Prohibition-Lite

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Three Philly bars were raided last week for the non-crime of selling beers that were not properly registered with the state. There was nothing unsafe about the beers. No patrons were harmed. The state either didn’t receive it’s mandatory bribe (aka, the registration fee), or had filed the bribe under a variation of the beer’s name, and so couldn’t be bothered to honor the bribe.

This is a senseless blow to an industry that took half a century to recover from Prohibition. The reputation of American beer, embodied by Budweiser, Coors, and their kin, is a consequence of that "experiment." That reputation finally started to grow, no doubt slowed by the myriad post-Prohibition regulations that were put on the books, such as registration of each and every beer sold in Pennsylvania. And it grew because entrepreneurs have relentlessly tried to deliver better-tasting beer as brewers, bar owners, and retailers.

Brewing and beer bars around the country

Philadelphia has become a Mecca of sorts for lovers of beer, especially the Flemish variety. As much of my family lives in Philly, I have firsthand experience with the delightful selection of bars and beers. In fact, our wedding rehearsal dinner was held at a popular Belgian beer bar and restaurant in Old City, while after a cousin’s downtown wedding, we all gathered at another spot only blocks away. Although I’ve never frequented the bars that were raided, judging by what was confiscated, it sounds like they specialize in Belgians. "Monk’s Cafe Sour Flemish Red Ale" refers to one of the original Belgian beer bars in Philly — Monk’s Café. Not my favorite spot, but their food and beer is impeccable, and they were around at the beginning of the current craft brew phenomenon. "Duvel Belgian Golden Ale" needs no introduction to anyone who is even passively aware of Belgian beer.

Finally, "Pliny the Younger" is mentioned as a confiscated brew. This is made by one of the most talented craft brewers in the world — Vinnie Cilurzo, owner/brewer of Russian River Brewing. Since it’s located about an hour north of San Francisco in Santa Rosa, CA, my husband and I tried to visit this spot whenever we could. As the Daily News article states, Russian River is a "a small mom and pop brewery" and this mom and pop simply failed to file the absurd paperwork required to sell their beer 3000 miles away. Indeed, my husband had a celebrity-sighting moment (as only an enthusiastic homebrewer could) when he saw the Vinnie Cilurzo milling about the Russian River bar, doing what a small businessman must do — running the day-to-day operations.

But Russian River is not all that unusual. California, especially northern California, is a beer paradise, overshadowed by the outstanding wine that is popular in the Russian River, Napa, and Sonoma valleys. Nearly all of these places are small operations. Last I heard, one of our favorites was literally just a two-man show (husband and wife). The brewer makes the beer and personally delivers kegs to Bay Area bars, while his wife balances the books. Amazingly, this beer is on tap with regularity at numerous San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland bars.

The Philly bars that were raided, all owned by the same couple, include one named "Resurrection." The police sergeant responsible for this crime states that the owners "had been warned last year when it served an unregistered beer from Maryland — Resurrection Ale, made by Brewer’s Art, in Baltimore." It had been a bar-warming gift from Brewer’s Art.

Imagine a city with a depressed economy (well, that’s not too hard these days), supported largely by a single employer — world famous for its provision of higher-education and medical services, over-run with crime and poverty, but with a small number of other businesses that have helped revitalize a few neighborhoods. The Brewer’s Art is a brewery-bar-restaurant in one of these rescued neighborhoods, and attracts local professionals for happy hour and professors for dinners with out-of-town guests. The beer is fantastic — done in the Belgian style — and can be found at many local bars scattered around the city as well. There are only a handful of other craft breweries in the area, but Brewer’s Art has achieved the improbable — success at providing a luxury good in a depressed area.

In comes the state (or rather, it never left when the 18th Amendment let it in)

California is fairly liberal with its alcohol laws, as states go, and it shows. It is home to some of the best craft brewers in the world, the Sierra Nevada success (and still producing good beers), brewpubs and specialty beer bars that suit every taste, and a great community for the aficionado. But, even a state like Pennsylvania, has some leniency in a place that really counts: homebrewing. (Yes — there are lots of local laws regarding whether you can boil some barley and how much.) In my estimation, the ability for a homebrewer to more-or-less brew when and where he wants is correlated with the quality of beer available in the state.

Presumably, this is a bottom-up, self-renewing cycle: An amateur home-brewer gets really good and starts a small craft brewery. People taste his beer and get interested in learning about it, making it, and tasting more. Thus, the supply of craft brewers and demand for craft brew increases. And craft brewers, and their followers, will pay a pretty penny to taste an exotic brew — locally made or from a distant land.

Regulations and their conspirators, loopholes, as always, have interesting effects. Pennsylvania has some of the most convoluted beer laws, and, as someone who lived in the state for most of my life (including those all-important college years), it’s hard to figure out what the alleged benefits to society are. But, a consequence of PA’s "you can only buy beer in small quantities off-sale at bars, restaurants, and delis" is an absolutely phenomenal selection of bottled beer in almost every bar. It’s a rip-off, which is why the selection is phenomenal — there is apparently much profit to be had. Consider the regular case of a Saturday night gathering and beer supplies are running low. You can’t go to a liquor store (they are state-run, most likely closed, and don’t sell beer). The beer distributors (warehouses where you can get cases and kegs only) are closed. But there’s a bar down the street. They’ll sell you the legal limit of 3 six-packs for the price of a case-and-a-half. If you’re ever in need of a rare beer, visit a Pennsylvania bar and ask to see their bottle list.

Most of Maryland operates under a 3-tier distribution system. Consequently, most bars in the state are served by 2 distribution companies. It seemed odd to me at first that Yeungling — a particular Pennsylvania brew that used to have very limited distribution and could not be found outside the Keystone state and its suburb, South Jersey — was on tap in every bar in Baltimore. Also, Allagash (Maine) and, more recently, Leinenkugel (Wisconsin) are ubiquitous. But, when the same distributor services all of the bars, then every bar will have identical line-ups on tap. From a practical, non-libertarian point of view, this is both good and bad for the beer aficionado; the selection includes a number of tasty, if safe, brews, but you will rarely get a chance to try something new or different: the small-time brewery has a hard time convincing the main distributors to pick up a new line. This has gotten more press locally in recent years because it has the same crushing effect on start-up and expanding wineries.

Another Maryland regulation limits the number of locations that microbreweries can operate, which effectively limits the growth of brew-pubs like Brewer’s Art. At first glance, this may seem like a win for the little guy — keeping out the likes of Rock Bottom and Gordon Biersch. But, just like in any industry, craft brewing thrives through the popularization of the product. The big chains get the masses interested in a wider beer palate. Beer aficionados don’t stick to one brew — we pride ourselves on having sampled as many different products as possible and seeking out the rare seasonals. So if a fraction of the customers of Rock Bottom start getting interested in craft brews, the market for craft brews increases, allowing growth in the industry. Not surprisingly, Maryland’s selection of brewpubs is anemic.

What a waste.

That is what is so tragic about these Philly raids. The anonymous tipster did more harm than they realized. If this tipster is part of the beer industry, they have indirectly hurt their own business. These three bars were a functioning part of the market — assisting in the popularization of Belgian beer and American craft beers, which can only serve to increase the demand for these products. The product that was confiscated is now purely wasted capital. The bullies with the guns — the state legislature, state employees union (who keep the state-stores status quo), and the police — ought to get out of the way and let this industry thrive as long as consumers demand it. And the anonymous tipster ought to be ashamed of himself.

Kathryn Muratore [send her mail] is an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at American University. She holds a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cell Biology from UC Berkeley.

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