A six-pack of controversy to go

Posted: March 03, 2008

HARRISBURG - The Trogner brothers built their dream over a decade, one beer recipe at a time.

It was a gamble, but today their microbrewery teems with towering stainless-steel vessels that churn and hum five days a week to create a select line of craft beers.

"We're not on the world-domination path," said John Trogner, 36, who with his brother, Chris, launched the Harrisburg-area Troegs Brewing Co. in 1997. But they do want to thrive.

Now the Trogners, like many in Pennsylvania's community of 67 beer brewers, believe they could get slammed by what is termed a "beer reform" measure winding through the legislature.

It is intended to give Pennsylvania beer lovers more choice, including the ability finally to buy a six-pack conveniently.

But the proposal has sent waves of anxiety through state beer brewers - many of them family owned microbreweries - who fear it will give an edge to out-of-state brewing giants and cut into their much smaller profits.

In-state brewers, including the Trogners, don't mind the expanded access to six-packs.

The problem for many is the proposal to allow the sale of 12- to 18-packs of beer: Smaller breweries don't have the packaging equipment to produce those sizes. It would give larger breweries an even larger price advantage.

"Who's this bill going to help? It's certainly not going to be the little guy," said Joseph Piccirilli, consultant to the Iron City Brewing Co. near Pittsburgh, one the state's larger brewers.

The beer biggies, like Anheuser-Busch and Miller Brewing Co., are pushing hard for the right to market those bigger packages in Pennsylvania. They've hired lobbyists; last year Anheuser-Busch spent about $200,000 and Miller spent $100,000, according to lobbyist disclosure forms.

Neither company responded to interview requests.

As it stands now, at distributorships, consumers can buy beer only by the case: 24 bottles, or four six-packs.

At bars or taverns, they can buy up to two six-packs at a time, often at marked-up prices.

Under the measure pushed by Sens. John C. Rafferty Jr. (R., Montgomery) and Sean Logan (D., Allegheny), beer distributors would be able to sell six-packs, 12-packs, 18-packs and any other configuration up to a case.

Restaurants and taverns - and convenience stores and supermarkets with liquor licenses - would be able to sell as many as three six-packs at a time, or any other configuration up to 18 beers.

"To me, this is all about the consumer," Rafferty said. "It's about giving people options."

Rafferty and Logan's beer-reform proposal has been floated in the Senate in the past. But the two plan to tuck it into an existing House bill over the next few weeks.

The two senators contend the measure would help in-state brewers by creating more outlets for six-pack sales. Customers now may be reluctant to try a case of their beer because if they don't like the taste, they are stuck with unwanted bottles.

In addition, the bill could earmark several million dollars in economic-development grants to help in-state breweries buy packing equipment for the new configurations.

Still, many Pennsylvania brewers aren't buying it.

The grants, distributed among the brewers, wouldn't be nearly enough to offset the price of new machinery, they say. That cost, depending on the size of the brewery, could exceed $1 million.

"There's not one microbrewer in this state that can make an 18-pack, not one," said Piccirilli, the Iron City consultant, who supports expanded access to six-packs, even 12-packs, but nothing beyond that.

Tom Kehoe, president of Yards Brewing Co. in Philadelphia, agreed that the larger-size beer packs would put a strain on in-state brewers. But he does not believe it will drown the state's craft-beer businesses.

Microbrews, Kehoe said, appeal to a different kind of beer drinker, who usually won't buy from "the big guys."

Patrick Jones, the brewer at Triumph Brewing in Philadelphia, put it this way: "Once you've tasted microbrewed beer, it's hard to go back to the other stuff."

As head of the statewide union for microbrewers, Artie Tafoya, owner of Appalachian Brewing Co. in Harrisburg, knows that many of his brewers are against the bill.

But he says he wants to do "what's best for beer."

"I'm a beer guy through and through, but I don't want anybody to feel like they're going to lose their business," he said.

Tafoya is optimistic a compromise can be reached.

"I still think there's a lot we can do to make the beer rules a lot better - for all of us," he said.

A fair chance is all that the Trogner brothers ask for.

"This is not a get-rich-quick scheme for us," John Trogner said.

"We love beer . . . and we want to continue making a living off what we love," he said.


Contact staff writer Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934 or acouloumbis@phillynews.com.

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