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John Baer: Beer raids: Seize the brew or cease the LCB?

SO, I GO to this legislative hearing on the recent, ridiculous city beer raids hoping, frankly, for samples of contraband.

SO, I GO to this legislative hearing on the recent, ridiculous city beer raids hoping, frankly, for samples of contraband.

Sadly, I'm told that the suds are stashed in state liquor-enforcement offices somewhere in Southwest Philly.

Still, I stay for the 2 1/2-hour-plus sideshow, and herein offer highlights.

First, if you missed it, some background: A bunch of armed state agents raided three city bars and a beer distributor last month on an anonymous tip (oh, like it wasn't from a competitor) looking for "unregistered" beer.

Imagine the danger. Imagine the decision to use jacketed G-men for such a high-priority offense. I mean, law enforcement has nothing else to do?

The feds and state require beer to be registered for taxation and safety purposes. But, so many brands (2,800 in Pennsylvania) so often change labels and, seasonally, microbrew flavors, that registration gets confusing.

In fact, 116 of 317 bottles confiscated from Resurrection Ale House, on Grays Ferry Avenue; Local 44, at 44th and Spruce streets; and the Memphis Taproom, in Port Richmond, were found to be registered and later returned.

Agents also took three quarter-kegs and a one-sixth keg from the bars and 14 cases from Origlio Beverage, on Meeting House Road in the Northeast.

Yesterday, Major John Lutz, State Police Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement chief, testified that the "investigation remains ongoing."

After selectively bum-rushing these places with clearly inaccurate lists on such chicken-poop charges, I hope it's not ongoing for long.

The three bars are run by husband and wife team Leigh Maida and Brendan Hartranft. She testified that she didn't know they had unregistered beer.

Dominic Origlio, whose family-run business has been around more than 75 years, testified that he didn't know he had unregistered beer.

Registration is the responsibility of brewers and importers.

Lutz and Liquor Control Board CEO Joe Conti, a former Bucks County lawmaker, testified that they follow the law as written by the Legislature.

Some members of same at a joint session of the House Liquor Control Committee and the Senate Law and Justice Committee took exception.

Philly Democratic Sen. Larry Farnese called the law antiquated and "unfair."

Philly Democratic Rep. Mike O'Brien said that Memphis Tavern is in his neighborhood and such a nice place "the Sisters of St. Joseph from St. Anne's Parish" go there for weekend brunch.

Of the bust, he said, " 'Unfortunate' would be an understatement." He told owner Maida: "As a resident, I'll thank you; as a legislator, I'll apologize."

Philly Republican Rep. John Taylor went further.

While questioning Lutz, Taylor expressed support for the state police but said, "In this one you and your unit were wrong . . . they knew when they were going in there they did not need four armed agents. A teenager with a clipboard could have done what they did."

Taylor called the bust "an over-use of force," and said, regarding priorities, that "those of us from Philadelphia have plenty [other things] for you to do."

Lutz shot back that there was unregistered beer.

"So what! So what!" shouted Taylor. "Use a clerk to do that!

Sen. John Pippy, R-Allegheny County, asked why they'd seized brew before confirming it's unregistered?

"Historically, the beer was always seized," answered Lutz.

Yeah, or un-kegged with axes.

When it was over, I asked Lutz if he knew of any instance of unregistered beer causing consumer health problems. He did not.

Lawmakers said that they'll tweak the law to improve it.

"We're going to be doing something," said Liquor Control Committee Chairman Bob Donatucci, D-Philadelphia. And Taylor said that he'll seek legislation to "make the process more clear and get retailers out of the process completely."

The only thing better would be to get the Liquor Control Board out of the process - completely.

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