The government shutdown is killing dozens of beloved science programs? Whatever. Now it's causing a massive outbreak of antibiotic-resistant salmonella? Who cares? Wait, what's that? It's standing between you and the delicious beer you would be drinking? ALARM! PROTEST! SOMETHING MUST BE DONE!
It's Friday afternoon, you've made it through the long week, and it's time for Happy Hour, Gizmodo's weekly booze column. A cocktail shaker full of innovation, science, and alcohol. "They may take our freedom, but they'll never take our beeeeeeeeer!" —Drunken William Wallace
What's the Holdup?
Deep in the bowels of our government, there exists a small office known as the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. What does it do? Well, nothing right now. But the TTB (as it's commonly known), is responsible for, amongst other things, the approval of all new recipes and new labels for beer. Basically, when a brewery is coming out with a new beer, its label (or can artwork) must be checked by the TTB to ensure it's an accurate representation of what's inside the bottle. If the TTB doesn't check it, it can't move from one state to another.
Currently, there is no TTB.
Go to the TTB website right now, and you're greeted with the above message. There's a very brief explainer of the situation at the "More Information" link, but the important bit is in this one line: "...there will be no access to TTB's eGovernment applications including, but not limited to, Permits Online, Formulas Online, and COLAs online." This is a bad thing.
See, even when everything is functioning as it should, the approval process has been getting slower and slower. According to Tyler Kemp of LA's celebrated Golden Road Brewing company, in the last year alone, he's seen the approval process go from taking an average of 30 days to a minimum of 45 days. This is largely due to the (wonderful) explosion of the craft beer movement in the U.S.
But now, factor in the shutdown. Because the TTB has removed any means of submitting these forms, there is no queue of any sort. "My biggest concern is really when they flip the switch back on, all of the approvals and things that people have not been submitting," says Kemp. "There's just going to be an enormous back log." Considering the TTB processed roughly 112,000 labels (of all alcohol types) between January 1st and the end of September, and we'd call that an understatement.
Who Does It Affect?
This has a major impact on smaller breweries who were gearing up to do seasonal launches, or to launch new products. Smaller breweries typically don't have as many employees, and thus as many resources to get things approved far in advance. Golden Road (mentioned above) was lucky to get their last few beers approved just under the wire before the shutdown, but they're already looking at the future. They are planning a couple of new releases in the next few months, and the approval backlog could mean they take a major financial hit. The AP reported that one small brewery that's just getting set up is looking at losses of $8,000 a month until they can get approval to open their doors. That kind of money is nothing to Anheuser-Busch, but to a small business starting out, it can mean death.
We asked Shane Welch, the outspoken president of NYC's beloved Sixpoint Brewery, if they'd been affected at all. He said:
"The clusterf*$k on the Potomac has stalled the approval of two of our new beers. We're hoping the paid politicians can close a deal so we can go about our ways of formulating, innovating, and being the dynamic job-generating small business that we are used to being."
We also spoke with Jim Koch, Samuel Adams' Founder and Brewer. While he declined to say whether any Sam Adams products were being held up, he talked about how it was affecting the smaller guys. "We have a philanthropic program, Samuel Adams Brewing the American Dream, where we make loans and offer counseling to over a dozen small brewers and some of them can’t open their breweries," he explained.
Oh, and if beer isn't your thing, don't get cocky. The TTB closure is affecting vineyards and distilleries, too.
Who Doesn't It Affect?
If you just drink the same beer you've always drank, you'd probably never notice this catastrophe. Beers that are already established and approved for national distribution will remain more or less unaffected (assuming they weren't planning on slapping a new label on there).
Small breweries that only operate and distribute within a single state may be okay, as they're typically regulated by a state-run office, not a federal one (for example, in California it's the CA ABC). However, many breweries (such as Golden Road) err on the side of caution, and won't go forward until they have approval from the TTB—just in case they decide to deliver it outside of California.
Breweries that were way ahead of the game and had submitted all their labels and formulas through the spring are fine, for now. For example Boulder, CO's Upslope Brewing was lucky that they planned so far in advance this year, but they expressed a lot of sympathy for the small breweries who were just trying to open their doors, and are seeing years of work start to crumble in their hands.
How Can We Save the Beer?
Frankly, the shutdown has already triggered a pretty massive chain-reaction that's going to hurt a lot of small breweries, and unless you know a guy who knows a guy that can convince the government that the TTB is absolutely essential and needs to be running during the shutdown, it's just going to keep getting worse.
The problem comes from way up the chain. It's politics. And without naming names or pointing fingers, we think it's safe to say that our political system is pretty broken right now. The best thing you can do is call your representative. Call them every day. Tell them, every day, that this shutdown needs to end. And not just because you want to try the latest and greatest in beer flavors, but because the shutdown is hurting small business, it's hurting science, and it's hurting America.
Because if you can't put you feet up with a fresh-from-the-brewery triple-hopped black IPA, then what the hell is freedom for?
Photo Credit: Shutterstock / theblackfatcat