Mail Call? Not For Beer


May 15, 1994|By ROB KASPER

This new column about food, drink and folk in Maryland will appear each week in Sun Magazine.

Harry Bosk appreciates a well-made beer. His wife, Dana, appreciates him. So as this year's Valentine's Day present to her husband Ms. Bosk tried enrolling him in a club that ships to its members beers made by various American microbreweries.

The club, called Beer Across America, began operating two years ago in Barrington, Ill. Riding a wave of national interest in small breweries, Beer Across America set up a toll-free telephone line and began operating much like the fruit-of-the-month clubs. Once a month members get a shipment of two six-packs of beers that have been made at any of about 150 microbreweries around the nation, among them the Wild Goose brewery in Cambridge, Md. The cost is about $25 a month.

That's pretty pricey for suds, but Bosk's wife figured he was worth it. Alas, Bosk never got his Valentine's Day beer. When his wife tried to arrange for the shipments to begin arriving at the couple's Baltimore-area home, she learned that Maryland authorities had told the club it could not distribute beer in the state.

Instead of microbrewed beer, Bosk got a book for Valentine's Day. When I told this tale to Marvin S. Bond, spokesman for the state comptroller of the treasury, he was sympathetic but not ready to change the rules.

While conceding that giving the gift of beer might be viewed as a sign of affection, he reminded me that selling alcohol is a business, a tightly regulated one in Maryland. And he said that out-of-state enterprises like Beer Across America that offer direct shipments of beer or wine to Marylanders are not in compliance with state laws.

First, he said, collecting taxes on alcohol sales can be difficult when the transaction is conducted over the phone, with an out-of-state business.

Second, there is the problem of how a mail-order operation fits into Maryland's three-tier system of producers, wholesalers and retailers of alcoholic beverages. People who have paid to get one of these licenses tend to view the mail-order operators as unlicensed competition, and are not shy about complaining, he said.

The licensing issue dovetails into questions about how the mail-order operators guard against selling to minors, Bond said. If a Maryland licensee sells alcohol to someone under 21 years old, that person can lose his license. If a direct shipper has no license to pull, state authorities would have little leverage against him, Bond said.

He added, though, that he knows of no reports of underage drinkers in Maryland obtaining alcoholic beverages through mail-order shipments.

However, David C. Reitz, a liquor-law enforcement official with the Colorado Department of Revenue, said there have been instances of youths in his state using mail-order services and their parents' credit cards to get beer and wine. These incidents prompted Reitz to prod both the shippers and the local delivery services they use to require some proof of age before they make or deliver a sale of alcoholic beverages.

Questions about handling mail-order sales of alcoholic beverages are popping up all around the country, said Reitz. He added that he will lead a panel discussion on the topic at the national convention of state liquor administrators in Colorado next month.

Meanwhile, at Beer Across America headquarters, Todd Holmes, one of the founders of the business, said the enterprise is shipping microbrewed beer to aficionados in 45 states, among them Virginia, and the District of Columbia. He said he is exploring ways to get his operation working in Maryland. "There are a lot of good beer drinkers out there," he said. One idea under consideration is to use a licensed wholesaler and retailer already operating in the state.

Holmes contended that his business is trying to comply with the law, not dodge it. But he added that laws regarding the distribution of liquor vary greatly from state to state. There is some disagreement, for instance, in legal circles on the basic question of which state at which end of the telephone has jurisdiction when a caller from one state places an order to a business in another state. Still Holmes remains hopeful that he can come up with plan that will result in Beer Across America's shipping suds to Maryland residents by Father's Day.

That would be just fine with Bosk, a father of two. He still hasn't read the 662-page book, "President Kennedy: Profile of Power," that he got instead of beer for a Valentine's Day present.

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