickly work with the PLCB and the police to make these determinations, separate the violators from the properly registered, and return the stock
As usual, I don’t mean to be intentionally contrarian here. Instead, I’m just considering the full picture here. This situation will hopefully lead to a fuller discussion about the purposes of particular laws and state agencies and their relevance and responsibilities in a new age of craft beer (and spirits…and wine).