As a beer lover, I have often been in situations in which shipping beer would be convenient.
- When I have purchased beer on trips but don’t want to risk them being damanged in luggage,
- When I want to share a favorite regional beer with someone from another area,
- When friends, relatives, breweries or whatnot decide that they’d like to give me a nice brew to taste.
All of these seem like reasonable requests – and shipping would be the most obvious solution.
If it weren’t illegal.
Most people (even beer geeks) are usually very surprised to hear that the US Postal Service does not allow beer to be shipped, and that it is actually illegal in most states to do so with any other shipping carrier.
The United States Postal Service classifies beer under “prohibited items.”
…Other items, such as alcoholic beverages (beer, wine, liquor), are not considered hazardous but are prohibited and boxes displaying such markings are also prohibited. (USPS)
And, on the “books” it states:
UCA 32A-12-503: It is unlawful for any…person, to ship or transport or cause to be transported into this state or from one place to another within this state any alcoholic product. This is a class B misdemeanor punishable up to a $1,000 fine and/or six months in jail. (referenced by a letter in this post.)
The reasons for these statutes and policies are complex but have to do with the three-tier system – the regulators want to make sure that shipping beer isn’t getting around the “no-self-distribution” part of the system. In other words, if you (a brewer) didn’t want to get a license or pay taxes/fees to distribute your beer in a specific state, then this law prevents you from getting around that by just shipping your beer and letting the ‘ole post office do your dirty work.
However, I think there is something fundamentally wrong with applying this law to consumers in addition to breweries.
The situations that I find most ridiculous are the ones that prevent the spread of beer knowledge – the ones that stifle the beer loving community, strangle the poor sots that live in beer-poor areas, and frankly are of such a small scale that one wonders why it’s worth bothering about. Specifically, these are laws that restrict the beer consumer more than they help prevent abuses from the beer producer(s).
If beer taxes (and fees, etc.) are determined on a state by state basis, then it makes no logical sense that I should not be able to purchase beer in a state (say, California) and then essentially consume it “off premises” in Maine, having already done the California duties and not having hurt Maine (because the beer is not sold there, and thus, I am not taking business from them).
Whether that gets there in the trunk of my car, the belly of a plane, or the back of a UPS truck, this is what it boils down to. My fundamental question is: Why should it matter where I drink the beer that I have purchased?
To simplify the ridiculousness even further, let’s replace beer with some other item.
Say I take a trip to Atlanta – and while I am there I purchase a book on the Civil War in the gift shop of a museum. I pay tax and/or any markup for the museum on the book at the point of sale – and I am not avoiding taxes by ordering it online. I am taking away money, technically, from Maine when purchasing books when I travel that I could have bought in Maine, but I am also supporting the Atlanta economy by making purchases when I travel out of state. But let’s say that I don’t read the book until I’ve brought it back to Maine. Or, I send it back to myself because it has 500 pages and is too heavy for my carry-on back on the plane. Should that process be illegal? I don’t think so. But replace the book with beer, and instead of consuming the brew in my hotel room it is consumed on my own couch, and you have the same situation.
Why beer is not treated like any other taxed item perplexes me. Frankly, the fact that I have to be secretive about transporting something that is legal to consume in all states (well, most states…) is ridiculous as well. It’s different with items that are prohibited in one state or the other but here – here it is a mis-applied effort that ultimately hurts the consumer.
I don’t want to see everyone who’s ever traded a beer being fined or jailed for it, and I don’t want to have to over indulge in a state just because I know I can’t get all the beer back. With a lot of beer legislation changing lately, I think it is time to write some letters and get mobilized. If you’re tired of risking your good name to get amazing beer, then I urge you to join me in this quest.