When you crack open a bottle of beer, you probably never give a second thought to how the label came to be designed.
Right now, the law prohibits any images of minors on beer labels. A bill that passed the House and was amended by the Senate would do away with that explicit prohibition and instead would give the New Hampshire Liquor Commission the latitude to judge whether a label is designed to entice youngsters to drink alcohol. If the Liquor Commission finds that it is, the Commission bans it.
More beer for NH
Republican Rep. Keith Murphy of Bedford is the proprietor of Murphy’s Taproom in Manchester. He sponsored the bill, which he said is more true to the spirit of the law’s original intent.
“Generally speaking, there’s a lot of great beer out there that doesn’t come to New Hampshire. Our citizens can’t get some really great beer because … there [are] very burdensome requirements for admitting beer in the marketplace,” Murphy said.
There was a similar bill that was proposed in the last term but it failed to get through the Senate. Murphy said it’s probably because it was too far-reaching.
“I simplified it a great deal this term,” Murphy said.
It made national news when Founder’s Breakfast Stout couldn’t be sold in bottles in New Hampshire because the label had the image of a boy eating a bowl of oatmeal. Murphy thinks few would agree that the image was in any way enticing to minors.
As for Murphy’s motives, some have accused him of serving his own interest as a bar owner.
“If anything, I’m working against my own interests because I currently can sell Founders Breakfast Stout on tap, but my friends at the local beer stores can’t sell it in a bottle,” Murphy said. “So the bill that I submitted ends my small monopoly on this product.”
The commission’s take
But the Liquor Commission spoke against the bill in the House committee hearing.
James Wilson, the director of enforcement and licensing for the Liquor Commission, declined to be interviewed but emailed a statement to the Hippo.
“[The change] would open [the law] up to interpretation and create unnecessary layers of oversight,” Wilson said.
He also said it would “bog down an already time-consuming process for manufacturers and the Liquor Commission.”
Murphy said the change is common sense and is puzzled by the Liquor Commission’s position.
“I’ve never seen an agency argue against giving itself more power. That was a first for me,” Murphy said. “Normally agencies love more power.”
In the long run, Murphy isn’t worried about the bill becoming law. He said governors rarely use their veto power for an issue as small as this one.
This bill will not change anything in terms of how brewers start the label-approval process.
Erik Olsen, co-founder of Kelsen Brewing Company in Derry, said his company works with a freelance artist to design its beer bottle labels. The artwork generally consists of comic-book-style illustrations of Viking warriors wielding steins or battle axes.
“We give him a story behind the label, give him a pencil sketch of what we’re thinking and go through iterations of designs with him until we’re happy with the final product,” Olsen said. “And that’s really just the very beginning of a long process.”
Olsen then submits everything to the federal Tax and Trade Bureau for review.
“That’s usually about an 18-day process… from start to when we get any response at all,” Olsen said.
Once it’s approved, they receive a Certificate of Label Approval, or COLA.
“We had one beer get denied. It was going to be in honor of Derry. We were going to name it ‘Freedom 7,’ which was the mission that Neil Armstrong was on,” Olsen said.
The TTB — which a Daily Beast article revealed last year consists of an eccentric man named Kent “Battle” Martin who personally reviews every beer label in the country — told Olsen they couldn’t use the name because they would need NASA approval.
“That wasn’t going to happen,” Olsen said. “We just changed the name to ‘Spacetown,’ which is kind of a nickname for Derry.”
Carl Soderberg, a co-founder of Able Ebenezer, a new brewery in Merrimack, said he has experienced longer wait times for federal label approval.
“It’s like a minimum 90-day process to get labels approved,” Soderberg said.
And they haven’t begun selling bottles or cans. That’s just for keg collar labels.
“We do have plans to go to canning, and when we do, we will have to submit the artwork that we want to put on the can to both the federal government and the state for approval,” Soderberg said. “I’m not entirely sure what the criteria [are] for all the imagery… We basically submit and get informed after the fact whether or not we’re good to go.”
When the state steps in
Until now, getting the state’s approval has been a simple process when the brewers show their federal approval, if they have it. But Olsen has run into issues with beers that have higher alcohol-by-volume levels. The Liquor Commission needs to sample any beer with 12 percent or higher ABV, and anything higher than 16 percent doesn’t qualify as beer as far as the state is concerned.
“Right now, we’re talking with local artists about starting to draw up images and designs that we’d want to use as part of the brand,” Soderberg said. “I would like to think that we can do pretty much whatever we want aside from being overtly offensive. But I’m not entirely sure how the Liquor Commission determines what is or isn’t acceptable — except for, of course, having a kid on the label.”
As seen in the April 23, 2015 issue of the Hippo.