Pennsylvania Beer Distributors Granted Right to Sell Six Packs, Single Beers

Austin Ray

THE GIST
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said Thursday he intends to sign a bill enabling "distributors" (which are actually retailers in PA) to sell 6-packs of beer, and indeed, on down to a single can of beer, updating a regulatory system that dates all the way back to Prohibition. Under current law, Pennsylvania distributors are only legally permitted to sell 12-packs, cases, and kegs. Such reform has been pushed for years by both consumers and various industry stakeholders, but has been constantly opposed, including by some wholesalers ostensibly helped by the change, on broader economic grounds. 
 
WHY IT MATTERS
Usually when liquor laws are granted a facelift, it’s pretty easy to determine on which side of any given issue each house of the three-tier system—brewers, distributors, and retailers—will fall. Not so in Pennsylvania! That’s because the rules mandating who can sell certain quantities of beer in the state are a bit…unusual.    
 
Retailers in Pennsylvania sell in a bulk format only, more akin to traditional wholesalers, which is why they're referred to as "distributors." It's confusing, I know. For smaller-volume packages (6-packs, growlers, and single bottles), consumers head to breweries, local bottle shops, taverns with takeout, and, as of this past spring, gas stations. 
 
As such, it’s unsurprising that there's aspects of the state tiers that might be a little salty with Gov. Wolf’s enthusiasm for the updated law. Last week, the Philadelphia Licensed Beverage Association, a trade group promoting the state’s taverns, urged its members to call their local lawmakers to oppose the bill with the following diktat: “We oppose allowing distributors to sell down to a single bottle of beer to go as it will de-value our licenses by removing a privilege from our license capabilities we paid for and give it freely to the wholesale tier created to sell wholesale packages.” This agitation aligns pretty neatly with the typical anger that boils whenever one tier is granted a privilege accepted as unique to another.  
 
Somewhat more surprising, at least at a glance, is the fact that some wholesalers also oppose the bill, considering that, in the simplest of terms, it allows them to do more. “I don’t like it,” John Shin, the manager of County Beverage told the Delaware County Daily Times earlier this week. “We only sell cases. I don’t like to sell six-packs.” Added Don Cianciulli at Shamrock Beverage, “We’re a wholesaler… I don’t think it’s a good idea.” 
 
It was only in 2015, though, that one wholesaler was leading the charge to free up the lane allowing the sale of smaller-volume packages at distribution houses. Pistella Beer—as part of a team effort with Rivertowne Brewing and Save-Mor Beer & Pop Warehouse—sued the state, winning a clarification of existing law that said distributors could sell 12-packs (prior to that clarification, distributors could only sell beer by the case or keg). “I really see it being better for Pennsylvania craft brewers that people can now sample their $40 case for $19.99,” Frank Pistella, general manager at Pistella Beer said at the time.
 
But even on that issue, the tiers were split. Rivertowne, named as a plaintiff in the suit, wanted to give 12-packs of its beer to distributors. The Brewers of Pennsylvania, however, which counts Rivertowne among its members, came out in opposition of the clarification, at the time calling it “a blow to the craft brewing industry.” It wasn’t the 12-packs they feared, but rather the types of “predatory packs” (namely, 18-packs) made mostly by behemoth out-of-state conglomerates that concerned them.
 
Given the lack of consensus on this issue, then, the question of which tier this bill really hurts and helps is a tricky one. But this particular bill is broader than just the 6-pack issue. Per PennLive, it also “allows for the shipment of beer from manufacturers to consumers of up to 192 ounces of beer per month” and “permits a brewery licensee to offer beer for sale produced by another brewery for on-premise consumption,” though limits the amount. 
 
While the bill will please some and displease others, it’s difficult to see it as anything other than a net positive from the perspective of a consumer. Pennsylvania beer drinkers can now find beer in more formats at more places. It’s just that some of those places—breweries and retailers—might be selling less beer than they used to.

—Dave Eisenberg
 
READ MORE
Pennsylvania is about to liberate the six-pack for distributors [Pittsburgh Post Gazette]
Six-packs sold at beer distributors in Pa.? Seriously, it could happen [PennLive]
Beer distributors talk about selling six-packs, growlers [Delaware County Daily Times]
Six-packs headed to gas stations and Gov. Tom Wolf is delighted [PennLive]
Pennsylvania 12-Pack Ruling Stirs Controversy [Brewbound]