Prohibition began on January 17, 1920, and for Yuengling Brewery, a Pennsylvania landmark that’d been open in Pottsville since 1829—it was first called Eagle Brewery; they’ve still got the eagle emblem on the bottle—that meant one thing: product diversity.
It was a problem faced by breweries, wineries and distilleries all over the U.S. at that time. What is a beer company supposed to do when their product is illegal?
How about “near beers?” That’s the original term for what’s essentially today called non-alcoholic beer. These were mass-marketed 0.5-percent alcoholic brews created during Prohibition, and were given weird names: Miller had “Vivo,” Pabst had “Pablo,” Anheuser-Busch had “Bevo,” Yuengling had “Juvo.”
By 1921, just a year into Prohibition, the U.S. had produced more than 300 million gallons of near beer, while, conceivably, everyone was trying to drink as much and as quickly as possible to feel what passed as a buzz.
But compared to other national brew-hemoths, Yuengling was a small fish. The company, then headed by Frank Yuengling, began a dairy business in 1920 to stay relevant during the dark age. So, Yuengling began churning ice cream to deal with the country’s failing experiment in banning alcohol for recreational use.
Thirteen years of this, of course. Then, in 1933, the 18th amendment was repealed—and Yuengling sent Franklin Roosevelt a truck of beer in appreciation.
Little did Pennsylvania beer lovers know that the nightmare was just beginning.
In most states, the end of national Prohibition meant the reinstatement of the freedom to get punk in drublic—and, of course, to pay the requisite booze taxes to the government that go along with that. In Pennsylvania, it also meant the creation of the Liquor Control Board, an endlessly hated bureaucratic system intended right at the get-go to make drinking as hard as possible for the people who lived here. It mandated state ownership of liquor stores—and, for a time, weird-ass bar laws. It’s the sort of thing that’s put the Keystone State on just about every “Worst States to Drink In” list, and the fight to end the system has been so mired in union politics, it’ll probably be decades before Pennsylvania is no longer one of just two states where the government controls liquor wholesale. (The other, if you were curious, is Utah.)
But back to 1933: President Roosevelt must’ve been happy with his newly obtained free truck of beer, but Pennsylvania’s governor was not. Legend has it, Gov. Gifford Pinchot created the PLCB four days before alcohol sales became legal with one goal: “Discourage the purchase of alcoholic beverages by making it as inconvenient and expensive as possible,” according to a 2005 book on the history of the Yuengling Brewing Company.
First, the governor’s plan had to be sold to the state legislature. To do so, Pinchot promised that the state store system—the only part of his plan to regulate alcohol that the legislature, and many newspapers, opposed—would yield $53 million over the next two years; that cash would be used for schools, unemployment and pensions. It was mostly supported after this, even though, as the Morning Call newspaper would put it, the plan was “socialistic in tendency.”
Pinchot was indeed a socialist Republican thinker (that wasn’t a contradiction in the 1920s and ’30s), often decried for thinking he could right wrongs with the flip of a legislative switch. And he was an ardent anti-booze crusader; in one instance, he threatened to “horsewhip” a state senator for spreading a rumor that his wife had been caught at a party with a cocktail. By the time his bill was signed, though, Pinchot was singing a happier tune. He congratulated his legislature, publicly noting they’d adopted “the best system of liquor control yet devised in America.”
The state would come to regret that decision.
Regulations placed on alcohol sales were all pretty annoying for the average consumer, but some were worse than others. For instance, as Pennsylvanians know all too well, you can only buy liquor and wine at state-owned stores, 30-can beer cases at distributors and six-packs at bars or grocery stores with a special restaurant license, with few exceptions. (For instance, you can get wine at wineries and cases of beer at breweries.)
For a long time, happy-hour specials at bars were restricted to a maximum of 14 hours per week, with no more than two hours per day—and those hours were not allowed to fall between 12am and 2am. Two-for-one specials on alcoholic beverages were, and are, strictly prohibited.
The state controls both the retail and wholesale of wine, and, in recent years, has decided to use this to its advantage, producing its own wines on the cheap to sell at its own stores. But before that could happen, the PLCB needed to amass its wealth of property around the state. On January 2, 1934, it did just that, opening 63 state stores and five warehouses.
Government ownership of the state stores created something of a progressive environment for its employees. In 1944, as whiskey distilleries around the state had converted into industrial alcohol to assist the war effort, the PLCB began employing women as clerks for the first time. And over time, as civil rights movements forced federal and local governments to act, the PLCB instituted strict standards for treating its employees, including LGBT protections after they were passed for state workers in the ’70s. (Store clerks are part of the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union, as well, whose members earn higher wages than their counterparts often do at liquor retailers in other states.)
But problems arose as the PLCB added taxes and bureaucratic complications that today are looked at as overkill.
See, in 1936, the western Pennsylvania city of Johnstown flooded—again. The town was well known for its terrible dams and propensity to allow massive amounts of water to ruin the locals’ lives. So, when it was mired in floodwaters in 1936, it shouldn’t have come as much of a shock, considering the same thing had happened in 1889, 1894, 1907 and 1924. The difference this time: The open floodgates allowed tons of gallons of water to flow all the way to Pittsburgh, which spurred the Army Corps of Engineers to come into town, dredge the river and build a wall around it. (Which held pretty well—until 1977, when a thunderstorm put Johnstown under eight feet of water. Again.) Anyway, after the 1936 flood, the General Assembly imposed an emergency tax on the state: specifically, 10 percent on all wine and liquor sales to help pay for the flood damage.
This tax, easy to create and regulate since it was on a product the government already had full control over, was originally intended to be temporary. Once in effect, though: not so much. It was raised to 15 percent in 1963 and 18 percent in 1968; it remains 18 percent today and brings in about $200 million per year, which is put into the state general fund. That tax isn’t the sales tax you see on your receipt, either—it’s built into the price of the booze. Efforts to repeal it have been largely fruitless.
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