Fans of boilermakers and beer-backs may have noticed a big change in the way hooch is currently served in Seattle bars and taverns. In April 2000, the Washington State Liquor Control Board's (LCB) rules and regulations governing the distribution of spirits (i.e. hard liquor) in public establishments underwent a significant thaw, prompting many area taverns formerly restricted to serving beer and wine to start stocking up on Johnny Walker and Dewar's. Prior to this date, policy wonks at the LCB, which holds a monopoly interest on liquor regulation and distribution, had created two distinct de facto categories: There were taverns; there were cocktail lounges; and never the twain shall meet.

For many drinkers and the folks who serve them, these policy alterations are tantamount to repealing a form of soft-core Prohibition that made too sharp a distinction between beer and booze. (Ironically enough, the LCB itself has forever insisted that a shot of booze, a glass of wine, and a can of beer contain the same amount of alcohol.) Before the April change, it was impossible for any beer-and-wine-serving establishments to acquire a spirits license without allowing minors on the premises during a portion of operating hours. Adherence to this stipulation was an unattractive or unfeasible option for many Seattle bars, for reasons extending from existing atmospherics to structural limitations. Also on the books were stricter rules regarding food service, food preparation, and item availability. Liquor allowances came down to how, when, and how much food was served.

Now, establishments with less than 50 percent of their retail space as a "dedicated dining area" can serve liquor for a $2,000 annual fee (as opposed to the licenses of $1,000 and $1,600 for dining areas of 100 percent and 50 to 99 percent, respectively), as long as they "maintain complete meal service for a minimum of five hours a day," as prepared by a designated chef. (Bartenders throwing TV dinners into a microwave are not technically considered chefs.) Sandwiches, peanuts, popcorn, nachos, French fries, and jalapeño poppers do not fall under the category of "complete meals"; dinners listed on the menu must be "fork and knife" affairs, and at least five such meals must be available. Also, minimum food service--and poppers do indeed qualify--must be available at all times in order to hold a liquor license.

The most curious requirement, listed as #5 under WAC 214-02-035 of the LCB's new guidelines, is that all these food items "must be edible." So much for the old plastic steak scam.

According to Teresa Bernsten, rules coordinator for the LCB in Olympia, the changes in alcohol retail service licensing were part of a complete policy overhaul. "We went through a review of all our rules," says Bernsten. This began at the end of 1999, and so far, approximately 20 percent of the LCB's existing policies have been rewritten or deleted as part of the general streamlining.

While many bar and restaurant owners were dissatisfied with the LCB's old guidelines, Bernsten claims that it wasn't pressure from any particular lobby that instigated the overhaul. It was just time.

"There were some people who were waiting for that change," says Bernsten about the specific alterations in the food service/alcohol rules. "The food and liquor ratio was done away with," she adds, as well as the stipulation regarding a liquor-serving establishment's accessibility to minors. In addition, Bernsten points out that "we passed some rules that had to do with the kitchen equipment requirements. I think for some people that was helpful... because they were buying kitchen equipment they didn't need or use."

One local bar that has only recently begun the transition from keg taps to booze service is the College Inn Pub in the University District, co-owned by Shea Wilson, 34, and Anders Lorenson, 32. Known simply as "the pub," this underground hangout has been pouring beer for a broad assortment of eggheads, working stiffs, and high-style slackers since 1973. It's a cozy watering hole that inspires loyalty in its patrons, so it's no wonder that when news of liquor's impending arrival began to travel down the counter, some old-timers started to grumble into their pints. Folks worried that hard alcohol might change the chummy, sudsy mood of the place. Idiots might be encouraged to go apeshit on tequila, and so on. On the other hand, many patrons just found the old rules to be overly patronizing and puritanical.

Wilson, for one, downplays the significance of the change. "I don't think those laws were unfair," he says regarding the old restrictions on the service of spirits. Wilson thinks that "there was a bit of fun in having a separation" between taverns and cocktail lounges, because each offered such a different environment.

Nonetheless, the College Inn Pub has "made the switch." One of the motivations was the potential increase in business. "We sort of looked at what could be done," says Wilson. "We can make more money." There is also the feeling that any place trying to resist the change might in fact categorize itself into obscurity. "If everyone's going to switch," says Wilson, "you don't want to be left behind." He guesses that about 80 percent of the College Inn Pub's customer base "is pretty excited about it."

"It makes a lot more common sense," says co-owner Lorenson about the LCB changes. "The way they had it before was ridiculous. It just didn't make sense. It's all alcohol."

Lorenson agrees that the switch to spirits will ultimately benefit the pub. "It's good for us," he says. "The key is being able to offer these options and still maintain the general character and integrity of the place."

Despite some initial reservations, Wilson doesn't believe that serving hard alcohol will significantly affect the overall environment of the pub, or encourage sloppy or disruptive behavior. "It's a little strange, but I don't think it's bad," he says about the transition. While he admits that the new policies signal a "change in the whole culture," he also points out that "the atmosphere of a place is going to be determined by that place," and not whether or not hard liquor is served. As for customers getting wildly shitfaced solely because of availability, Wilson says, "I don't think that's going to happen."

Wilson claims that the pub's change to liquor-friendliness went "pretty smooth once we got our act together." It wasn't nearly as daunting or disorienting as he thought it might be. "You get used to it pretty quick," he says. "There's just a lot more to learn. The laws are confusing to say the least."

For most, confusion over the new rules seems to derive from the specific requirements of food service. Even though, as Wilson observes, there "doesn't seem to be strict enforcement" right now, many establishments around town are unsure whether or not they are really meeting the requirements of a "complete meal." In many cases, the whole thing seems to rest on a kind of token gesture, or a hypothesis of availability.

"At this point," says Bernsten, "you just have to have the kitchen equipment required to serve those five meals. Before we issue any license, we're going to go out and inspect the premises. If you say you're serving this plate, you need to have the kitchen equipment to serve this plate. We have no control over what people order. It needs to be available."

The LCB will continue to apply itself primarily to issues of actual consumption, regardless of the changes. "We're going to be concerned with overservice and service to minors," says Bernsten. Some things never change.