Oh, the beer run. That time-honored tradition of hopping in the car and heading to the local liquor establishment to replenish your supply of alcohol. Could it soon be a thing of the past?
It just might, at least that is what U.S. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe is hoping for. He recently pitched the idea of allowing the U.S. Postal Service to deliver beer, wine and spirits to your doorstep. Donahoe claims the deliveries could raise as much as $50 million a year for the cash-strapped agency.
"There's a lot of money to be made in shipping beer, wine and spirits," Donahoe told the Associated Press. "We'd like to be in that business."
Sure, the Postal Service would love to be in that business, especially since the agency reported on Friday a net loss for the third quarter of $740 million. But vinters and brewers aren't so sure how great it will be for their bottom lines. A range of challenges, from the extra manpower needed to pack up and ship alcohol to state liquor law restrictions on sales, have liquor proprietors less than bubbly about Donahoe's proposal.
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Donahoe told that AP that people who tour a winery on vacation could more easily mail a bottle or two home, for example. The USPS is considering special boxes that would hold two, four or six bottles and ship for a flat rate to anywhere in the United States, he said. The same could be true for micro-brewers that only sell locally.
Sounds good, but experts said the reality is that many craft brewers simply won't have the money or staffing to devote to mail-order beer. So while the opportunity is there, the resources might not be available. Most wineries may have the same issues.
It is unclear whether there would be enough demand for mail-order beer to make it worth doing, especially since it can be costly for brewers. After all, beer is heavy, fragile and perishable. Consumers will also have to decide whether they're willing to pay shipping fees to have something delivered when there are dozens of options in their local liquor store. Some might offer specialty beers to spur sales, but consumers already line up outside the brewery and sell out the specialty line, bringing the need for mail sales into question.
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Still, without speculating about the volume of business a mail-order option might bring, the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association, which represents 1,797 U.S. craft and larger beer makers, said certain small brewers with specialty beers would have an interest in the USPS option.
Michael Peticolas, owner of Peticolas Brewing Company in Dallas, is cautiously optimistic about the possibility of shipping beer. He said such an option would likely help boost sales, because craft beer is a luxury item, which people are willing to pay a premium for, even if that includes shipping fees.
U.S. law currently prevents the Postal Service from mailing alcohol. The Postal Service even asks customers to cover any alcohol-related logos or labels if they choose to use an alcoholic beverage box for shipping.
In turn, commercial and homebrewers ship thousands of small packages through licensed couriers and package delivery companies every year, said Bob Pease, chief operating officer of the Brewers Association.
To get a piece of that business and raise its revenues, the USPS is urging changes in how it delivers the mail, but its fate is left in the hands of Congress.
Seeking to stabilize the agency's ailing finances, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform last month approved the Postal Reform Act of 2013, which would cut letter deliveries to five days and phase out door-to-door deliveries over 10 years. The bill does not include a provision to allow the delivery of alcohol, though, because the prohibition falls under a different committee's jurisdiction, committee spokesman Ali Ahmad told CNBC.
The Senate, however, passed legislation last year that included a provision allowing for the delivery of alcohol. Such shipments would have to comply with any state laws where the shipment originated and was delivered. The recipient would have to be at least 21 years old and would need to provide valid, government-issued photo identification upon delivery.
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"Other than the archaic federal law, there is no reason why the Postal Service should not be able to compete for that business and safely deliver shipments beer, wine, and spirits to adults with proper identification," Pease told CNBC in an e-mail. "The Postal Service would be ideal for thousands of shipments of samples for home brewer competitions and commercial samples."
Even if the law is changed to allow delivery of alcohol, state laws might prohibit brewers from selling directly to the consumer, as is the case in Minnesota, Summit Brewing Company spokeswoman Carey Matthews told CNBC. There is a similar legal restriction in Texas, said Peticolas, an attorney-turned-brewer. He added that brewers would also likely have to apply for a label in each state they ship to.
"Even if the law is changed for the Postal Service tomorrow, it wouldn't help me or any other brewer in Texas because there are many other rings for us to jump through before we could ship to that guy in Ohio," Peticolas said.
The push to mail alcohol shows the Postal Service is looking at all ways to generate some cash. Last year, the agency lost $16 billion. It currently faces a $15 billion shortfall in the year ahead, largely due to legacy costs, including the sizable pensions offered to employees that will retire in the next ten years. In turn, it's working toward restructuring its retail, delivery and mail processing operations.
"We don't want to take any more debt on," Donahoe said. "We want to be able to get profitable, pay it down, just like any other business would, so that you stay strong for the future."
Despite the reservations about Donahoe's plan, some in the alcohol business are keeping an open mind. "We have so many people asking us if we ship or if we have the ability to mail to family members of theirs," said Emily Hart, who with her fiance, Eric Harris, co-owns Two-EE's, a small winery in Huntington, Ind. "If we could mail our wines home for our customers, that's something we know our customers want. Anyway you can reach your customers is always an advantage."