A few steps past the entrance to Pinocchio’s Restaurant in Media, one finds Pinocchio’s Beer Garden To Go, an unassuming shop that manages to pack more than 1,000 beers into a bodega-sized space.
The bottles and cans are housed in a row of refrigerated cases stocked daily with popular brands like Lawson’s Finest Liquids and 2SP Brewing Co. On the opposite wall, you’ll find breweriana — vintage bottles, bumper stickers, tin signs, artifacts from years and beers gone by. Considering the attached pizza shop has been open since 1955, Pinocchio’s has seen its fair share.
At the bar/checkout counter, you’ll find manager Alex Morris ringing up six-packs, bombers, growlers, and crowlers, or doling out draft pours of hard-to-find beers from the likes of Hill Farmstead and Tired Hands. If they’re not headed straight home, shoppers sip pints by the register or next to wooden barrels near the coolers.
While beer lovers in most states can pop out to a convenience store to pick up a few brews, if you’re looking for a cold one to take home in Pennsylvania, many hopheads will point you to the local bottle shop.
For the uninitiated, bottle shops sell single servings of beer to go while also allowing you to hang out and drink. Imagine a coffee shop that sells craft beer instead of cappuccinos and you’re in the ballpark.
“It’s basically what you want in a good bar,” says Northern Liberties resident Keith Tomaselli, who runs the popular @PhillyGingerBeerDude Instagram account. But a bottle shop comes with the added benefit of browsing for more take-home beers, often with a pint in hand. The feel is "like you’re hanging out at your own place,” Tomaselli says.
For folks who aren’t big barflies, these stores offer a low-key venue to grab a beer (or six) from a more diverse selection than the average watering hole. There’s usually some food as well. That’s because bottle shops tend to hold restaurant or eating place licenses, which differ in requirements from distributor licenses. (The rules mostly deal with size, seating, and food service.)
In fact, “bottle shop” is not even a licensing or regulatory term, according to Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board director of policy and communications Elizabeth Brassell. It is, however, a product of the screwy state liquor laws we have come to know and loathe.
Those regulations were set out to make buying alcohol “as inconvenient and expensive as possible,” as two-time state governor and teetotaler Gifford Pinchot said back in 1933 — the same year he established the liquor code and the PLCB. The result, for many years, was that Pennsylvanians had to buy liquor and wine at state stores, kegs and cases of beer from distributors, and six-packs or smaller from corner delis and restaurants. The latter became known as bottle shops.
In 1976, Adrian Paulus opened one of the city’s first bottle shops, the Foodery at 10th and Pine. At the time, finding high-end beer at a reasonable price in the area was something of a crapshoot.
“If something rare came in, only three or four places in the Philly area wanted it," says Matt Guyer, owner of Wayne distributor the Beer Yard.
Paulus brought in then-obscure imports from Germany, Belgium, and England. But food still accounted for a large portion of the Foodery’s sales into the early ’00s, says current owner Jack Lee, who purchased the business in 2001 and set about growing the store’s suds selection with more imports and American craft beer.
Another modern-day difference: consumers. Before 2010, customers needed encouragement and education to try new styles and brands. Now, if they don’t already know about a beer, they whip out their phones and look it up, Lee says.
The PLCB has noticed that, too. “Folks are looking for experiences, new brands, and new flavor profiles,” Brassell says. The shift in consumers’ interests has also led to legal changes.
“The goal is modernization, convenience, and customer service,” Brassell says of the PLCB’s current agenda. That partly explains why, today, most city-dwellers can throw a rock and hit a good place to buy a six-pack.
In the last several years, laws for distributors — who had largely been limited to selling cases and kegs — were relaxed, allowing them to sell 12-packs, six-packs, growlers, and single bottles. And in 2010, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that grocery stores and supermarkets could also sell beer in smaller quantities. Beer and wine have turned up in Acme, Whole Foods, and other markets. Even convenience stores like Wawa are getting in on the action.
Laws have changed for bottle shops, too. With the right license, they can sell limited quantities of wine to go. And while the line between distributors and bottle shops has gotten muddy, distributors still can’t allow customers to drink on-site, nor do they offer prepared food.
But food and wine don’t set bottle shops apart from grocery stores. Trenton Road Take Out owner Mike Feinman converted his tavern to a bottle shop in 1986. Since supermarkets began selling beer, his sale of domestic brews like Budweiser or Miller Light has “taken a beating” due to cheaper pricing at larger stores.
To stay afloat, he says, places like his focus on craft beer, which sometimes eludes supermarkets — especially rare brews. He attributes the flat-footedness to large stores’ corporate structures. As a small shop, Trenton Road is more agile; Feinman can make decisions about stock quicker and curate it better.
“Craft, I’m fine,” Feinman says. “Supermarkets, they’re the Sam Adams [sellers]. That’s their customer. Sam Adams is like the next step up from Yuengling.”
As a result, Trenton Road started working with smaller import distributors to secure highly hyped brews from Instagram darlings like Burley Oak Brewing Co. and Wyndridge Farm Brewing. By comparison, craft selection at most grocery stores is often limited to larger, and frequently more local breweries, like Delaware’s Dogfish Head (which recently announced a merger with Boston Beer) or Downingtown’s Victory Brewing (which consolidated with Southern Tier in 2016).
Even with a finely curated craft selection, Guyer and Feinman agree that a business’ edge comes down to customer service. For bottle shops, that means doling out recommendations, offering guidance, and being friendly places to shop.