12-packs, 18-packs hit Pennsylvania beer distributor shelves

Now at a beer distributor near you: 12-packs.

And coming later today: 18-packs.

And coming just as soon as the stockroom employee can find a pair of scissors: Full-cases broken down into smaller packages, which can then be resold individually.

The 12-packs and 18-packs are the first such packages to appear on beer distributor shelves since the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board’s Office of Chief Counsel issued a legal advisory March 6 saying the state’s distributors can sell packages of beer that contain at least 128 fluid ounces, so long as the packages were manufactured that way by the brewer.

In other words, 12-packs, 15-packs, 18-packs and 20-packs were suddenly legal at beer distributors, reinterpreting — and in effect, overturning — decades of state law that required distributors to sell full cases of beer or large individual units, such as half-kegs and quarter-kegs.

At the time, though, the PLCB said that the beer distributors could not disassemble a case and sell 12-packs individually, even if the “case” was no more than a cardboard tray holding two preexisting 12-packs.

But on Wednesday, the PLCB retreated on that point, too, saying that the cases could indeed be broken in half, and recognizing that the “cases” were actually two 12-packs manufactured as such, as evidenced by the fact that each of them had their own UPC symbol.

“Requiring distributors and importing distributors to return millions of cases of beer shipped prior to March 6, 2015, only to have the manufacturers specifically denote the same as 12-packs, then reship them, untouched, back to those same importing distributors and distributors, in order to lawfully sell that very same beer as 12-packs, would, in the Board's opinion, be a wasteful and pointless exercise,” the board’s chief counsel said in a Wednesday memo.

As a result, neither PLCB nor its enforcement “will prevent an importing distributor or distributor from splitting up existing ‘cases’ of beer, into its two component 12-packs,” or even other denominations, so long as the smaller denominations were packaged that way originally and add up to 128 ounces or more.

However, cases of 24 or 30 loose cans or bottles must still be sold as a full case, the board said.

Frank Pistella, owner of Pistella Beer Distributors in Friendship, said Wednesday that the first brewers to send 12-packs to the Western Pennsylvania market were Export’s Rivertowne Brewing, Shipyard Brewing Co. of Portland, Maine, and Coronado Brewing Co. of California.

“I think this weekend will be kind of the first weekend we see some movement” of the items, Mr. Pistella said. Though the 12-packs have been in stock for a few days, buyers didn’t know about them.

Mr. Pistella and Rivertowne were largely responsible for rewriting the state’s case-size regulations. They, along with Save-Mor Beer in Squirrel Hill, sought a legal opinion from the PLCB on the case-size issue and the result was the March 6 legal advisory. Pistella Beer and Save-Mor Beer also sued the PLCB in the state’s Commonwealth Court last year.

On Thursday, 18-packs of Miller Lite are expected to arrive on shelves. As of now, the only regional wholesaler to have 12-packs and 18-packs in stock, and available for resale at distributors, is Wilson-McGinley, based in Lawrenceville.

“It’s going to take a while for everything to roll through,” said Steve Klein, owner of Save-Mor.

Some brewers have already ordered packaging for months’ worth of Pennsylvania-sized cases and won’t want that cardboard to go to waste, he said.

As a result, some distributors may be stuck with “cases” for a long time and may not have 12-packs in stock.

A “case” of beer, according to a state law passed in 2006, is “a package prepared by the manufacturer for sale or distribution of 12 or more original containers totaling 264 or more fluid ounces of malt or brewed beverages, excepting those packages containing 24 or more original containers each holding seven fluid ounces or more.”

For years, distributors have been asking for the ability to sell smaller packages, because bars, supermarkets and gas station cafes can all sell up to 12 bottles of beer, if they have the proper licensing.

Bill Toland: btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625. First Published March 18, 2015 12:47 PM


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