Thursday, 11 April 2013

Glad Notes: License to Swill

There's something controversial brewing here in the state of Pennsylvania. And I'm just not talking about my husband's homebrew. I'm talking about new laws that could change how all Pennsylvanians buy and drink alcohol.

The Pennsylvania state House of Representatives recently passed a bill that would privatize the sale of alcohol within the state. The bill currently sits in the PA Senate.

That's right, alcohol in PA is state-controlled. The PA State even produces its own brand of wine, sold in its state owned stores.

In December of 1933, just in time for Christmas, the USA ended its short flirtation with the prohibition of alcohol. But although it's been legal to manufacture, sell and buy alcohol in the USA since then, the long hangover from the prohibition era has resulted in a mind-achingly confusing system of regulating and selling alcohol.

Regulation varies widely from state to state. For example, in Washington DC you can experience the convenience of buying beer and wine from grocery stores, but you won't find liquor in those supermarket aisles. In the neighboring state of Delaware there's no sales tax and the state borders are lined with liquor stores, where state-hopping consumers can look for a duty-free deal. But booze consumers in Delaware won't find any alcohol for sale in grocery stores, and they can't buy booze anywhere on designated holidays.

In the Southern state of Georgia you won't find beer stronger than 14% ABV, but its western neighbor Alabama prohibits beer stronger than 13.9% ABV, and you won't find any beer at all in over a third of Alabama's counties because they are dry, except when they're not dry, because some dry counties have wet cities that do sell booze and that's known as moist.

Confused yet? Sit down, have another drink!

This is Spodee, a drink local to PA. It's chocolate flavored red wine. And this is why America is great.
I got all of that from this one Wikipedia page and I could go on. But let's just focus on Pennsylvania for now.

In Pennsylvania, like its neighbor Delaware, you won't find any alcohol for sale in grocery stores. Except that you will in some branches, such as Wegmans, which has specific licenses to sell beer in some of their stores. Otherwise you can buy beer in a bar or restaurant, or from a distributor, but not in a liquor store.

The liquor stores are all state owned. They sell hard liquor and wine… and nothing else. If you want tonic to go with your state store bought gin, you need to go to the local grocery store or supermarket.

Some places are allowed to sell wine, such as tasting rooms. There's a farm shop and cafe near to us that sells their own locally produced wine. But (as far as I understand, and it's complicated, so bare with me) the wine must be sent to a separate distributor before the farm store can sell it, and it must be sold in a designated tasting room that is a separate entity to the farm shop - they had to build fake walls and can only sell wine from a separate register.

This contrasts hugely to my experiences in the UK, where supermarket sales reduced alcohol prices drastically. When the recession hit both bars and liquor stores suffered due to the buying and selling power supermarkets have. The UK has discussed legislating minimum alcohol prices to curb these problems. I don't think the UK Government is going to start producing its own Westminster branded booze any time soon (although Prince Charles' car does run on wine).

No such problems here in PA. And although that could change soon, there's no guarantee. The bill is actually very controversial, bringing with it fears of job losses, an increase in drink driving violations and other concerns. I, for one, would be concerned if it led to a race to the bottom for drinks prices in stores: The prices for most items in PA's Wine and Spirits stores are already incredibly low compared to the UK.

If you're interested in reading more, The Economist recently covered the PA state liquor privatization issue too.

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