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6-pack sales appeal to microbrewers, buyers

April 28, 2008

Consumers say they want to try product 1st

Of The Patriot-News

It took a few sips to persuade Ryan Ulrich to consider buying a case of Flying Dog's Gonzo Imperial Porter.

A case is a lot of beer, and it's not a commitment he would make without tasting a glass of it at a beer festival Sunday at the Appalachian Brewing Company in Harrisburg.

He said he planned to buy cases of his two or three favorite samples.

"I'm not going to lay down $50 without first trying the product," he said.

The beer festival was a convenient way for him to sample different varieties, he said, but six-packs would work, too.

It's consumers such as Ulrich who microbrewers say they're missing out on because of a state law that limits six-pack sales.

Beer distributors must sell by the case, and many times restaurants or bars that can sell up to two six-packs at a time don't have a wide selection.

You can find cases for a lot of local brews -- such as Harrisburg-based Troeg's or ABC -- for about $26. But because specialized varieties are often more expensive than mass-produced brews, beer connoisseurs are more likely to try new brands and varieties if they can spend less on smaller quantities, microbrewers argue.

"If you don't do draft, it's hard to get them to sample your wares," said Matt Allyn, owner of Voodoo Brewing Co. in Meadville. "If they don't sample your wares, it's hard to get them to buy a $75 case."

That problem could be solved, brewers have argued, by allowing six-pack sales in grocery and convenience stores.

It's starting to happen.

A Sheetz in Altoona was granted a license to sell beer last year. In March, Wegmans received restaurant licenses for six of its grocery stores, allowing it to serve beer and wine in the stores and to sell two six-packs to go. The chain is seeking approval for a license for its Silver Spring Twp. store.

The 465-member Pennsylvania Malt Beverage Distributors Association isn't happy. It has sued the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board to try to block licenses for Wegmans and Sheetz.

Mike Muzic, who works at Breski Beverage in Swatara Twp., said clerks at distributorships are trained in how to sell alcoholic beverages, including how to look for signs of intoxication.

He asked: "Would you trust a high school-age convenience store clerk to not sell to drunk people or those under age?"

And Ashley Lidle, who works with Muzic, said the distributors offer a better bargain at bulk prices.

"[Consumers] are going to gain convenience and lose money," he said.

At its Silver Spring Twp. store, Wegmans is seeking a liquor license for its Market Cafe. If granted, it could sell wine and beer by the glass to be consumed on the premises.

The New York-based chain is waiting for the LCB to schedule a hearing on the matter, said company spokeswoman Jeanne Colleluori.

If the license is granted, she said, Wegmans might seek local brewers to help stock the shelves.

The grocery chain frequently works with local growers to stock produce and other products, she said. "We like to offer local flavor," Colleluori said.

Artie Tafoya, operations manager for the Appalachian Brewing Company, said he'd be open to selling ABC products at Wegmans.

"It's tougher for someone to invest in a case of our beer if they're not sure they'll love it," he said.

There are some pluses to distributorships, Tafoya said.

"At least with distributors, you're guaranteed placement," he said. "In grocery stores, it's more based on shelf space."

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