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A Beerfly's view. If you see anything here that seems crazy, click here.

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2004 Buzz

March '04: Ultra Madness

February '04: Case Law

January '04: Best of 2003

2003 Buzz

January '03: Taxes

February '03: Coffee

March '03: St. Patrick's

April '03: Liquor Taxes

May '03: Extreme Beer?

June '03: Screw 'Em!

July '03: RIP, Corner Bar

August '03: Subtlety

Sept. '03: Pay For It!

Oct. '03: Shots at Saveur

Nov. '03: Say Anything

Dec. '03: Wine good!



April, 2004

Kegs: Weapons of Mass Drinking?

Boy, does this one ever piss me off.

I'm talking about keg registration, the latest bit of feel-good, do-nothing, anti-alcohol legislative legerdemain to come out of booze-bashing think-tanks (man, just look at all those hyphens!) like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. It's an evil rule-a-rama that is sweeping the nation -- 23 states have keg registration laws of one kind or another, along with local communities in other God, it sounds like Prohibition! It's a truly ham-handed approach to underage drinking that once again punishes everyone in an attempt to stop behavior that's only illegal because of poorly reasoned, arbitrary laws.

Keg registration is about "control of access,"  an anti-alcohol buzzword that means making it a pain in the ass to buy booze. These hurdles are ostensibly to make buying booze more difficult for underage adults -- all those 18 to 20 year, 11 month, and 29 day olds who have jobs, are fighting in Iraq, are raising children, and voting in national elections. But the real aim is to make it harder for everyone to get a drink. "Stop the kegger!" may be the battlecry, but stop all drinking is the not-so-hidden subtext.

Let's get some facts. Keg registration means that every keg purchase, from Johnny Underage using fake ID to get a half of Milwaukee's Best to Cooper the Yuppie charging a sixtel of IPA from his local brewpub to Joe Retiree paying cash for a half of Milwaukee's Best for the kegerator at deer camp, has to fill out a long form with all his personal information and pay a big deposit for the keg. Depending on the locale, there may be variations: stupidly huge fines for losing the flimsy "tag" that comes with the keg (and we all know how much attention gets paid to pieces of paper when the liter mugs come out), stupidly huge fines for having an unregistered keg (better get rid of that college souvenir), a limit on the number of kegs one person can purchase, signing the form may mean that you agree to submit to a police search of your home (yes, really), or a limit on how long you have to return the keg (so drink up, grandpa!).

Then you take the keg home and the real fun begins. Oh, not the party fun. The legal, bend-and-spread-'em, up against the wall kind of fun. It goes something like this. Say the police pull Paul over and he's legally drunk (the dangerous moron). They ask him where he was drinking, and he says, Jim's house (the little traitor). They go to Jim's house, pound on the door and poke Jim in the chest with a nightstick, and tell him "We got you red-handed, you beer supplier!"  Then Jim says, it was a block party, someone else brought the beer, I dunno who. Okay, he's lying (and Paul could learn a lesson here, eh?), but who wouldn't?

The police seize the keg, read the code, and go to the store and ask for the vital statistics on the purchaser. It's not the store's fault, the guy who bought the beer was of age, no one underage drank from the keg, the keg was self-serve and no one but the drunk is responsible. But you better believe that if the cops have gone to all this trouble, they're not going to say, 'Oh, well, no harm, no foul,' and go back to their donuts with only a DUI to their name. Someone's getting busted.

Funny thing is...I can't find any records of anyone getting arrested on this law. All you find is confident projections of how keg registration will cut down on underage drinking, and rosy enthusiasm for the programs where they're in place. Why are the police and neo-drys in the keg registering states happy? Because keg sales are down. Oh, goody! 

Come on! I've met some real nice cops, bright people, but they must put the real possum-brains on D.A.R.E. duty. Kegs are not beer. They are merely one container that beer comes in. Underage drinking (and that's a term we're going to take a hard look at in an upcoming Buzz) has not been affected by keg registration laws in any way I've been able to find.

Why? Because demand for beer is hydraulic: if you push it down in one place, it will just pop up in another. I saw this in action back in the early 90's. Villanova University enacted a keg ban on campus. Response by the students? They went to local beer stores and started buying cases of cheap beer by the truckload, 50 and 100 cases at a whack. When I did the research for this piece I found the same thing. They either buy beer in another container, or they buy gallons of cheap liquor and whomp up trashcans full of "punch." Here, take a look:

From the Syracuse University Daily Orange, March 3, 2004: "Instead of raging keggers with numerous steel barrels of brew, many parties around campus have switched to supplying stacks of 30-packs and enormous vats of jungle juice to quench partygoers' thirst. (There's some purple prose, eh?)
Retailers have felt the effects of this change. A handwritten sign plastered inside the entrance of Lancaster Market, a source of party provisions near campus, boasts: "30-Packs is the way to go!" next to "KEGS," which is crossed out in red ink. "The more you buy, the cheaper it gets," it adds.
Many SU students agree: binge drinking is both a guilty pleasure and necessary evil of the typical college experience. Keg stands will be missed, but recent registration laws won't interfere with students' passion for partying.
"College students are going to drink if that's what they want to do," Berenson said, "With or without kegs.""

From the Winona State University Winonan, January 22, 2003: ""Party balls have taken the place of our keg sales,” said Henry Deblon , co-owner of 5th Street Liquor in Winona . In the past, 5th Street Liquor sold up to 10 kegs a week to college students, but because of the registration, now they don’t sell any. Deblon said they now sell 10 to 12 party balls per week.  
He said the store began carrying Everclear, a highly potent grain alcohol, because of the requests from college students. Students use the alcohol to make large amounts of wopatui, also called jungle juice. During homecoming week, Everclear was a hot commodity among area liquor stores, including Econo Liquor and Wine House."

What's next? Keg registration was a great success, we'll be told, the number of keg parties is down to almost nothing! Now we just have to put the same kind of registration in place for anyone who wants to buy more than three cases of beer (and won't it be fun if they want you to register growlers?), or more than a gallon of liquor, or any amount of Everclear (you'll never hear them talking about wine, of course), and we'll have this problem solved! 

Think that's ridiculous? Have another quote: "State regulations currently require sales invoices be prepared at the licensed premises - for the purchase of more than three cases - to show the name and address of the recipient, the date of sale, what was purchased, including the number of units, size, price and brand name, according to Pinkham." That's from the Pottsville (PA) Republican, August 9, 2000, and Donna Pinkham was the PA Liquor Control Board press secretary at the time. These regulations were not enforced at the time, but I understand from industry sources that a pilot program requiring their enforcement has begun in southwestern PA.  And PA doesn't even have a keg registration law!

Why wait till this becomes onerous? Stop it now. If you've got a keg registration law, ask your local police and your legislator what the results have been, in measurable numbers. Write a letter to the newspaper explaining that you're all for stopping underage drinking, but why not use something that works? Better yet, do like this Ohio University professor did and challenge the law on constitutional grounds. If you don't have a keg registration law where you live, find out if one's pending. If it is, ask why, and ask for real numbers, not policy projection bushwah. 

But don't punish the innocent. I just had a keg at my house this past weekend for a family celebration of my son's confirmation, Tröegs Sunshine Pilsner (and yes, it was absolutely fantastic, thank you Chris and John!). We tapped it, we drank it dry, and no one who drank from it was underage, and no one hopped in a car and drove away drunk. And to continue to enjoy this "privilege," you want me to waste five minutes of my life filling out a stupid form, hand over all kinds of private information to someone who probably has few compunctions about sharing it, and run the risk of forfeiting up to $600 if I lose or damage a stinking piece of paper that's attached to a keg in a tub full of ice and water? Hey, bite me!

You want to stop underage drinking? Lower the drinking age to 18, come up with a way to stop fake IDs, stop punishing the retailer and try rewarding him instead. Most importantly, stop being stupid about teaching kids about booze. But stop this stalking horse of "control of access." Keg registration, case registration, whatever new guise it takes, is part of the plan of the new Prohibitionists. Fight it, and refuse to take part in it. 



Copyright © 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: March 30, 2005