Beer Raid backfires on liquor agents

Posted: March 11, 2010

Over lunch the other day they were telling tales of The Great Beer Raid at Resurrection Ale House, the tidy, good-eating, "neighborhood beer bistro" at 24th and Gray's Ferry.

Most excitement the place had seen since it opened last year. The grist of urban legend. And on the eve of Philly Beer Weekend, no less, the mini-beer fest starting tomorrow, previewing the city's big-daddy Beer Week in June.

"They came in with axes!" a Resurrection staffer offered wide-eyed, trying for a rise out of a guy having a burger.

Well, not quite. The squad of liquor enforcement officers (they're a plainclothes unit of State Police, but not troopers) didn't carry axes.

But they packed regulation heat. And for a moment last Thursday afternoon, it was unclear what was going down. They asked the bartender to step away from the bar. Then they stepped in.

Four of them; same as the number of patrons (whom the owner bought a free round as the raid unfolded).

After four hours, the enforcers carted out nearly 200 bottles of beer.

At Resurrection's sister pubs the scene was the same. At Memphis Taproom, the craft-beer shrine in Port Richmond, out came one-sixth of a keg and more than 100 bottles; at Local 44, the West Philly gastropub, three small kegs.

The impetus? Acting on a complaint, the officers were checking out, yes, the beer's registration papers.

Their main job is to crack down on drug and nuisance bars, and some teen drinking.

But registration papers?

If you've never heard of a beer registration, you've got company: People who work for the state's Liquor Control Board say they'd never heard of such a bust themselves.

But there is such a thing, right there in Section 445 of the byzantine state liquor code. Brewers and importers must register every new variety with the Liquor Control Board, and pay a $75 fee.

Harrisburg enforcement officials say the reason is to protect consumers. How else to know whether the beer is from Victory (legit) or a backyard home-brewer (not)?

The list, as the craft beer revolution has flowered, now runs to 45 pages. (Flowered and borne fruit: As big brands lagged last year, independent U.S. brewers saw a robust 10 percent jump in sales.)

Leigh Maida and Brendan Hartranft, who own all three bars, argue that since they bought the beer in question from licensed wholesalers and paid taxes, they assumed it was, so to speak, kosher.

Some of it, even by the bureau's own double-checking, was. Monk's Cafe Flemish Sour Ale, for instance, was registered neat and clean. (The red-faced bureau returned it to the bars Tuesday.)

Some of the other stuff was still being checked out. But bureau director John Lutz was clearly feeling the heat.

Any legal burden would fall more heavily on the distributor or importers than the bar, he said. The raid wasn't knee-jerk, he said - agents had checked out the validity of the complaint on previous visits.

But the tide was running in Resurrection's favor. The enforcers were being called on the carpet. A key lawmaker called the raid "ridiculous."

By midweek, Sgt. William La Torre, whose state police team conducted the raids, was feeling like the victim: "It's not like we went in there with militia gear, or Uzis," he said.

For the black eye that The Great Beer Raid gave to the liquor enforcement apparatus, they might as well have.


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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