Beer

Government Shutdown Means No New Beers, Because No Bureaucrats Are Working To Approve New Beer Labels

Why do we need the government to do that in the first place?

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The ongoing partial shutdown of the federal government, now in its 19th day, means breweries around the country are unable to get the government's permission to sell new types of beer—not because it's dangerous or unhealthy to make new alcoholic drinks while government regulators are on furlough, but because there's no one available to approve labels for cans and bottles of booze.

Those labels have to be approved by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which is housed within the Treasury Department, one of the parts of the federal government affected by the shutdown. While the TTB's main responsibility is collecting alcohol taxes—and don't worry, it's still doing that during the shutdown—the bureau is also charged with ensuring that beers, wines, and spirits accurately communicate details like the amount of alcohol by volume (ABV) and the mandatory Surgeon General's warning. Without government approval, the drinks those labels envelope can't be sold.

The turn-around time for this rote bureaucratic process is generally pretty quick, reports Philly.com's Allison Steele, usually taking no more than a few weeks. But the shutdown has breweries rethinking their plans and even scrapping beers that were already in the pipeline. Michael Contreras, director of sales and marketing for the Pennsylvania-based 2SP Brewing Company, tells Philly.com that the brewery has canceled plans to make an imperial oatmeal stout, because it was unclear they would get label approval by the time the beer is ready.

At Atlas Brew Works in Washington, D.C., a brand new apricot IPA might have to be dumped because it's already fermenting in the tanks but there's no timetable for getting approval from the TTB. "That hurts, emotionally and monetarily," Atlas founder and CEO Justin Cox tells DCist.

Other breweries are taking their frustrations directly to the president.

The longer the shutdown drags on, the more costly the consequences could be, with the potential to spread up and down the supply chain.

"If we can't get our new labels approved in a timely manner, then it affects our entire operation. It hurts our employees, our farmers who provide our grain, our hops suppliers, our label printers, our box manufacturers and ultimately our distributors, retailers, and beer drinkers," Bill Butcher, founder of Port City Brewing Company in Alexandria, Virginia, tells the Craft Beer Cellar newsletter. "This is a failure of government to do its job! Everyone suffers from the shutdown by slowing our business after we have busted our tails planning. It is inexcusable that this should happen."

The Brewers Association, a trade group for small breweries, is advising breweries to expect longer waiting times for approval, even after the government reopens, because there will be a backlog of applications.

With the government shutdown grinding brewery operations to a halt, it seems like a good time to question whether the TTB's role in approving beer, wine, and spirit labels is really necessary. After all, we're not talking about oversight of anything that affects the safety or quality of the drinks themselves—the TTB's involvement is just one more step that breweries and wineries must take before getting their product to the public, but it's not a step that does much of anything in the public's interest.

The other problem with the TTB is a First Amendment one. As Greg Beato pointed out in a 2008 feature for Reason, the TTB routinely denies certain labels for alcoholic beverages that would be considered perfectly fine to slap on any other product. "If you're a perfume manufacturer and you'd like to name your latest fragrance Opium, no government agent will stop you," he wrote. "The world's flagship soda is called Coke. A company called Chronic Candy has been selling lollipops flavored with cannabis flower essential oil for eight years."

But the TTB has used vague statues to justify blocking labels for beers that make references, usually, to drugs. In 2016, for example, a Minnesota-based brewery was told it could not sell a beer made with lavender extract, sunflower oil, and dates as "LSD Ale." The exact same product, though, is perfectly legal to be sold under the name "Lavender Sunflower Date Honey Ale," which is what Indeed Brewing Company ended up calling it. By any other name, right?

Instead of having to proactively approve every label for every alcoholic drink sold in America, the TTB's bureaucrats could be relegated to an enforcement role. Breweries and wineries know what information they are supposed to include on their labels; if they fail to do that, let the TTB get involved. That's how most other government agencies regulate consumer goods anyway. Better yet, do away with the TTB entirely and let the Federal Trade Commission enforce the beer label requirements if breweries fail to note the ABV of their brews.

The TTB is exactly the type of government agency that a shutdown should make us reconsider. When it's operational, it causes problems. When it's shut down, it causes other problems. Let's get rid of it.

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44 responses to “Government Shutdown Means No New Beers, Because No Bureaucrats Are Working To Approve New Beer Labels

  1. Exactly. Too much bureaucracy for stupid stuff.

    They can easily get their product to market if not for agencies that shouldn’t exist in the first place.

  2. This is actually a good thing. I hope we find a 1000 odd things that makes the average person wonder why the government is involved at all.

    1. And then they get interviewed on Jimmy Kimmel.

    2. But the mainstream answer isn’t what Eric points out: “The TTB is exactly the type of government agency that a shutdown should make us reconsider.” Instead it’s the argument that Pelosi and Schumer used last night… we must reopen government so they can continue taking away our liberties.

    3. They’ll kind of care until the shutdown ends and then it’s back to dumb business as usual.

    4. This is actually a good thing. I hope we find a 1000 odd things that makes the average person wonder why the government is involved at all.

      I kinda wish it were more directly nonsensical and painful though. 2-3 weeks without new beer labels is more of an oddity than something that we must absolutely, positively fix if the swamp is to be drained. Especially when some of the label regulations make at least a modicum of sense (LSD Ale*) and the whole thing can be resolved by pushing the regulatory agency in question into a reactive role rather than eliminating it.

      *Contains no LSD

    5. Yet it seems to result in people just getting mad that they can’t get X done, so can we please not shut the government down so I can please get X done.

      1. Hey @realDonaldTrump, we are an American-owned company and we want to distribute a new beer, but the shutdown includes the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau… so we currently can’t move forward. Please help. The people want the beer. #beer2020

        Alternate tweet: hey @realDonaldTrump, why do we have to wait around for an alphabet agency to slap a label on our bottles? Keep your campaign promises and shut this agency down!

  3. Supposedly infrastructure is a big fucking deal. Kill these agencies and make them lay down asphalt instead.

    1. Just think if we had 99,999,999,999 bottles of beer on The Wall? Take one down and pass it around, immigrants. That should keep you occupied.

      1. Wait, all the immigrants are drunk latinas? I need to rethink this wall.

  4. >>>our farmers who provide our grain, our hops suppliers

    have other buyers dude.

    1. Is your whole shtick here just to get web traffic for your blog?

      1. her posts may as well start with, “i essentially earned $578….”

        1. Of course, one could read her post as saying that her blog is in fact the #1 crisis in our nation.

          1. Which just goes to show her own vanity. The lack of sexy latinas in much of the US is the number one crisis.

      2. Yes, it’s a blog whore. Hopefully it’ll get banned soon.

  5. it is stupid, in the town I live in there is a business whose whole business is nothing but dealing with government beer buracrazy

  6. With the government shutdown grinding brewery operations to a halt, it seems like a good time to question whether the TTB’s role in approving beer, wine, and spirit labels is really necessary.

    Of course the anarchists are going to seize our current crisis as an opportunity to push their anti-public safety agenda.

    1. Wait, you mean I still won’t be able to find lawn jarts in the toy aisle?

  7. If they can’t approve new labels then shouldn’t that also mean that they can’t enforce their draconian control over new labels?

    1. Haha. No. They always have the means to wreck your asshole.

    2. Try selling a new beer without a “government approved” label on it and see what happens.

      1. What, precisely, would that be?

  8. “Hey @realDonaldTrump, we are an American-owned company and we want to distribute a new beer, but the shutdown includes the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau”

    The President didn’t shut down the Government, though.

    Congress did, by not passing spending bills.

    (Oh, the President keeps saying he did, and saying he might veto the bills – but nobody’s called him on it, because Congress hasn’t done the job. If they called him, I’d expect him to fold.

    His claim to have done so is, however, simply false from the point of view of civics; a promise to veto bills doesn’t matter when the bills aren’t being passed in the first place.)

  9. Is this an argument for or against government interference?

    “At Atlas Brew Works in Washington, D.C., a brand new apricot IPA might have to be dumped “

    1. Someone had better make sure that piss-in-a-bottle remains sterile!

  10. “Lavender Sunflower Date Honey Ale,”

    In the words of Denis Leary: “Call it Pussy Ale while you’re at it…”

  11. Gosh! So in addition to the Transport Sozialist Arbeiterpartei we might also lose the Totalistisches B?ro? Beer might be totally deregulated?

  12. Why do we need the government to do that in the first place?

    Oh right, just let the animals in the zoo print out their own labels with whatever on them.

    1. Animals in the zoo?? Deplorables?

  13. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB)

    Wait, this is the first time I’ve ever heard of this alphabet agency. Ye gods, it’s worse than I thought.

  14. Exactly!
    The dirty little secret of our “administrative state” is that upwards of 90% of what they do is essentially “make work”; and it, and those doing it, can be eliminated without any loss of protection or security to the citizens residing here.

  15. It was great (and awful) to listen to Adam Carolla describe on his podcast the issues he has had to go through to get labels approved for his products like Mangria. And having a government agency approve something and then disapprove the same thing on another product. So much of it seems like just the whim of the person handling the application or their mood on a given day. I would like to say that we deserve better, but often lately I am not so sure.

  16. How are these people not considered “essential personnel”? They should be required to perform their jobs, even if they aren’t getting paid.

  17. “?the bureau is also charged with ensuring that beers, wines, and spirits accurately communicate details like the amount of alcohol by volume (ABV)…”

    That’s funny. It wasn’t so long ago that the feds banned brewers from disclosing ABV on their labels. It took a Supreme Court decision to allow ABV amounts to be disclosed. Now the same government reviews labels to assure ABV accuracy.

  18. “Bud” is slang for marijuana but it’s allowed? Oh, the hypocrisy!

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  20. Ignore the regulations. Just print your labels, making sure to dot all the i’s. The fight loud and hard if the regulators try to punish you. (GoFundMe will be your savior in that case.) Remember the adage about forgiveness and permission?

  21. This is the sort of lazy misrepresentative reporting I expect from other sources, but usually not Reason. Federal approval is only required for beer that is going to be sold across state lines. The vast majority of craft breweries sell all of their product within the state of production, and for almost all of those that do sell to other states, those sales represent a small fraction of their total sales. Yes, that’s some impact, and it would certainly be better if there were no such impact. But this story makes it sound like craft brewers are being prevented from selling new beers…period…which is absolute nonsense.

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