New Castle News

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April 1, 2013

Mitchel Olszak: I like beer, so I’m watching our state closely

NEW CASTLE — I like beer.

More to the point, I like good beer.

In my younger days, just about any swill would do. But with the passage of time, sophistication and exposure to the possibilities, my interests in beer have sharpened and matured.

As a result, I don’t drink as much beer as I used to. But what I do drink, I consider quality. I appreciate the hoppiness of an imperial pale ale and the deep flavor of a dunkel.

Fortunately, I arrived at this point in my life when the nation was undergoing a microbrewing revolution of sorts. While major suppliers, such as Budweiser and Miller, continue to dominate the market, there are lots of alternatives around — if you’re prepared to look and pay a bit more.

It’s one of the benefits of a free market, where supply strives to meet demand.

Because my interests lie in the realm of malted beverages, rather than those that are distilled or involve the destruction of grape juice, my personal concerns over the fate of Pennsylvania’s state store system are limited.

While I philosophically oppose the idea of government being in the business of buying and selling consumer products, it’s frankly no skin off my nose. I have other priorities.

That said, I have, in my beer-drinking career, encountered some bizarre rules and restrictions imposed by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. Many of them seem to involve the politics of carving up the beer market for different business interests. Regardless, they represent the victory of bureaucracy over consumer demand.

With all of this in mind, I look at the efforts by Gov. Tom Corbett and others in Harrisburg to do away with the state store system and replace it with private wine and liquor businesses. It’s a controversial move in a commonwealth where political change tends to occur at a snail’s pace.

Some say it will be a boon for consumers, offering more choice and competition. Others say it will ultimately restrict choice, if the end result is a marketplace controlled by a few major retailers.

But my question is: What does all of this have to do with beer?

Quite a bit, perhaps. Beer distributors and others almost certainly will be impacted by changes in the law. More grocery stores and other retail markets will likely gain the ability to sell beer.

From a free market standpoint, that makes sense. But in its own strange way, will this backfire on consumers such as me?

In Pennsylvania, small beer manufacturers hold a greater share of the market than in the nation as a whole. Will box stores ignore microbreweries for the volume profits provided by the big boys? Will the end result of any liquor reform in Pennsylvania promote choice or stifle it?

It’s why a lot of us will be watching the Legislature closely.

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