Shortly after moving to Pittsburgh a few years ago, I needed to pick up some beer for a potluck. My uncle pointed me towards a place, and I figured I would grab a six-pack on my way. I walked in and found—you guessed it—nary a six-pack in sight. I asked the guy at the counter where the six-packs were and he mumbled something about a sports bar down the street. I left with lots of questions and a case of some unremarkable beer.
That was my introduction to our fair state’s wild and wacky attitudes towards booze. Pennsylvania has some of the strictest alcohol laws in the country and is one of only two states where the government maintains a complete monopoly over the sale of wine and spirits (Utah is the other). They keep a close eye on beer as well, regulating where, when and how much of it can be sold.
The debate continues to rage over whether the system ought to be privatized. The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) argues that the current system generates important revenue for the state and that their bulk buying power allows them to pass on savings to consumers. Others say that the laws are arcane, inconvenient and drastically limit selection (you’ll never guess what side I’m on). Proposals for varying degrees of privatization have been bouncing around Harrisburg for years, but for now the PLCB chugs along, largely untouched since the end of Prohibition.
Keep an eye on in-store sales
Each month, Fine Wine & Good Spirits posts a list of in-store specials. These sales, which generally range from one to five dollars off hundreds of wines and spirits, are in effect at every state store for the entire month. If you aren’t brand loyal, it can be a great way to try out a new bourbon or cabernet at a (slightly) reduced price. Check out the month’s specials here.
If it’s not on the shelf, check the site
If you can’t find what you’re looking for in stores, check online. Over at the Fine Wine and Good Spirits website, you can find hundreds of bottles that are only available online. Still more bottles can be special ordered through third party suppliers, though these sometimes require a minimum quantity. There are shipping fees and wait times associated with both online and special orders, but they might be worth it to get that interesting pick you’ve been searching for.
Shop Premium Collection stores
These are the special Wine and Spirit stores that carry the usual products, plus an expanded and much better selection of limited distribution wines and “luxury spirits.” Plus nearly every Premium Collection store is open on Sundays, unlike most of the regular stores. And when you’re there, you can …
Buy the Chairman’s Selections
If you’re like me, you don’t get more than a few steps into the store before grabbing some wine. That’s because all the Chairman’s Selections are prominently displayed right at the entrance of Premium Collection stores. The Chairman’s Selection program, which started in 2000, puts the state’s buying power to use and discounts an ever-changing variety of good and often very good wines. Upcoming selections include a 2013 Castillo de Monjardin Tempranillo for $7.99 (seven dollars off the quoted price) and a 2012 Kite Hawk Wines Cuvee for $29.99 (a whopping $52 off the quoted price). Chairman’s Selections also come with a vivid description to assist the curious novice.
Don’t be afraid to travel
When it comes to wines and spirits, shopping around won’t save you any money—prices are the same across the state. But if you know where to go, you can find a much better selection than your local store might carry. The Shadyside store (store ID 0263), located in the Eastside shopping center on Penn Circle, just underwent a massive remodel and though the selection didn’t change much, the store is now a much more pleasant place to peruse. For a larger store, albeit a less shiny and new one, head to the Waterworks (store ID 0214). Like the Shadyside store, the Waterworks location is a Premium Collection store, and it boasts one of the largest arrays of wine in the area. Or you can try an alternative to state stores and shop Dreadnought Wines which just moved from the Strip to Lawrenceville. They offer a great selection along with classes and wine tastings. But back to the Waterworks …
Get beer at grocery stores
The Waterworks Giant Eagle is now a Market District store, which among other things means lots and lots of beer. The store carries an impressive selection of local and craft bottles, many of them available cold, and 18 (!) taps for draft beers and ciders. The prices at Giant Eagle are generally quite reasonable and some stores (including the Waterworks) offer a happy hour discount on pints and growler fills, meaning that you can often grab a growler of craft beer for less than ten bucks. The Whole Foods Market in Wexford also sells beer, as do many Wegmans (though you’ll have to haul up to Erie to find one in Western Pennsylvania). You’ll still get a better price per bottle if you buy a full case from a distributor, but sometimes you just aren’t ready for that kind of commitment.
Build a six-pack
And if you’re especially uncertain about a beer, it’s easier than ever to just try one out as part of a mixed six-pack. Not surprisingly, Giant Eagle offers one of the best deals in town. At $13 no matter what brews you choose, that price can really work in your favor. I recently assembled a six-pack with two bottles each of Founder’s Dark Penance, Ballast Point Sculpin and Weyerbacher Quad, three darn good beers with high ABVs and (normally) high price tags to match. You can also build six-packs at a number of bars and bottle shops. Though the prices are sometimes a bit steeper, these spots boast a wider selection and more knowledgeable employees. Atlas Bottle Works in Lawrenceville, House of 1000 Beers in New Kensington (where you can build a six-pack for just $10.95), D’s Six Pax & Dogz in Regent Square and Caliente Pizza & Draft House, which has locations in Bloomfield and Allison Park, are all good bets for interesting, hard-to-find beers.
Get your beer delivered
Well, not quite yet. But soon you will be able to get a six-pack brought to your doorstep along with that pizza. In December, the PLCB officially ruled that restaurants possessing the proper license could deliver up to two six-packs of beer. According to the Post-Gazette, 22 establishments across the state have applied for the license so far, and more are sure to follow. Though it won’t be the cheapest way to get your brews, it will certainly be the most convenient.
Buy directly from the source
When purchasing locally made beer, wines and spirits, it’s best to buy directly from the people who made them when possible. For one, it makes sure all of your money goes straight to the folks who deserve it. One distiller told me that although his product sells for almost exactly the same price in both places, he makes nearly twice as much on sales at the distillery as he does from sales in retail stores. Additionally, going right to the source usually means a chance to sample products and talk to people who know them inside and out. For instance, though Wigle Whiskey now sells their rye in a handful of state stores, you can taste many more spirits and see everything that goes into making them by visiting the distillery.
Pester the PLCB
Okay, don’t pester them. But do let them know what you want! “Consumer demand is one of the factors taken into account when evaluating new products,” explains Shawn Kelly, Deputy Director of External Affairs at the PLCB. If you ask for it, he added, “we will do everything within our ability to make the item available to purchase through one of our sales channels.” So if you can’t find what you want, get in touch with the PLCB and ask for it (politely, of course).
Got more tips for buying beer, wine and liquor in Pittsburgh? Let us know in the comments!