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How the federal government approves beer

As it turns out, "truth in advertising" is the biggest hurdle to hop.
Credit: NCM-File photo
PORTLAND, ME - AUGUST 10: Alex Lascars pours a beer for a customer at the Bissell Brothers Brewing Company's taproom.

We've heard from NEWS CENTER Maine's Clay Gordon about how local breweries are being affected by the government shutdown.

But how, exactly? It depends on how far the brewery is in the process.

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which is part of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, is the first step for any new brewery to obtain a license to operate.  Only when approved by the bureau, can the brewery continue the process and apply to the state of Maine for it's state license.

If that brewery is approved, opens and wants to sell its beer to other states, there's another federal step: the permit.

The brewery has to file a COLA (Certificate of Label Approval/Exemption). The beer recipe, proposed bottle label and permit information are submitted for approval.

But of the requirements, one tends to be a sticking point above all others: the label.

According to Brandon Mazer, a lawyer specializing in alcohol labeling laws, it has everything to do with what he calls "Truth in advertising," or known more as Subpart J of Title 27 of the Code of Federal Regulations of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

He says regulators look for several features on the bottle label, including:

  • Surgeon General's warning
  • Class of alcohol (Ale, stout, etc)
  • Name and address of brewery
  • False or illegal advertising:
  • Labels can't advertise alcohol amount as selling point
  • Can't have foods on the label that are not in the product

Mazer also says each day the shutdown continues, can heavily delay a product roll out.

What used to take about 8-10 days, as of today, now takes 45 days.

According to Sean Sullivan of the Maine Brewers Guild, that can cost breweries that sell most of its product out of state a fortune.

A brewery can spend months or years planning a new brew, which includes the federal approval process. Without approval, any brand new beer that is new to its lineup can be delayed.

The delay can cost a brewery big bucks as any new seasonal flavors can't leave the state to sell in bars across the US.

Sullivan also says there are currently 139 breweries in the state of Maine, and believe about 22% of those are ones who sell their beer to other states.  He also says that uniqueness of beer selection drives consumption, as customers like to try new flavors.

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