If you keep up with beer news at all, you’ve probably been noticing an upswing of label disputes among breweries. Litigation aside, choosing a label that will meet federal approval is not an easy process. A tipsy Santa with googly eyes? Banned. Touting the health benefits of beer? Not okay. And don’t even consider putting an American flag on your beer—no matter how tasty the brew.
With Mendo’s new labels in the works—and a bit of a hubbub around the idea of brewers running out of names—I began wondering: How do beer labels get approved, and what can’t you do?
Consumers Beware—and Uninformed
Having a beer label approved involves wading through a minefield of confusing and arcane regulations that often seem nonsensical at best—and downright sneaky at worst. For example, want to let consumers know the ABV of your brew? You better check with the state first.
In 1935, Congress passed a law that prohibited brewers from displaying the beer’s alcohol content on the label. The reason given was that consumers may intentionally opt to buy a higher gravity brew. (No one seemed to care that they may also like to be able to choose a lighter brew.) It wasn’t until fifty years later that the Supreme Court overturned the rule and allowed Coors to include alcohol content on their packaging. Some states, however, still don’t allow it.
Kent “Battle” Martin—the Beer Label Guy
Kent “Battle” Martin is the man behind every beer label you see. (He is also the man behind the labels you don’t see.) Martin—who seems to be very secretive—approved more than 29,500 beer labels last year. That’s close to 30,000 labels in a SINGLE YEAR! I had no idea craft brewers were so prolific…
Martin works for the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), the federal agency that regulates alcoholic beverage labeling. He’s been described as eccentric and somewhat robotic, with a tendency to formal dress and an astounding knowledge of beer labels. He also seems to incite a bit of fear into the hearts of brewers—particularly those with a hopeful new label in hand.
On the surface, the TTB’s regulations are designed to protect the consumer from false information, but they certainly don’t seem to consider our own common sense and ability to make decisions.
Any beer label that claims health benefits is a guaranteed rejection. Beer labels have been turned down because they list vitamin or minerals—even if they are proven in lab tests—because listing vitamins implies health benefits. A label for King of Hearts beer was rejected because the label design (a heart) could lead consumers to believe the beer was good for the heart, and another brew that claimed to be a “heart-warming ale” was turned down for the same reason.
Beer labels cannot make any reference to the alcohol content, beyond the approved X.X%. Beer labels that have attempted to tout the beer as strong, high-test, invigorating and swarthy have all been declined. Imperial, which tends to refer to stronger beers, has been allowed to remain, however. Perhaps because it is based in history?
Random Weirdness and Confused People
Some beer label decisions seem based on the idea that beer drinkers are easily confused. The aforementioned Battle rejected a label for a beer called Bad Elf. The label included an “Elf Warning” that elves should not make toys while drinking the beer—a warning that was deemed confusing to consumers.
Another label was rejected because Santa’s eyes were “too googly,” and a beer with a hamburger on the label was declined because folks might think the beer contained meat.
With the difficulty in getting a beer label approved, it’s no surprise some breweries are concerned about trademarks and branding. What stands out to me, however, are the rather silly reasons for a label’s rejection while actual helpful information –like alcohol content—is still at the discretion of the state. I hope that, as well-made beer continues to grow in respect and popularity, so will the artistic freedoms of the artists behind the labels.
For a more detailed (and enjoyable) look at the difficulties in getting label approved, visit this article from All About Beer.