We made it to round two in the Most Loved Beer Label Contest sponsored by CNBC – so show us some love this afternoon when voting opens up again. In the meantime, here are some things you might not know about the beer label approval process, because it’s all fun and games until the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau knocks you down.
1. While both the state and federal governments must approve a beer’s label, neither care whether the name that appears on that label infringes on intellectual property. In other words, Uncle Sam won’t hassle you for calling a brew Bud Light. But Budweiser probably will.
2. In fact, there are countless legal spats happening as we speak, because breweries are constantly stepping on one another’s toes. It’s not
intentional; it’s just that “pretty much every beer name you come up with has been taken,” says CMB’s Chief Operating Officer Chris “Hank” Henke. A January piece by NPR confirms it: “Virtually every large city, notable landscape feature, creature and weather pattern of North America – as well as myriad other words, concepts and images – has been snapped up and trademarked as the name of either a brewery or a beer.” We wanted to test the theory, so we typed the first obscure animal we thought of into our search engine, along with the word ‘beer,’ and let’s just say there’s a Platypus Brew Pub out there that prides itself on “walking the fine line between ducks and beavers.” Seriously.
3. But the TTB does care if a name — or any other writing on your label — suggests a false health claim. (One brewery got shot down for calling their beer a “heart-warming ale,” because someone, somewhere might take this to mean alcohol is good for the temperature of internal organs.) And collective panties get really twisted if a beer is made out to be more potent than it really is. Case in point: We weren’t allowed to call our Devil’s Reach the style that it is – a Belgian Golden Strong ale – because of the world ‘strong.’
4. Humor must be kept in check, too. We tried calling one of our recipes Pumpkin, Pumpkin Ale for the very reason that there isn’t any pumpkin in it, but the TTB called it misleading. In the words of spirit animal Allanis Morisette, CMB is ironic, just a little too ironic, for the TTB.
5. So far for 2015, 36,178 labels have successfully obtained COLA (Certificate of Label Approval). Legally, an answer has to be given to an application within 90 days of submission, which means brewers must be thinking spring in early fall. For CMB’s labels, says graphic design guru Courtney Rosenberg, it usually takes somewhere between one day and three weeks.
6. The reason for the inconsistency in timing is probably down to the fact that one man and one many only, Kent “Battle” Martin,” is in charge of the approval process. The Daily Beast calls him a tyrant, a legend and a pedantic pain in the ass. But that doesn’t mean his reasons for snubbing certain lables aren’t chuckle-worthy. “He rejected a beer called Bad Elf,” the story goes, “because it featured an ‘Elf Warning,’ suggesting that elves not operate machinery while drinking the ale… it did not get approved on the grounds that the warning was confusing to customers.”
So there you have it, beer fans. Don’t let it be said the TTB isn’t looking out for you.