Googly-Eyed Santas, Rude Frogs, and Other Adventures in Beer Label Censorship


Total Wine

Tim Mak collects some amusing examples of federal beer-label censorship in a Daily Beast piece about Kent "Battle" Martin, a "pedantic pain in the ass" at the Treasury Department's Tax and Trade Bureau with wide authority to decide what brewers may say about their products. A sampling of Martin's decisions:

Battle has rejected a beer label for the King of Hearts, which had a playing card image on it, because the heart implied that the beer would have a health benefit.

He rejected a beer label featuring a painting called The Conversion of Paula By Saint Jerome because its name, St. Paula's Liquid Wisdom, contained a medical claim—that the beer would grant wisdom.

He rejected a beer called Pickled Santa because Santa's eyes were too "googly" on the label, and labels cannot advertise the physical effects of alcohol. (A less googly-eyed Santa was later approved.)

He rejected a beer called Bad Elf because it featured an "Elf Warning," suggesting that elves not operate toy-making machinery while drinking the ale. The label was not approved on the grounds that the warning was confusing to consumers.

Flying Dog Brewery

As I reported back in 1994, when beer labels were overseen by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF), this sort of thing has been going on for many years. One of my main examples was Grant's Scottish Ale, a Washington beer that briefly came in six-packs labeled with nutritional information. The BATF found that intolerable, not because the information was inaccurate but because it was "misleading." How so? Federal alcohol regulations forbid false or misleading claims about "curative or therapeutic effects," and the BATF cited a 1954 regulatory interpretation concluding that "any reference to vitamin content in the advertising of malt beverages would mislead a substantial number of persons to believe that consumption of the product would produce curative or therapeutic effects."

After the brewery's owners went public with the dispute, the BATF started picking other fights with them. It suddenly decided that Grant's Spiced Ale, a seemingly straightforward name that the brewery had used for years, was "frivolous." Meanwhile, it gave a pass to far less descriptive names such as Labatt's Blue (which is not blue), Pete's Wicked Ale (which is not malevolent), and Blackened Voodoo (which is not seared, spiced, or magical).

Lagunitas Brewing

The arbitrary power wielded by federal alcohol regulators stems from vague, subjective rules such as the ban on misleading claims and the ban on references to psychoactive effects (a rule that did in The Kronik, a beer that California's Lagunitas Brewery was forced to rename; it is now called, appropriately enough, Censored Ale). There is also a rule against "obscene or indecent" representations, which the BATF invoked in 1986 to force the redesign of an Italian wine label featuring an etching of a winged woman whose "upthrust and very evident" breasts had to be removed.

Worse, brewers (and manufacturers of other alcoholic beverages) have to deal with this sort of nonsense at the state level as well. In 1998 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit rebuked the New York State Liquor Authority for trying to ban Bad Frog beer, which regulators did not like because its namesake amphibian was depicted on the label "with the second of its four unwebbed 'fingers' extended in a manner evocative of a well known human gesture of insult." In 2009 the Michigan Liquor Control Commission banned Flying Dog's Raging Bitch, a Belgian-style IPA, because it did not like the name. It reversed that decision two years later after discovering this thing called the First Amendment. The Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board evidently had no problem with Raging Bitch, but in 2012 it banned the sale of Founders Brewing Company's Dirty Bastard Scotch ale, even while allowing Stone Brewing's Arrogant Bastard Ale (not to mention Fat Bastard wines).

For years the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) enforced a bizarre, inaccurate nomenclature for beer labels, calling malt beverages "beer" if they contained up to 4 percent alcohol by volume and "ale" if they were stronger than that. Meanwhile, it banned words that it deemed references to alcoholic content, going so far as to instruct Austin's Jester King Brewery that it could not call its strong ale (the name of a beer style) "strong." Those rules were overturned by a federal judge on First Amendment grounds in 2011. That decision, by U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks, featured this memorable passage:

TABC's argument, combined with artful legislative drafting, could be used to justify any restriction on commercial speech. For instance, Texas would likely face no (legal) obstacle if it wished to pass a law defining the word "milk" to mean "a nocturnal flying mammal that eats insects and employs echolocation." Under TABC's logic, Texas would then be authorized not only to prohibit use of the word "milk" by producers of a certain liquid dairy product, but also to require Austin promoters to advertise the famous annual "Milk Festival" on the Congress Avenue bridge [a reference to the Austin Bat Festival]. Regardless of one's feelings about milk or bats, this result is inconsistent with the guarantees of the First Amendment.

The one clear legal defeat for federal alcohol regulations came in 1995, when the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Treasury Department could no longer stop brewers from telling their customers how much alcohol was in their beer. Yes, that was an actual rule enforced by federal government, on the theory that beer drinkers needed to be protected from such information, lest they choose the brand that gave them the most bang for their buck. Fortunately, regulators still have the power to shield consumers from images of playing cards and googly-eyed Santas.

[Thanks to Chaz Lakip for the Daily Beast link.]


NEXT: Yes, "FOIA Denial Officer" Is a Real Job Title in the "Most Transparent Administration in History"

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  1. Wait (Wurst!)…the Santa can be “pickled” but not googly?

  2. Delirium Tremens has pink elephants on the label.

    1. Rock Art Vermonster does not, in fact, turn you into either a Vermonter or a Monster.

      1. Did it turn you into Rock Art?

  3. The one clear legal defeat for federal alcohol regulations came in 1995, when the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Treasury Department could no longer stop brewers from telling their customers how much alcohol was in their beer. Yes, that was an actual rule enforced by federal government, on the theory that beer drinkers needed to be protected from such information, lest they choose the brand that gave them the most bang for their buck.

    Here in Maine they just started enforcing a forgotten law that prohibits brewpubs telling customers the alcohol content of the brews that they have on tap. They can display it on the bottle, but they’re not allowed to write it on the chalk board.

    1. That just seems dumb and counterproductive. I know I’ve used posted alcohol content of unusual beers to make sure I didn’t get something that was too strong. Sometimes you don’t want that 8% ABV ale with lunch.

      I still notice that beers with “normal” alcohol content generally don’t label the ABV, but stronger beers (and sometimes weaker beers) usually do. Not sure if that is a rule or just customary practice.

      1. I agree. I use the ABV number to reduce the alcohol I consume, not increase it.

        OBTW, this Florida boy will be in Vermont, NH, and Maine in September. Any recommended micros I need to visit?

        1. My beer snobbery has tapered off a lot in the past several years so there are a lot of small ones I haven’t really checked out. For NH beers I’ve enjoyed Moat Mountain and Woodstock Inn breweries lately.

        2. I like pretty much all the Maine micros except Allagash. I’m just not into the Belgian stuff anymore.

          1. Oh, man. I love Allagash, but they’re usually kinda pricey.

        3. Me and the wife had lunch here a couple months ago. It was pretty awesome.

        4. Or even to pace yourself: “Gee, that last one had 7.2% alcohol, maybe I’ll make the next couple of ones a little lighter…”

      2. On the one hand gov’t authorities want people to be warned about alcohol, but OTOH those authorities don’t want people to be attracted to alcohol. So they don’t know whether to forbid or mandate labeling like that.

      3. I don’t see how somebody blindly ordering three 11% brews by accident is a good thing. Could someone use it irresponsibly? Sure, but at least that guy knows what he’s about to get into.

        1. This. See my London pub story below.

        2. That’s the thing. I mean, if you know you are driving and want to drink responsibly, why the fuck should you not be allowed to know which beer has the least alcohol in it? It’s a really fucking stupid law.

    2. Can brewpubs display not alcohol by volume (NABV, ex: 89%)?

      1. It might last a day until the regulators shoot it down.

      2. Ooh. Good idea. It could be like 98% fat free meaning it’s 2% fat.

        So you could put up on the chalkboard “94% alcohol free!”

  4. Sullum is clearly too drunk to pull off alt-text.


    I just helped my sister do a pumpkin mead this weekend. She’s been having trouble with beer lately (other alcohols still fine), but still wants pumpkin for the fall so we’re giving this unconventional approach a try. It smelled/tasted delicious when we put it in primary. I’ve very curious to see how it turned out. We actually got all the honey for free too; we invited our friends over to brew with us and their dad sent a bunch of his freshly harvested stuff on condition that we send him back a bottle when we finish.

    1. The chest freezer that I had converted into a keg cooler died. And I have yet to replace it since I’m spending all my money on car repairs. Priorities suck.

      1. Your priorities are reversed?

        1. Yes, being able to get to work is way over-rated.

    2. I’m going to do a batch tonight. I’ve only done one small extract-only batch before (Mr. Beer…don’t make fun it was a gift from the ball-n-chain), so it’s just going to be a wit kit. Then after I move it to the secondary I’ll do the IPA kit that I have.

      1. You’ve got to start somewhere. I did extract for several years before I made the switch to all grain. Good luck!

        (Random pet peeve: the word “kit”)

      2. Out of curiosity, what would you call it besides a kit?

        I got the John Palmer “How To Brew” book for my birthday, and I want to get my process down with a couple [not “kits” but whatever Auric calls them], and then switch to all-grain. There is a home brew store in my neighborhood that seems pretty well stocked.

        1. Once you switch to AG, get “Designing Great Beers”. The best recipe book containing exactly zero recipes.

          I learned from HTB too.

          1. I got started with Palmer’s online version of How to Brew.

            1. I saw that the whole book was online after I received it (it was part of the Mr. Beer gift). I still would have picked up a hard copy because I’m one of those crazy millenials that prefers to not read an e-copy of something if I don’t have to.

            2. Ditto. The advantage of the book is it is up-to-date, online is getting pretty old.

              1. I do a lot of historical brewing. The books I use are pretty old too 😉

          2. Thanks for the tip. I just placed an order for that book, along with a Glock 78 field knife, because, why the fuck not? Thanks Amazon!

            1. My copy of DGB is getting pretty worn out. I havent opened it in forever, but for years it was my go to in creating beers.

              Its historical information isnt entirely accurate, but its concepts on how to put together recipes changes the way you think.

              Also, less is more. Do it with fewer ingredients/malts/hops/whatever, not more. More creates a mess, 99% of the time.

        2. Any other word. I hate the word, though I can’t say why. It just sounds horrible.

          1. Fair enough. A friend in college couldn’t stand the words “snack” or “moist.” No reason other than he thought they were gross sounding.

    3. Mead is too damn sweet for me. I have an entire bottle of Viking Blod that I can’t seem to sip without going into diabetic shock.

      My next homebrew is gonna be a Allagash Curieux clone. Although I really wanna do a lambic after that, having never brewed a sour before.

      1. Mead doesn’t have to be sweet. That just means that whoever brewed it put in more honey than the yeast could eat.

        I’m thinking about making a mead soon. There’s a beekeeper up the road who sells honey. I figure that will have a better flavor than the clover stuff from the store.

        1. Store honeys have been processed to death — that’s the good ones. The bad ones are mostly processed glucose with coloring added.

          Real honey (including clover) makes awesome booze 😉

      2. Mead can be bone dry or syrupy sweet. It depends on who makes it and what they like to drink. Commercial meads are generally not good indicators of what good mead tastes like.

        1. I guess the mead makers I know like sweet, because even their driest meads I’ve tasted haven’t been that dry.

          1. I will make red wine bone dry (as god intended), but I find bone dry mead a bit weird. So I always go at least off dry with a hint of sweetness to balance the earthy flavors of the honey.

          2. The first mead I made was incredibly dry. The FG was 1.004.

        2. Try champagne yeast for meads. Gets a very complete conversion, pretty dry.

          Hell, then bottle it like beer and have a sparkling mead. Heavenly.

      3. Have you ever had Blaand? I stumpled across an article about it the other day and was intrigued.

    4. Oud Bruin is in the keg; Flanders Red Ale is in the secondary; Belgian Dubbel is in the secondary.

      This weekend I will start five batches of small mead using five different ale yeasts. I have always worked with wine yeasts in the past. But I wanted to try making a lower-alcohol, fizzy mead for a change.

      1. I’ve made ale with several pounds of honey in it, and it tasted like clover stem.

        1. bad honey

          1. Like I said in an above comment, next time I’m getting my honey from a beekeeper, not the store. I’m sure that wildflower honey leaves behind something better than “notes of clover stem.”

            1. And I answered you above too 😉

        2. How’s clover stem taste? Chlorophyllish? Like parsley? I think I’d enjoy that.

          1. It wasn’t good. And I’ve got a pretty open mind when it comes to tasking stuff.

            1. Clover is actually pretty tasty, though.

      2. How long are you aging the Bruin?

        1. To be determined.

          I bottled about a gallon in 12 oz bottles. So I’ll pop one open every now and then to see how sour it is getting.

    5. This morning I had my first blow off from a starter. 4 cups water and 4 oz. DME in a growler… I figured I had more then enough space. The harvested Ommegang yeast had other ideas and left a sticky mess all over my counter.

      1. heh.

        You aint a homebrewer until you have had to mop your ceiling.

        But that should teach you to use blowoff instead of airlocks.

        1. Only the first batch. So, it’s been 10+ years since I had to clean the ceiling.

          That being said, I accidentally knocked a 1-gallon jug (empty) onto the top of a 14-gallon demijon (not-empty). That kept me distracted for about 3 hours.

          1. Yeah, it was summer of 2004 when I last mopped my ceiling.

            1. headspace is your friend

              1. As our blowoff tubes.

        2. 5+ years with still no issues with airlocks.

          1. Then your fermentation isnt aggressive enough.

            Or you are leaving yourself plenty of headspace.

            But Im going with the first.

            1. For being a professional brewer you sure sound like you can’t get simplicity of headspace.

              1. Even pros plan for blow off.

                Head space is space that could be more beer.

                In my homebrewing, I would do 5 gallon batches in a 6.5-7 gallon bucket. Most of the time that was plenty. For wheat beers, especially, not even fucking close.

                For some of my most aggressive brews, I would have needed 8-9 gallons to avoid any blowoff.

                And once the foam starts going thru the airlock, its gonna clog.

                1. Head space is space that could be more beer.

                  Yup, head space is wasted space.

                  But I plan my batches based on the size of the secondary, not the primary. Of course, there are lots of possible ways of combining 3-gal, 5-gal, 6-gal, 6.5-gal, 9-gal, and 14-gal glass containers. 😉

          2. I prefer to use primaries with lots of headspace and loose-fitting lids — so no airlock. Then I use an airlock on the secondary.

            I do still have a few old primaries with air-tight lids that I will use airlocks with. But I will eventually replace those.

            1. I use airlock on secondary, just not on primary.

              Open fermentation, blowoff, insane headspace, all will work, but I prefer blowoff.

              I like aggressive fermentation too.

              1. I have moved towards using rubbermaid brute garbage cans as primaries (food grade). I have 10-gal, 20-gal, 32-gal, and 44-gal primaries at home. I almost always have 8 to 12 inches of headspace, so I just don’t bother to user a blowoff or an airlock.

                I have just recently made some air-tight 6 1/2 primaries that I will use airlocks on. This is to make traditional mead which ferments so damn slow I actually worry about not producing enough CO2 to keep a non-air-tight primary purged of O2.

    6. Sullum is clearly too drunk to pull off alt-text.

      It either just took him a while, or he left the job to minions.

      1. I’m counting this as a significant win for me.

    7. Probably sleeping off another of those brownies.

    8. No room for a dedicated chill chest so I need to ferment in my pantry which means autumn/winter brewing only.

      Only done two brews, a hefeweizen which was just OK, and an IPA which I found to be quite tasty.

      I tried making a couple small batches of apple cider. Not great, but drinkable.

      I find myself looking at sugary liquids and wondering what it might taste like if I pitched some yeast and waited a few weeks.

      1. How hot is your place? Unless you’re doing lagers I’m surprised you would need any chilling.

        1. I normally keep my house at 75-77F in summer.

          I suppose I could do some kind of evaporative cooling mthods, or a cool water bath to brew in summer but I’d catch hell from the wife for it.

          1. That’s not too warm to ferment.

            1. Uh…yes it is, for most styles of beer.

              72 is pushing it for typical ale yeasts. And, of course, insanely warm for lager yeasts.

              For Belgians or Saison. Well, 75-77 is too cool for Saison.

              1. It’s not ideal, but it’s still an option. It’d be better to just turn on the AC and get it to normal room temperature, but if your alternative is to wait until winter just go with mid 70s. It’s still going to come out pretty good.

                1. I work in my basement. The temperature normally stays between 62 in mid winter to 68 in mid summer. I brew everything at these temperatures — wine, mead, cider, and ale.

                  1. This is what I did. I would use my garage in the summer for saisons and for lagers in the winter.

                    But everything else would go in basement in the 60s.

                    Actually, would start my hefe upstairs, would hold about 72 for first 5 days, then move to basement. I like banana.

                    1. We had a brutally cold winter. My brewing area dropped to about 57 and stayed there for a couple of months (into late April). It delayed several batches of ale that I was planning to make

                2. pretty good isnt good enough.

                  Temperature control is what makes great homebrewers.

                  1. Pretty good is better than nonexistent.

    9. I’m brewing a Citric Pale ale right now – put it in the secondary fermenter last night. It smells delicious – I’m hoping to (somewhat) match the Grapefruit IPA I had recently.

  5. Kent “Battle” Martin stupid fuckhead.

    I like my name better.

    1. +1 bath of blood

  6. It’s the price we pay for civilization.

  7. Wow. Not being able to know how much liquor is in your drink could have bad consequences.

    1. You’d think the market would sort out pretty quickly which consumers preferred what information.

      1. But the consumers made the wrong decisions!

        /nanny statist

        1. I remember being at a pub in London, trying ciders. I bought a couple or four pints of scrumpy, which I thought had the same ABV as the clear ciders. I found out later that night how wrong I was. Brutal.

          (Some do, but the ones I got had 50% more alcohol).

  8. Kent “Battle” Martin, a “pedantic pain in the ass” at the Treasury Department’s Tax and Trade Bureau

    What a cunt.

    This whole story illustrates how much far-ranging effect just one cunty regulator or bureaucrat can have. Just think of the effects of millions of these shitheads arbitrarily denying/enforcing/whatever it is they do. It has to be colossal how much they disrupt and hinder business.

    1. Follow the money, E, follow the money.

      1. Yes, but you know that this guy loves denying shit just for the sake of it. That’s the kind of person that gravitates to the position.

        1. You know that some brewer has had to come up with a label that mocks this cunt, a’la “Lord Farquaad.”

          1. Except that if the petty bureaucrat ever gets that he was being mocked he will declare jihad on the company that did it. And you know a cunt of his type will spend every waking moment figuring out ways to fuck them.

            1. Oh, absolutely. I see it as one of 2 options:

              1. Design it and never submit it, just to blow off steam and to hang it in the brew house.
              2. Use it to draw the fucker out and take his head off with the court system.

              #2 is iffy, but I’d be tempted if I had the cash.

          2. How about the “Tnuc a si Nitram Tnek Saison” (or something), you could pass it off as an ethnic homebrew recipe from someplace exotic, hence the funky name.

            1. That works pretty well. When I first read it I thought it was in Vietnamese or something.

    2. Which is why entrepreneurship is dying and it takes over a decade to build one fucking skyscraper or bridge, if it gets built at all.

      1. Well that and the waste, corruption, and graft. Don’t forget those.

        1. Yeah, I’m just gonna go curl up in a dark room now.

      2. Golden Gate Bridge: 3 years to build.

        Bridge access road: 8 years and counting.

    3. Ah yes. Good old “Kunt” Martin…

  9. I’m sure there are some people who just love the way Kent “Battle” Martin does his job. And I’m sure they always remember to buy him a nice dinner whenever they’re in town.

  10. Battle has rejected a beer label for the King of Hearts, which had a playing card image on it, because the heart implied that the beer would have a health benefit.

    That’s a stretch. Even for the derpiest beureacrat, that’s a stretch. But let’s say that they were trying to claim a health benefit, alcohol does have many health benefits. If it doesn’t, then someone at ATF needs to have a conversation with the guys at the FDA and HHS because that part of government keeps telling me 1 or 2 beers or glasses of wine does, in fact, provide health benefits.

    1. Queen of Clubs: domestic violence
      Jack of Spades: racist imagry
      Ace of Diamonds: income inequality

      1. Ace of Spades: MOTORHEAD

        1. Ace of Base: THE SIGN

          *ducks and runs*

        2. King of Queens: horrid TV

            1. Yeah…but that picture has to be 20 years old.

              She’s slightly ‘zaftig’ these days.

              1. Well yeah, I was talking about the King of Queens days.

  11. I’m surprised Stone Coast’s 420 IPA made it through. I mean, it’s got 420 on a blazing fireball, and the green background is clearly marijuana buds.

    1. But it doesn’t mislead the consumer in any way!

  12. This strikes me as … odd. A Commissar of Beer Labels…. We have a Commissar of Beer Labels. We have a GODDAM COMMISSAR OF (FORNICATING) BEER LABELS.

    1. Don’t turn around, uh oh!

      1. Alles klar, Herr Kommissar.

  13. “Blackened Voodoo (which is not seared, spiced, or magical)”

    Now hold on a freaking second there….

    …someone’s clearly never had Blackened Voodoo.

    I for one can attest to its magical powers. I saw some white people drinking it, and next thing I knew, they were dancing!

    1. Yes, but were they in rhythm?

      1. Elbows, knees, and an overbite. Not pretty.


      1. Winter it will send…

        One of my favorite songs evar

  14. “a winged woman whose “upthrust and very evident” breasts had to be removed.”

    Angelina Jolie?

    1. Winged Victory, one of the most celebrated sculptures in human history?

  15. After the brewery’s owners went public with the dispute, the BATF started picking other fights with them.

    It’s like that with FDA too. Even though the agency’s W-L record in court is weak, people affected adversely by regulatory decisions by them rarely litigate in regular court court, because usually those parties have a number of products under FDA jurisdiction that can be held hostage because so much discretion is available to the agency.

  16. I’m led to believe that Hard Mike gave Kent Battle Martin the courtesy of a reacharound.

  17. Battle has rejected a beer label for the King of Hearts, which had a playing card image on it, because the heart implied that the beer would have a health benefit.

    So “King of Spades”is definitely out, then? Because it won’t actually make you Ruler of all the Hottentots.

  18. If I wanted to get shitfaced, I’d just go back to drinking tequila or Wild Turkey. I drink beer specifically because it is a tasty, refreshing, and low test liquid delicacy.

    1. My current thing:

      Its spendy, but my oh my is it wonderful stuff:

      Del Maguey “single village” mescal.

      Its like tequila and scotch had a steamy affair, and this is their love child.

    2. If I wanted to get shitfaced, I’d just go back to drinking tequila or Wild Turkey

      Which is just another reason this is all so stupid. Growing up in Oklahoma, I have gotten smashed more than a few times on beer that was “less than 3.2%” and probably around 1 or 2%. Yeah, you have to drink a shitload in a really short period of time to get drunk but that is what drinking games like Consume are for.

  19. Yes, that was an actual rule enforced by federal government, on the theory that beer drinkers needed to be protected from such information, lest they choose the brand that gave them the most bang for their buck.

    Which is absolutely, utterly, and completely idiotic. More often than not, people are selecting down based on alcohol.

  20. I suppose Fuckface Martin’s Bureaucratic Brown Ale wouldn’t make it through the approval process.

  21. Where the fuck is Tony to tell us all how we need beer label regulations because market failure or something?

    1. Some things are too stupid for even Tony to say?

      No… that can’t be right.

  22. Left out was Firestone’s Velvet Merlkin/Merlin problem.

  23. The daily beast article was unpleasantly fawning. Apparently Mr. Martin is widely respected for being such a hard working son-of-a-gun!

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