New beers on hold during government shutdown, but don't panic — yet

Nonessential?

Tell that to beer drinkers.

Among the federal employees deemed “nonessential” and therefore on hiatus during the partial federal government shutdown, which is now in its third week, are those from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which approves most new beer labels.

As a result, until the shutdown is over, applications for new beers “will not be reviewed or approved until appropriations are enacted,” the TTB says on its website.

Before you run screaming to your local beer store to stock up on hazy IPA like it is Y2K all over again — YIPA? — there are many asterisks to how the impact will be felt.

First: Any beer not leaving the state where it was made generally isn’t subject to TTB label approval. (There’s some gray area and it’s not absolute, but that is basically the case. It’s particularly true for smaller-scale breweries or brewpubs that sell their own beer.)

And while no new labels can be approved, any beer made with an existing label — basically any and all beers you drink — can still be sent into the market.

While that encompasses a lot of beer, it does cause some consternation in a nation of more than 7,000 breweries. In a craft beer landscape seeing a constant churn of newness and innovation amid intensifying competition, getting new beers into the market has become imperative.

“We always have a few labels submitted,” said John Laffler, co-founder of Off Color Brewing. “It’s the new reality with consumers pushing for more and more new beers.”

That’s true of larger craft breweries too.

One of the most successful innovations for Revolution Brewing has been its Hero series of single-hopped IPAs. The best-sellers tend to be the new entries, said Doug Veliky, Revolution’s chief financial officer.

“We always have new ones in the pipeline, so if the shutdown continues, it will certainly inconvenience us,” he said. “The shutdown would force us to use back catalog Heroes, which wouldn’t sell as well.”

Otherwise, Revolution isn’t overly concerned about the shutdown — yet. In December, the brewery had two upcoming releases approved, Every Day Hero (a session IPA) and Spirit of Revolt (an imperial IPA).

“If this had happened in early December instead of late, it would certainly have delayed those releases,” Veliky said.

In recent days, a handful of breweries (or their employees) have taken to social media to express dismay with the shutdown, including New Belgium and Prairie Artisan Ales.

Most observers agree a significant backup is inevitable when the TTB begins reviewing applications for new beer labels again.

“Approvals that normally take two weeks could take six to eight weeks or more depending on how long it lasts,” Veliky said.

And that gets to the real crux of the issue: the length of the shutdown. If it ultimately drags on as long as a year — as the president has threatened — beer releases will inevitably be impacted.

For instance, Goose Island submits labels for its annual Bourbon County release during the summer. And because those labels change every year, access to the TTB is essential.

“The TTB shutdown is affecting us like everyone else,” said Megan Lagesse, spokeswoman for Anheuser-Busch, Goose Island’s parent company. “Each of our craft partners and our company at large has beer labels in queue waiting to be approved.”

If the shutdown does wind up stretching on a year or more?

“Well then we’re all screwed,” Laffler said. “And we just have to drink the beers we already have.”

jbnoel@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @hopnotes

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