In Harrisburg, Tough Talk on Beer Reform

As published on on April 13, 2010. Forgive me, I’m trying to figure out how to link to pages but it doesn’t seem to be working.

Bar Owners Brendan Hartranft and Leigh Maida

A hearing held Tuesday in Harrisburg on raids that took place at three Philadelphia craft-beer bars and an 80-year-old beer distributor last month evolved into a forum that could begin the process of radically changing the amount of time it takes to close dangerous nuisance bars in the state.

While distinguishing between the Memphis Taproom, Resurrection Ale House and Local 44 bars that were raided for inadvertently selling unregistered beers and so-called “nuisance bars” that are repeatedly cited for major code violations, legislators grew outraged that it can take up to a year to close a bar where “you can find bodies riddled with bullets in the bathroom” while the three indisputably reputable taverns that were the targets of the raids had initially had $7,000 worth of specialty beers seized on the spot.

“You have people on death row appealing their sentences and they don’t get to go free during that process,” said an incensed Rep. Larry Farnese (D-Phila.) after the joint hearing by the House Liquor Control and Senate Law & Justice committees. Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement Major John Lutz, whose division of the state police handles enforcement of Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board regulations, agreed to work with legislators to review and recommend changes to the laws that govern license suspensions at nuisance bars.

It was one of the only areas of agreement between Lutz and the legislators, who spent parts of the almost three-hour hearing chastising him for his use of 12 armed agents to rectify what they called a “clerical error” made by the bar owners, Leigh Maida and Brendan Hartranft, and Dominic Origlio, president of Origlio Beverage, whose company sold them the unregistered beers.

“You and your unit were wrong. You knew going in you didn’t need four armed agents in each bar,” Rep. Taylor said. “A teenager with a clipboard could have done this thing.”

Lutz defended his division’s actions, saying that Maida and Hartranft had been breaking the law by selling seven types of unregistered beers. His agents initially (and incorrectly) confiscated 16.

“So what?” yelled Rep. John Taylor (R-Phila). “So what? It seems to me that your agency might be looking for the low-hanging fruit. It’s clear there’s something wrong with the management system.”

Politicians went slightly easier on Joe Conti, CEO of the PLCB, opting to criticize the system rather than the man. Committee members asked Conti if he would consider upgrading the PLCB’s reporting system to limit confusion by ensuring that all stakeholders can access the same information. An online database of properly registered beers will be ready in a few months, Conti said. A complete overhaul of the website has been delayed by budget reductions but should be accessible in one to two years, he said.

When asked if the PLCB’s operations systems can currently manage upgrades like scanners that can identify codes off beer labels, Conti said: “Clearly, no. The system is not capable.” But he agreed to meet with committee members to discuss more immediate changes, like the inclusion of photos of beer-bottle labels along with the registrations.

Hartranft says this has been a productive but expensive and aggravating episode. He has not been allowed to retrieve some of his confiscated beers, and he’s still waiting to learn if he and his wife will face additional fines or penalties. He says that despite this, the “Philadelphia Beer Raids,” as they’ve come to be called, appear to be the catalyst for some needed reform.

“The really great thing is that Leigh and I have a reputation that defends itself, like a self-cleaning oven. I would hate to see someone who’s involved in the bar business who maybe didn’t have the history in the business that I have, who’s maybe thrown to the wolves,” he said after the hearing. “It’s good to address some of the systemic faults so that something like this can never happen again.”

The joint committee will host an open forum with PLCB board members Wednesday to address general areas of concern.