State aims for 20th century

Pennsylvania leaped boldly into the mid-20th century this week when Gov. Tom Wolf signed a law that, 60 days hence, will allow retail beer distributors to sell six-packs rather than cases alone. Or, perhaps it was the 17th century or so, since the same new law provides for seasonal farm markets to sell mead, the ancient drink of fermented honey.

But, given Pennsylvania’s archaic and convoluted laws covering alcoholic beverage sales, any progress is welcome. And allowing retail distributors to sell six-packs rather than cases alone actually might benefit consumers.

Because of the explosion of craft brewing, this truly is a golden age for beer. Yet Pennsylvanians who wish to sample the infinite variety would have to do so by the expensive case if shopping at a retail distributor. Most do that sampling at supermarkets or convenience stores, some of which have been allowed to sell beer for the last several years under another bizarre set of legal restrictions. But, for that “convenience” as defined in Pennsylvania, consumers often pay markups well beyond those of the case prices charged by retail distributors.

Allowing those distributors to sell beer in smaller quantities will create some badly needed competition and, potentially, some downward pressure on retail prices at markets as those outlets strive to keep their market shares.

That almost is how the market should work. But beer sales remain tangled in complicated restrictions in the law that flow from legislators appeasing special interests over the years.

To better serve consumers, the state should drop those restrictions, such as the nonsensical requirement that a market can sell beer to go only if it has a facility in which people can dine.

And then, of course, there is the 1930s-style state government monopoly over wholesale and retail wine and liquor sales. The state has authorized some wine sales at supermarkets, but that will not break the monopoly because every participating market will have to use the same wholesaler — the state government.

But lawmakers are talking about a private, 21st-century system. If that progresses at the same rate as the beer-sale improvements, expect something around the time that the first humans set foot on Mars.

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