PA House Liquor Control Committee Co-Chairs Paul Costa (far left) and Adam Harris (center right) toast with Victory Brewing co-founder Bill Covaleski (far right)

When he goes out for a beer, Pa. Rep. Adam Harris always makes sure to pull out his phone and check into Untappd.

This is good news for proponents of Pennsylvania liquor law reform.

No, using an app that tracks his drinking habits isn’t directly related to Harris’ relatively new position as chair of the House Liquor Control Committee. But it is representative of how much the 41-year-old legislator (R-82) loves good beer, which is something he has in common with his committee co-chair, Rep. Paul Costa (D-34).

Turns out that’s not the only thing the two men agree on. Though they sit on opposite sides of the aisle, they’re both keenly interested in updating the way the LCB does business. Even better, both legislators appear ready to commission the research, have the discussions and make the compromises needed for reform.

Among other things, 2016 will go down in history as the year Harrisburg finally made some actual changes to Pennsylvania’s antiquated liquor laws. They were small steps — wine in grocery stores! Six-packs at beer distributors! — but there’s reason to believe that, after years of inaction, this kind of progress might soon become less of an anomaly and more of a regular thing.

“There seems to be an openness and willingness to have a dialogue that hasn’t been there [in Harrisburg] for at least five years, or longer,” said Bill Covaleski, co-founder of Victory Brewing Company and president of the Brewers of PA trade association, which lobbies on behalf of nearly 200 breweries across the state.

Covaleski saw some of the dialogue first hand last week, when Harris and Costa carpooled to Parkesburg to check out Victory’s main production facility.

Covaleski explains to Reps. Costa and Harris how breweries make beer
Covaleski explains to Reps. Costa and Harris how breweries make beer

The importance of beer in PA should be impossible to ignore. According to figures compiled by the national Brewers Association, the 2014 economic impact of the brewing industry in Pennsylvania was $4.5 billion — second only to California.

But according to Costa, most of the liquor reform chatter in the state house has been focused on wine lately. And before Harris became committee chair this fall, he wasn’t even aware that Sam Adams has a huge facility in Allentown, which produces so much beer that that the Boston-headquartered company is one of PA’s most prolific breweries.

Hence, the visit to Victory. On their day off, the co-chairs and a trio of key aides would get a chance to see the brewing process up close — as well as to sip some of the freshest beer in the state.

“I hope you ask a lot of questions,” Covaleski told the group as handed out safety glasses and led everyone toward the back of the 140,000-square-foot facility.

The brewhouse on the western edge of Chester County is one of three Victory currently operates, but it’s the workhorse, responsible for 90 percent of the beer the company sells across its 36-state distribution footprint. Ogling the huge, 200-barrel brew kettle that can boil more than 6,000 gallons at a time and gazing up at the bales of whole-flower hops stacked to the ceiling of a special cold storage room, the legislators were clearly impressed.

“I was thinking of giving homebrewing a try,” said Harris just over halfway through the tour, “but now that I see how complicated it is…maybe not.”

After a toast with Prima Pils pulled direct from one of the 16 giant fermenters that tower above the roofline, and a second cheers with a sample of Hop Ranch squired from a 1,000-barrel holding tank, everyone retired to the restaurant at the front of the space. Over full glasses of beer — Kennett Square Orange Blossom for Harris, Sour Monkey for Costa — the group chatted about the current state of booze law.

Covaleski makes a point to Costa while Harris checks into Untappd
Covaleski makes a point to Costa while Harris checks into Untappd Credit: Danya Henninger

Someone noted that when congress resumed session, budget negotiations would begin, which meant privatizing the LCB would once again arise. Both co-chairs and their aides acknowledged that privatization was not a feasible stop-gap solution to cover a looming deficit.

“Our caucus platform is for it, so we have to support it,” said Shauna Boscaccy, a lawyer who works for Harris and the House GOP as executive director for the liquor committee. “But the fact is that the state wouldn’t see the money for at least the first year or two anyway.”

“I always say that if we privatize, we should do it in a year we do not need the money,” concurred Lynn Benka, the executive director working for Costa on the Democrat side.

Instead, everyone agreed that chipping away at the byzantine code was the best way to effect change. Slow and steady, bit by bit. The idea to make progress that way wasn’t new, Benka noted.

“I remember sitting in a bar with [Harrisburg liquor law expert] Marcia Lampman six years ago,” she said, “and basically writing up everything that became Act 39.”

Wait — if legislators had been willing to act, Pennsylvania could have had wine in grocery stores six years ago?

Potentially, yes. Ah, well. At least piecemeal reform has finally started passing. And judging from the attitudes of the new liquor committee leadership, more is likely to follow.

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Danya Henninger

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...