A man walked into a liquor store on a vintage October day and reached for a case of the seasonally appropriate OctoberFest Samuel Adams beer.
It could have been almost anywhere in the U.S., but what happened next probably could have happened only in Connecticut. The man, Kieran Curtis of Windsor, wasn’t the usual buy-by-the-case kind of guy. He brings home a case maybe once a year, as in Oktoberfest. That’s what brought him to Total Wine & More in Manchester to stock up.
“I thought it was a good idea,” he says. “It’s only available for a few weeks every fall.”
Now that we’ve established Curtis as an infrequent case buyer, he can be forgiven for his unfamiliarity with the peculiarities of Connecticut liquor and beer pricing. What makes Connecticut and so many other states regulate the sale of alcohol with the subtlety of a weekend UConn kegger?
Curtis did not anticipate that when he plunked the 24-beer case — with a scanning code on its exterior — on the checkout counter that the clerk would ignore the SKU, open the case, and scan one of the four individual six-packs inside.
“Only then did it occur to me that I’d been charged the full price of four six-packs ($37.96 total),” says Curtis, “providing no savings for buying the case. This is wrong, because a six-pack of OctoberFest was selling for $9.49 and 12-packs were selling for $13.99. How can a case of 24 sell for $10 more than two 12-packs?”
Because, Mr. Curtis, you live in Connecticut, where beer and liquor are priced like no other state in the nation. Store management told Curtis, and Total Wine & More later confirmed to The CONNsumer, that Curtis was charged the higher price because the case contained four individual six-packs. If the case contained 24 individual bottles, watch out: Curtis would have been charged an even higher, per-bottle rate.
“A common misconception for consumers: A 24-pack is cheaper than a 12-pack because they’re ‘buying in bulk,’ ” says Lora Rae Anderson, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Consumer Protection, whose Liquor Control Commission oversees state liquor sales. “Not always true.”
In Connecticut, wholesalers set minimum prices for bottles of liquor, and six-packs, 12-packs and cases of beer. A retailer then adds shipping and delivery costs, establishing a per-bottle cost. They cannot sell any beer or liquor below this price. Each month, though, a retailer can apply to the state for a discount on a specific item. (In October, Waterford Wine & Spirits was selling Sam Adams OctoberFest for $12.15 per 12-pack. View the monthly beer discounts here.)
No other state works this way. Total Wine & More, a Maryland superstore new to the state, challenged Connecticut’s minimum-pricing concept in 2016 with reduced prices that undercut other retailers. It sued, eventually agreeing to obey minimum pricing and pay the state $37,500 to settle the case.
Minimum pricing is the mom-and-pop liquor store’s iron lung. Many would die without it. For anyone who misses mom-and-pop drug stores driven out by CVS and Walgreens or old-fashioned, family-owned stores (goodbye, dear Benny’s) extinguished by Walmart, the neighborhood package store has its charms.
It also has higher liquor prices than neighboring states, though a survey last summer determined Connecticut’s beer prices are among the nation’s lowest.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy for years has tried to overturn the state pricing law, which, he says, would increase state tax revenue by $5 million. Malloy, with his advanced degree in incredulity, makes a convincing argument:
“If we had a law that forced stores to sell bread for a price that was determined by state government,” he said, “people would be screaming about capitalism and big government. But for some reason, we allow this anti-free market mandate to continue for one particular industry — and we are, in fact, the only state in the nation that operates in this manner.”
But not the only state with peculiar liquor laws. Drown your legislative sorrows in this wacky six-pack from around the country:
Pennsylvania: Wine and liquor is available only at state-run stores. Beer is not available at those state stores or grocery stores, only beer distributors or beer-only stores. Until 2015, those stores sold only cases or kegs. (They can now sell 12-packs, too.) Want a six-pack? Go to a bar and ask for one, to go.
Louisiana: It’s legal for a parent to buy alcoholic beverages for their underage children. Also: Drive-through daiquiri stands are legal, but you can be arrested for driving with an open container if you put a straw in the cup.
New York: All liquor stores must be owned by a single owner who lives within a specified distance of the store. (Maybe not so wacky. It could keep away the superstores.)
Wisconsin: Minors can consume alcohol if supervised by a parent or guardian.
Oklahoma: Anything with 4 percent alcohol by volume or higher can be sold only at room temperature.
Iowa: Residents are restricted to bringing only one liter of an alcoholic beverage from another state, but four liters from another country. Violators face a misdemeanor charge with up to one year in jail and a fine up to $1,875.
And in Utah, restaurants could mix drinks until last March only behind a 7-foot partition known in the Mormon state as the “Zion Curtain.” The wall requirement was repealed but restaurants still need approval before tearing down their partition.
Feeling any better, Connecticut?
Curtis returned the case for a refund, but by then the Oktoberfest season had ended.
“Bugger,” he says. “But I returned it anyway out of principle.”
Next year he’ll know how state retailers observe Oktoberfest and every other beer-worthy occasion: uniquely Connecticut.
This article appeared in the January 2018 issue of Connecticut Magazine.
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