Pennsylvania shoppers have more choices for buying beer
The side entrance to a newly redesigned Giant Eagle Market District in The Waterworks mall leads shoppers into a cafe with four-top tables and beer on tap.
But it’s the refrigerators chilling top-of-the-line microbrews that brought Monica Colantoni-Minturn to this side of the store, where she selected six individual bottles of beer to go for $12.99.
“This is nice because you can mix and match,” said Colantoni-Minturn, 35, of Aspinwall. She left the store with five bags of groceries, a bouquet of sunflowers and a custom six-pack of IPAs. “It makes it so much easier.”
As lawmakers debate changes to Pennsylvania alcohol laws, beer consumers have a growing number of options for buying six-packs.
Neighboring states such as New York allow consumers to purchase beer at gas stations, and Ohio sells wine in grocery stores. West Virginia allows wine and beer sales in grocery and convenience stores, and controls liquor distribution through licensed private retailers.
Pennsylvania and Utah are the only states with state-run wholesale wine and spirits business. Consumers here can buy wine and spirits at one of 600 state-owned stores. Beer traditionally has been sold by the case by distributors or by six-pack at restaurants and taverns, but on Friday, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board issued a legal advisory that permits distributors for the first time to sell 12-packs of beer.
Beer sales have been increasingly creeping into grocery stores.
The LCB reports at least 240 grocery stores and convenience stores hold restaurant or eating-place licenses, allowing them to sell up to two six-packs. About half the licenses are held by chains such as Giant Eagle, Weis Markets, Giant, Wegmans, Acme Markets and Whole Foods.
The number isn’t all-encompassing, LCB officials say, but interest is rising. Last year, 45 stores joined the list, compared to 30 in 2013 and 32 in 2012. Nine have been added in 2015.
To the Malt Beverage Distributors Association, which represents distributors, grocery store beer sales are a new breed of competition.
“We’d like to compete better against them,” said president Tom Mehaffie. “They have things we don’t have, and it’s hundreds of thousands of other items that they sell.”
The group long has pushed for the ability to sell six-packs. The provision is included in a privatization bill the House passed last week, which would sell off the state stores. The plan first would offer private licenses for wine and spirits sales to beer distributors.
Mehaffie doesn’t see that as an advantage when grocery stores that acquire proper licenses could offer wine, spirits and beer in addition to their usual products.
“We do not stand a chance for survival, and it also devalues your license,” Mehaffie said. “We want to be able to work with the system we have today and do better for our consumers.”
Rep. Chris Ross, R-Chester County, chairman of the House Liquor Control Committee, said changes to beer laws that are part of the privatization debate are intended to establish one-stop shopping.
“The main thrust of this is to achieve greater convenience, particularly in wine and spirits,” Ross said.
Privatization could be a hard sell in the Senate, where Republican leaders have not embraced the idea.
Sen. Jim Brewster, D-Mc-Keesport, has introduced a proposal to “modernize” the system by expanding hours and putting more state-owned stores inside grocery stores.
Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed budget includes similar plans to increase the system’s profits and use the proceeds to pay off public school pension debts.
R.J. O’Hara, partner at Downtown law firm Flaherty and O’Hara, which specializes in liquor law and licensing, said consumer demand is driving grocery stores into the beer business.
“It’s part of other phenomena, this sort of buy-local phenomena and craft beer phenomena,” O’Hara said. “People want to experiment. They don’t want to buy a case of something they haven’t had before.”
The LCB rarely issues restaurant or eating establishment liquor licenses. Numbers are fixed based on county populations. Interested buyers must purchase licenses from another establishment, perhaps one that’s going out of business. They must customize stores to meet seating, food service and building code regulations. Prices vary by region.
LCB figures show there are more than 9,500 active restaurant and eating establishment licensees statewide.
Giant Eagle started offering beer in 2009, securing a restaurant license for its Market District store in Robinson. Spokesman Dick Roberts said “the variety and convenience associated with our in-store offering has helped it gain popularity among customers.”
Seasonal specials, refillable glass growlers and custom six-pack cartons fill the store’s displays at The Waterworks. Familiar domestics such as Coors Light and Budweiser sit stacked in the back of the aisles.
Shopper Aaron Kasten, 38, of New Kensington said buying a case of craft beer is more cost-effective but some brands can be hard to find.
“Some places might only have one or two cases,” Kasten said. “You’re on a search across the county or Western Pennsylvania.”
Melissa Daniels is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8511.