Coming of age beneath the foamy clouds and hoppy, verdant landscape of the Great Pacific Northwest, Joe Hubris has always had a soft spot in his heart (and liver) for beer. He is also a proud liberal, and a believer of the positive role government can and should play in peoples' lives. That's what makes the news of last weeks beer raids in Philadelphia an even more sour brew to swallow. It is truly ironic that this great capitals of liberalism has laws that treat our blessing-in-a-bottle as if they were written by members of the Liberty University board of trustees.
Since 1987, Pennsylvania has required that the name of any beer sold within the commonwealth be registered with the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, annually, with a fee of $75 by either the brewer or importer. Last thursday, acting on what they called a "citizen complaint," the PLCB, sent a dozen state troopers on a simultaneous, coordinated raid of The Resurrection Ale House, Local 44, and Cumberland Street's own Memphis Taproom. Three bars, three different parts of the city, over $7,000 of high-end product seized.
The accused owners are Brendan Hartranft and Leigh Maida and they have been wildly successful since opening them in the last couple years despite the economy (if you look closely at the picture on the the Taproom's info page, a blurry Joe Hubris can be seen enjoying a pint). The Taproom may be the best place to throw one back in the entire city.
They're not accused of selling beer to teenagers, or allowing people to smoke weed in the bathroom, or not paying their taxes. They aren't even the ones required to register the beer. In fact, they maintain that about half the beers seized were registered. Some of the beer seized is brewed by the very popular Monks, in Center City. They also took a variety of Duvel products, despite the fact that they are available throughout the city, commonwealth and nation.
A few bottles they found on the premises were brewed 4 years ago and purchased when they were legally registered. The brewery subsequently went out of business and, needless to say, stopped paying the annual $75 fee. The beers then became unregistered and illegal to sell.
According to the director of the PLCE (the state police agency that acts as the enforcement arm of the PLCB), some of the beer was erroneously taken and will be returned. Despite the poor execution and subsequent outcry (see below), the agency staged another raid on a distributor today.
And then there's the "citizen complaint." It is difficult to imagine a man or woman walking in off the street, seeing Pliny the Younger on the menu, and thinking: "Owing to my ready familiarity with the Pennsylvania beer registration website, I know that Russian River hasn't registered that brew! Thank god I brought my cell phone, so I can call the authorities before anyone else is served one." As if it weren't easy enough to suspect someone had an ax to grind, there are recent comments posted on a local site that specifically mention the registry and threaten to report them.
It seems plausible that a personal grudge, and an agency challenged by last month's announced push for reform, came together to produce what a member of the legislative oversight committee described as "a ridiculous use of manpower." After fruitless phone calls and an extensive search of the Internet, it appears that there have been no such raids conducted recently until, suddenly, two in one week.
If the above thought that they had found common cause and would a) have the last laugh by bring down the 7%-by-volume empire of a pair of entrepreneurs, and b) show the public the value of state regulators and enforcement in the face of yuppie scofflaws, they were mistaken.
What they really had in common, was hubris.
In the final analysis, this is the best thing that ever happened to Brendan, Leigh, and all beer lovers in Philadelphia and probably the worst thing that ever happened to the PLCB and the forces of prohibition.
The bars have been splashed all over the local media and blogosphere. They were on the cover the Daily News. They have become a cause celeb. They should right off the $7,000 in beer as a marketing expense. So many Philadelphians who hate the restraints placed on their consumption are turning out to show solidarity. And don't forget: their violation is selling beer you're not supposed to be able to buy in PA. Come on by and try one! A call to the Taproom today confirmed that business has been way up since the story broke.
As for the PLCB, at best, they look like a ham-handed, out-of-touch, and poorly-run pocket of Harrisburg that has to rely on regulations without any clear value to the public to justify their continued consumption of state tax dollars. At worst, the raids were conducted at the behest of a political crony in yet another example of the continued presence of graft in the Commonwealth. According to the Daily News, the troopers found so much unregistered beer in the second raid, they couldn't remove it all. They left it and ordered the distributor not to sell it. Was this an effort to make the first raids look less out-of-the-ordinary? It looks like a panicky move made in the wake of a huge blunder. Time will tell where the truth lies.
But we already know enough to give the principles in Brewgate their well-earned Hubry.
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