First let’s get this out of the way. I am in no way calling you a dummy for not knowing or understanding the Tax and Trade Bureau’s (TTB) complex and sometimes asinine standard by which they hold labeling of alcohol to. It’s pretty intense and the documentation on their website can be either hard to understand or extremely vague when you do find something. Additionally, good luck on getting anyone over there on the phone to try to answer your questions. Government, am I right? What I’m saying is that if I can learn this stuff then I am assuming any of you can as well.
The TTB are the federal regulating body that handles practically everything an alcohol producer does. They issue brewer’s notices, collect taxes and approve label designs. Yes, this tiny branch of the Treasury Department can have a profound say over what is one your beer label.
Now you might be saying right now, “But Mike, I only distribute within my brewery’s home state and the TTB says that I don’t have to get approval on labels for that.” You are correct with that statement but you are still required to follow and adhere to all of the the TTB’s guidelines and rules relating to labeling your beer.
It should also be noted that all of this applies to both kegged and packaged beer. Keg collars do not get a pass on labeling requirements. So just because you are draft only doesn’t mean that you should be skipping this lesson.
With the recent uptick in breweries illegally using other people’s intellectual property and a brewery friend asking me for some information on labeling over the weekend it got me thinking about other common mistakes I see in labeling by breweries. Now I am writing to provide you with some information on what is acceptable and what is not when it comes to beer labeling.
This will be the part where I say that I am not an attorney and what I say is not to be considered legal advice. This is just industry advice from my 5 years of dealing with the TTB and the whole COLA (Certificate of Label Approval) process.
Let’s get the low hanging fruit out of the way right from the start. You are required to have the production facility and the city and state where the beer is produced on your label. This can be satisfied by having something as simple as:
Some Brewery, Sometown, FL
You can put your full address if you want but it’s not required. You will probably also see labels that say Brewed and Bottled/Canned at followed by the information and that is also kosher with the TTB.
Some breweries might have multiple facilities in different cities or even states and this can be simply handled by having all the locations listed on the label to avoid having to buy separate labels for each facility. You might notice this on Sam Adams bottles and a lot of the big boys’ acquired breweries now that they are made in many AB facilities and distributed country wide.
Contract brewing might seem like a sticky situation but I have seen a number of companies come up with unique ways of satisfying this requirement.
Brewed under supervision of Your Brewery at Contract Brewery, Sometown, SC
Boom! Easy as pie. Actually, I’ve never made pie and baking seems hard. Is it easy? Eating pie is easy. We’ll go with that.
Alcohol by Volume
Okay, it’s time to get into the meat and potatoes (a lot of food references right now) of this labeling tutorial. Now we are getting into the stuff that I see getting messed up all the time. We are going to get into the alcohol content of your beer.
It might be surprising to you to hear this but the federal government does not require breweries to have alcohol content listed on their beer labels. Yup, the body that regulates labeling and wants to help avoid consumer confusion does not give a shit if you put your alcohol content on a beer. While big brother #1 might not care your state might have rules about that so it would be in your best interest to check with your state’s alcohol regulation board about that. Also if you ship your beer to a state that requires this you are on the hook for it as well.
Now even though the TTB doesn’t care if you put your alcohol content on your labels they do care how it is worded if you decide to put it on the label (like a responsible brewer). This causes one of the most common mistakes in labeling, the acronym ABV.
We say ABV all the time in the brewing industry. Honestly, we love shorting things into acronyms in general; IBU, SRM, CBC, GABF, BA, IPA, ESB, PFP. I’ll stop now. ABV is how practically all of us refer to the alcohol by volume to which our beers are recorded but the TTB (more acronyms!) does not like ABV.
You may not label you 12% Imperial Candy Bar Stout as 12% ABV. Why? The TTB probably thinks that the average consumer is too dumb to decipher what ABV means. I mean it’s not like we have little computers that are connected to the internet in our pockets at all times to allow us to do searches for things we don’t know. But that’s just my theory.
The TTB has a number of allowable options for how alcohol by volume may be printed on a label. Here they are.
5% Alcohol by Volume
Alcohol 5% by Volume
5% Alc by Vol
Alc 5% by Vol
Alc 5% by Volume
Yes, you can write the whole thing out or you can shorten Alcohol to Alc and Volume to Vol. You can also replace the word By with forward slash (/).
While ABV can remain very much alive in our daily verbal lexicon we must remember to curb this instinct when writing it out on beer labels.
Oh boy, we are going to get a little more complicated here with the contents of your package. You are required to put the amount of liquid that is in the package on your label.
Since we are in America we think that the metric system sucks (USA! USA!). Because of this the use of the metric system is not permitted on a label alone. What I mean is that you can put metric volumes for all you Belgian influenced brewers out there but you must have good ol’ imperial measurements on your label. So for those of you using 750 ml bottles that’s awesome but you better know your conversion to imperial because Uncle Sam says “Fuck your liters!”
Even saying that is really not the end of the contents discussion because things get even more confusing. You’re thinking, “Okay, okay I’ll use ounces instead of milliliters.” but that’s not exactly right because it’s not ounces, it’s fluid ounces. You aren’t telling the consumer how much the beer weighs, which would constitute ounces, but you are telling them who much liquid is in the package, that’s fluid ounces. So for your traditional sized bottles and cans you can’t just put 12 ounces (oz) and call it a day. It’s got to be 12 fluid ounces (fl oz). Yes you can abbreviate both fluid and ounces.
Where are you going? We aren’t done with contents yet. No no, not by a long shot because increasing in sizes only gets more difficult.
You know those super popular tall boy, 16 ounce cans that everyone seems to be using now? Yeah, well do you know how those need to be written out as far as contents? If you said 16 fluid ounces (fl oz) then would be eliminated for HQ Trivia at this point in time. That’s probably for the best, that Scott guy is annoying AF.
Once you it 16 fluid ounces in size you must start using the word Pint. So that means your tall boys can be labeled like any of the following.
But it doesn’t stop there. Anything above 16 fluid ounces up until 32 fluid ounces must start with 1 Pint then add in the additional ounces. So for the 22 ounce bomber bottle you must have 1 Pint 6 Fluid Ounces. Same thing for 750 ml bottles, those are 1 Pint 9.4 Fluid Ounces.
The same thing happens when you hit 32 fluid ounces. Instead of Pint you change over to Quart. So those Crowlers you have are Quarts not 2 Pints and certainly not 32 fluid ounces.
Guess what, it does it again when you hit 64 fluid ounces. That’s a Half Gallon.
Then lastly is when you get to 1 Gallon and that is where things are just Gallons. This is really for keg sizes at this point. You 1/6 kegs are 5.17 Gallons. A half barrel is 15.5 Gallons. Simple stuff.
I know that was a lot of stuff for you to handle so before moving on I will allow you to have a bite to eat and maybe even have a little lie down before moving on. It’s okay, this article will be here when you come back.
Forbidden Words and Phrases
If you took a break, welcome back. If you are powering through then I commend you. You are strong in will and, likely, character. For your dedication I will reward all you readers with another easy one here. Trust me, this won’t last long and then it’s back into utter confusion and head meeting self inflicted head trauma.
Believe it or not but there are some words and phrases that the TTB does not think kindly of on your beer labels. Some of them might seem like no brainers but others might catch you off guard. Probably the biggest culprit of this whole section is the word strong.
“What? I’m not allowed to use the word strong? But I make an American Strong Ale and that’s a legit style!” Dude (or dudette), I hear you and this is an actual issue I had with a TTB employee before. According to them an alcoholic beverage cannot make any claims to strength of the liquid other than alcohol content. This is because there is no true definition as to what levels of alcohol equate to strong. Is it 8% or 10%? No one knows so you can’t claim that. Unfortunately you will need to come up with more creative ways to label your American Strong Ales or Belgian Strong Ales. If you want a reference point, Stone labels their American Strong Ale, Arrogant Bastard, simply as an Ale.
With that all in mind it should go without saying that the use of the term Full Strength is also prohibited because of the same argument.
Keeping with the theme of alcohol strength no beer can make claims to feelings or effect from drinking the beer. While it seems obvious that you can’t say “it will fuck you up” you might not know that you can’t make claims of warming feelings from high octane brews. This is fact spoken by the TTB’s only label analyst in a seminar at the Craft Brewer’s Conference in 2016.
You may not also make health claims on a label unless you provide the TTB with lab analysis proving the claim. This applies to low-carb, low gluten or gluten free beers.
Alright, this is it. This is the final category about labeling your beer that I’m going to go into and I saved the biggest one for last. At this point I won’t blame you to take another nap or pep up on some coffee because this one will hurt.
The designation of the beer is something outside of the name of the beer itself. This claim is of the style of beer and any additional ingredients that are added to the beer outside of the main 4 ingredients (grain, hops, water, yeast).
Here is a list of the TTB’s allowable base style designations.
So beers have these style names in their brand name and are typically just fine with keeping that. Here are some examples.
Bell’s Two Hearted Ale
Because each of those beers have no additional ingredients added to them outside of the main 4 they satisfy the TTB’s designation just with their brand name. However we know that most brands are not like this and require some additional work done.
Look back at that list of TTB approved base styles designations. Notice in there that IPA isn’t there? That’s because IPA is not an allowable designation. Sure you can have IPA in your brand name and it can be on your label but having a name like Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA does not satisfy the TTB’s requirement. The TTB requires that you have India Pale Ale, completely spelled out, somewhere on your label. With IPAs being one of the most popular styles in the country it should come as no surprise that many tall boys of IPA are mislabeled in this fashion.
In addition you can add words to the base designations and be just fine in the TTB’s eyes. Here are some.
There are some though that are not acceptable as designations and some of the more popular ones are the following.
Biere de Garde
“Woah! Those are legit styles man!” I know, I know. I’m right there with you. Like I said, you can have those on the label but they aren’t acceptable as a designation. You will have to get a little creative with that. Look, here’s some freebies from yours truly.
German Style Wheat Ale or Hefeweizen Style Ale
Belgian Style Farmhouse Ale or Saison Ale
French Style Farmhouse Ale
Gose Sour Ale
German Style Sour or Berliner Weise Style Sour Ale
I should also mention that when referring to styles from other countries (i.e. Belgium, Germany, England, etc) that you must use the word Style after the nationality to indicate that it is not from the country being noted. This is why you see Belgian Style or German Style. Their claim is that this prevents the consumer from thinking that the beer is made in that actual country.
It should also be noted that for some particular reason or another the TTB has no problem with Scotch Ale and doesn’t ask for Scotch Style Ale. Also they seem to have no issues with India Pale Ale being confused by some consumers as being from India. I never said the TTB was perfect. NEVER.
We aren’t out of the woods yet though. We still have to talk about when beers have ingredients that are added beyond the main 4 ingredients and with craft beer today being so heavy on experimentation it’s seemingly more common to find beers with additional ingredients added to them than not.
Up until mid 2014 any beer that contained ingredients outside of the 4 main ones had to submit a formula to the TTB for approval before you could even submit COLA. Grapefruit in your IPA? Go to formula! Coriander and orange peel in your witbier. Off to formula you go. While COLA itself would typically take a couple weeks formula approval often took months to hear back on and newbies to this system usually made mistakes that would need to be corrected before the TTB told you that you were good to then head to COLA.
Luckily in 2014 and again in 2015 the TTB created a list of exempted ingredients that no longer required formula approval before COLA. A full list of those ingredients can be found here. Also exempted during these rulings was barrel aging. If an ingredient is not on that list or it’s an extract you will need to submit for formula approval prior to COLA. If you use extracts please keep in mind that the manufacturer of that extract must submit and receive approval for their extracts prior to you being able to use them. It’s best to ask you extract manufacturer if they have TTB approval on their flavors before using them.
Now to get back to the actual designation. How to properly create the designation depends on when the ingredients were added to the product. You pretty much have 2 options here, pre fermentation and post fermentation. If the ingredients, in this case we will use orange peel, were added in the boil or whirlpool your designation would look like this.
Ale Brewed with Orange Peel
If the ingredients were added after fermentation, like as a dry hop or treatment in a secondary vessel, it would look like this.
Ale with Orange Peel Added
Sometimes you can have both. Maybe you added spices into the boil and some citrus after fermentation. In this case it can look like this.
Ale Brewed with Spices with Orange Peel Added
It is also worth noting that the TTB does not really have a desire to note each individual spice on a label if you are using multiple of them. For the ever popular pumpkin beer many of us use a blend of many spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice. Simply using the term spices is cool with the TTB as long as it’s an approved ingredient.
Barrel and wood aging has a specific way that it must be worded as well. This can differ between virgin wood and spirit barrels but they all pretty much have a similar format.
Ale Aged on Oak Chips
Ale Aged on Oak Spirals
Ale Aged in Oak Barrels
Ale Aged in Bourbon Barrels
Ale Aged in Red Wine Barrels
I could go one for that one but when it comes to spirit barrels you must be specific to the type of spirit but not the brand. If it’s wine barrels it should be noted as either red or white. If it is apple brandy barrels as opposed to regular brandy that must be noted. And as for the old home brew tactic of aging your own oak chips in a spirit at home and then using those, that is a big no no.
The TTB even has a nice article that lays out a number of designation examples to help you. It can be found here.
Look, what are the chances that you are going to get hit by the TTB if you have a small issue with your beer label? Probably pretty small. We are all in this industry together and I believe that if there are rules in place that we should all follow them. It’s not fair to those that follow the regulations to a tee while others just say “Fuck it, I won’t get caught and if I do then I’ll change.”
This goes for everything, not just labeling. It’s not fair to see home brewers holding events at retailers when they aren’t a licensed brewery. It’s not fair when breweries come into a state for a few events and don’t register their brands with the state. Again you’ll hear, “It’s not hurting anybody so what’s the big deal.”
The big deal is that we have been touting this industry as being together and friendly and all inclusive. When you want to be on level grounds with everyone but refuse to follow rules and regulations (no matter how silly they may seem) you are pretty much telling the breweries that do follow the rules that you don’t care about them and that you are above them.
The TTB are not easy to talk to and their documentation could be a hell of a lot better but honestly they are looking out for the consumer–you know, the people we try to get to drink the beer. But, like I said before, if I can learn all of this and put it forward to you in an easier to follow medium than any of you can.
I haven’t met many brewery folk that don’t enjoy learning new techniques and skills in our industry. You want to know how to cut a couple days of your dry hop? Fuck yeah I do! Want to know about a piece of equipment that will help measure CO2 levels? Do bears shit in the woods? Do you want to know the correct way of labeling your beer to meet federal regulations? Ehh, I don’t have the time for that. Come on!
We are in a point in this industry where we are seeing more creativity in beer label design than ever before but I get that not all designers know that there are rules beyond the Government Warning. I know designers love learning new things but they typically have to look to the industry “pros” that are employing them for guidance on what is right and wrong. So I reach out to you brewery owners, designers and anyone who has or intends to design a beer label for a real production brewery, educate yourself on the rules and follow them. Oh and stop ripping off other people’s IP. I can’t stop saying that.