Beer-raid target makes case Phila. bar owner who had hard-to-spell brews confiscated by troopers testified at Capitol.

Posted: April 14, 2010

HARRISBURG — The recent raids on three Philadelphia bars illustrate that Pennsylvania has "this crazy web of really chaotic, really dense laws that just don't work," the bars' owner testified at a Capitol hearing Tuesday.

Leigh Maida, who with her husband owns Local 44, Resurrection Ale House, and the Memphis Taproom, said the raids last month by liquor enforcement officers on her establishments exposed a much-overdue need to revamp the state's liquor laws, many of which hark back to Prohibition.

"Something crappy happened to us," said Maida, referring to the raids, "but here is a chance to take the focus off our little instance and . . . look at the bigger picture."

Early last month, armed officers with the state police's Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement strode into each of the three bars and confiscated 300 bottles of beer - as well as three quarter-kegs - because they said the beers had not been registered.

Pennsylvania's liquor code requires all brands of beer to be registered with the state Liquor Control Board. That allows the state to collect taxes on the beer; it is also meant to protect against unsafe products being sold to consumers.

In the case of Maida's bars, however, some of the beers seized during the raids were actually registered, Maida testified Tuesday. But liquor enforcement agents couldn't cross-reference them with beers listed on the state registry, either because of typos or other quirks - such as abbreviations - in how the beer labels were registered.

The raids generated days of headlines and shone a spotlight, once again, on the question of whether the time has come to overhaul Pennsylvania's labyrinthine, and not always popular, rules for selling beer.

Consumers here can buy beer in cases (which contain four six-packs) from retail beer distributors. They can also buy up to two six-packs at a tavern, but usually at a considerable markup.

Tuesday's hearing was specific to the registration issue. But on Wednesday, the state Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in a case challenging efforts by Wegmans and other supermarkets to sell beer to go.

At Tuesday's hearing, Maida - and even some lawmakers - suggested that armed raids on the bars were a bit extreme, and that liquor enforcement agents could instead have called to discuss the matter.

Maida, whose bars sell a wide range of craft beers from small breweries, said she did not know some of her beer was unregistered until it was carted off.

"Why are we dispatching the state police for something that seems to me to be a tempest in a tea cup?" asked Rep. Michael O'Brien (D., Philadelphia).

Liquor enforcement agents who also testified Tuesday said they had investigated one of Maida's bars late last year for selling unregistered beer, and had issued a written warning at the time.

According to state officials, the responsibility to register beer brands generally falls on brewers, rather than bar owners or the so-called importing distributors. The latter, under Pennsylvania's three-tiered system, buy beer from the brewers and then distribute it to retailers, including bars.

At the hearing, nearly every legislator present agreed that the state should continue to require registration of beer brands, but should tweak the process.

One idea that was aired: place bar codes on beer labels. Another: require photos of the labels so that there is no confusion about what is registered and what is not.

"I don't think we want to do away with registration, but . . . we have to find a balance between safety, taxation, and registration," said Sen. John Pippy (R., Allegheny).

Lawmakers said they hope to propose changes in the next few months to address some of those problems.

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

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