At least six states are taking aim at the country’s byzantine patchwork of state laws governing the sale of alcohol.
As any out-of-towner knows who has attempted to buy wine in a New York City convenience store only to unwittingly purchase the awful “wine product” Chateau Diana, laws governing the sale of alcohol can seem bafflingly arbitrary. In New York, where wine and beer cannot be sold on the same premises, it doesn’t look like Trader Joe’s will be tearing down the wall between its wine shop and grocery store any time soon.
Elsewhere in the nation though, from Maine to Florida, restrictions on alcohol are being challenged in state legislatures this year, driven in part by the burgeoning popularity of the craft-beer movement.
In Florida, Republican state senators have proposed measures this legislative session that aim to ease up on some of the rules currently hampering the state’s small-batch brewers. One bill would legalize the sale of 64-ounce growlers — containers filled straight from the tap, sealed and sold to customers — as is allowed in 47 other states. Florida at the moment permits the sale of 32-ounce bottles, but that’s not the industry standard. Another bill would allow licensed beer retailers to offer free tastings, as is legal for stores selling liquor and wine. The large beer distributors in the state are unhappy to see their market dominance challenged and will put up a fight.
A proposed law that was voted down last week in New Hampshire would have done away with the current requirement that all stores that sell beer also stock at least $3,000 worth of food. “If the bill were to pass, it could open the door for boutique-type beer stores that could cater to our smaller, yet growing, beer industry across the state,” Republican state representative Pamela Tucker said, before the bill was killed on a 163 to 142 vote.
Democratic representative Ed Butler insisted that the law was worth keeping because “the sale of food at stores with beer and wine hopefully encourages consumers to enjoy one with the other.” As the New Hampshire Union Leader editorialized, the assumption seems to be “that people who buy beer in bottles and cans have no food at home with which to enjoy their alcoholic beverages.”
Pennsylvania, which maintains a state monopoly on the sale of wine and liquor, is infamous for the hoops it makes retailers and consumers jump through. It’s not possible to purchase wine and beer in the same location, and the only way to pick up a six-pack as opposed to an entire case of beer (the only thing typically on offer at the strictly controlled beer distributors), is to swing by a restaurant or deli, which take advantage of “eating place malt licenses” to sell beer to go. Grocery stores in Pennsylvania have taken to attaching sit-down restaurants to their buildings so that they can do the same.
Legislative attempts to move toward privatization, as recently as last summer, have been unsuccessful in large part because the state-run stores are staffed by unionized employees who benefit from the status quo. Nevertheless, Republican governor Tom Corbett called last month in his state-of-the-state address for another go, and some legislators are prepared to take up the challenge.