AT LEAST a dozen companies are now shipping beer by mail, directly to Pennsylvania consumers, bypassing both wholesalers and state regulators.
State officials say the unregulated sales thwart the collection of excise and sales taxes and provide few controls to prevent minors from purchasing alcohol.
Moreover, the beer shipments place consumers in the position of unknowingly violating state liquor laws, exposing them to fines and prison sentences.
"It's clearly illegal," said Maj. John Lutz, director of the state police Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement, who added that he was unaware of the sales.
Mail-order companies say they have been shipping beer directly to Pennsylvania residents for months. The companies advertise widely on the Internet and make no attempt to conceal the sales.
"We have no problems shipping into Pennsylvania, as far as I know," said a spokeswoman for C&H Clubs, a Laguna Hills, Calif., mail-order company. Representatives at other companies, including Clubs of America and the Michael Jackson's Rare Beer Club, echoed that position.
In fact, I had no difficulty ordering beer from two separate clubs. One box of 12 microbrews was left on my front step by UPS, with no signature by an adult required; the other, with three expensive imports, was delivered to my private rental mailbox, again with no adult signature required.
UPS spokesman Dan McMackin told me I never should have received the beer. "Our legal department says we cannot ship beer or wine to consumers in the state of Pennsylvania," said McMackin.
Even if it was a legal purchase, the spokesman said, I should've been required to provide a signature and proof of age. McMackin couldn't explain how the beer made it to my doorstep.
"It's the responsibility of the company shipping the alcohol to follow the state laws," he said. "As the carrier we look to the shipper to follow the appropriate legalities."
Mail-order sales of alcohol in Pennsylvania are prohibited under the so-called three-tier system of distribution in which beer must be sold through licensed, locally owned wholesalers. The system, designed in the post-Prohibition years, is intended to give the state greater control of alcohol sales and aid in the collection of taxes.
Lately, however, the three-tier system nationwide has faced stiff court challenges from large retailers who say rules that restrict distribution of alcohol are a violation of federal interstate commerce law.
After a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of small wineries in Granholm v. Heald, several states loosened restrictions on mail-order sales. Pennsylvania, though, is one of a handful of states that still prohibit the direct sale of out-of-state beer to consumers.
Doug Doretti, president of Clubs of America in Lakemoor, Ill., which describes itself as the nation's largest provider of "gift of the month club" programs, maintained that the Granholm ruling opened the door to mail-order sales in Pennsylvania.
"Interstate commerce allows us to do it," Doretti said, adding, "Pennsylvania is kind of a squirrely state."
Pressed for an explanation, Doretti declined to elaborate. "I don't want to subject myself to scrutiny," he told me. "I'd be shooting myself in the foot."
He declined to say whether he pays the state's 6 percent sales tax or 8-cent-a-gallon excise tax on beer sales.
Experts said that if authorities crack down on the shipments, it might be consumers - not the companies - who pay the biggest price.
Under state law, it is a misdemeanor to possess untaxed alcohol. Violators risk confiscation of their beer, a fine of up to $500 and up to three months in prison.
"Technically, the liability would cover the beer company, the shipper and even the person who's placing that order," said Lutz. "Everyone in that chain would be in violation."
R. Corbin Houchins, a Seattle attorney specializing in alcohol law, noted, however, that "these companies aren't licensed in Pennsylvania, so they may not be too worried about a misdemeanor charge."
Houchins added, "This is going to be controversial because people perceive beer as more open to underage drinkers than table wine." *