In my time that I have been working in the craft beer industry I’ve been all over the place. My title is Brewery Operations Manager and up until recently I have done a lot more than a typical person with that title would do. One of those things was a lot of our graphic design for things like can and bottle labels. We’ve recently hired a new person that will be taking the design aspects away from me so that I can focus more on our operations but in my 4 plus years of designing for a brewery I’ve learned a lot about the legalities of what a label can and can not have on them.
The Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) is a branch of the US Treasury and they regulate alcohol on a federal level. One aspect that they regulate is the approval of labels that go on beer. This include bottles labels, printed cans and keg collars. The TTB has a number of rules and regulations that must be followed on these labels and require a brewery to submit the labels for approval to them if they intend on selling the beer across state lines. This is called a Certificate of Label Approval or COLA for short. Luckily if you are only going to sell the beer in the state of production you do not have to acquire COLA. However even though you do not have to get label approval for this you must still adhere to the rules and regulations set forth by the TTB.
Looking on social media I come across a lot of new and interesting label and can designs but the things I always look for first is if it is legal. Time and time again I see labels and cans that contain incorrect information. For those breweries that are close friends I’ve very nicely brought these issues up to them while just stating that I’m not stepping on toes but just trying to be informative. But I decided to write this piece about the 5 most common things I see that are done wrong on beer labels.
This might be the easiest thing in the world but I see people forget this. The TTB requires a label to have the name of the company and the city and state of production on the label. This can be as simple as something like this.
Some Dude Brewing Co., Sometown, FL
You may have the full address including your street name but it’s not required. A lot of breweries also opt for adding something like “brewed and packaged/bottled/canned by” on there as well. Again this is not required but you can feel free to add it. The only requirement is the production facilty that made it and it’s city and state must be on there.
Alcohol by Volume
This along with the beer designation, which I will get to, is one of the most common mistakes. Alcohol by Volume is not even a requirement to be on labels as far as the federal government is concerned. They leave it up to the states to individually determine whether to require it or not. With that said many brewers put the Alcohol by Volume on a label just in case they ship to a state that requires it and as a convenience to the consumer. I see the use of the acronym ABV on so many labels yet the TTB does not allow this shorting of the term Alcohol by Volume. The TTB allows the following for writing of your Alcohol by Volume.
5% Alcohol by Volume
Alchol 5% by Volume
5% Alc by Vol
Alc 5% by Vol
Alc 5% by Volume
While we tend to just use ABV in our everyday speech we must remember to curb this when it comes to labels.
The TTB requires contents of a keg or package to use US standards of measurement. This is fluid ounces, pints, quarts and gallons. Metric, such as for the popular 750 milliliter bottles, can be present on the package but not solely. It must have US measurements as well. Additionally the label must use fluid ounces and not just ounces, as one is a measurement of volume and the other of weight. You may abbreviate fluid ounces as fl oz if you wish.
When going up in size is when things can get a little tricky. A package under 16 fluid ounces can simply be marked as something as simple as 12 fluid ounces. Once you hit 16 your package must be marked as 1 pint. Anything above that until 32 ounces must be marked like 1 pint 8 fluid ounces, for the 22 ounce bomber. Once you hit 32 ounces it turns to quarts and then at 128 ounces to gallons. So your crowler labels would say 1 quart, not 32 fluid ounces or 2 pints.
While it may come as no surprise, the TTB has their own list of dirty words that are forbidden from use. Any word that indicates high strength or physical effect of the beer such as Strong or Full Strength are not allowed. This will throw some brewers for a loop as American Strong Ale or Belgian Strong Ale are actual styles. You will need to find unique ways of portraying your style without use of the word Strong.
You also may not say that the beer gives a warming feeling. This is actually a new one that I just learned this past May at the Craft Brewers Conference in Philadelphia. A seminar put on by the head (and only) label analyst at the TTB went into this one.
You also may not make claims to health benefits of a beer unless it is backed by a lab study proving that claim. This comes into play with low-carb, low gluten and gluten free beers.
Like I said earlier, this one gets a lot of people. The designation of the beer makes the claim as to the style of beer and any additional ingredients are added. There are a handful of allowable base designations for beer and they are the following.
For some beers the name itself will take care of this designation. Let’s take Stone’s Arrogant Bastard for example. On the bottles the name is listed as Arrogant Bastard Ale. It has the brand name and the designation right there. But others may not be that easy. Founder All Day IPA needs to have a classification with it. That is why India Pale Ale is also written out on the label. IPA alone is not acceptable as the classification.
When getting into international styles like Belgian, German or Irish you must not make a confusing statement to where a consumer may think the beer is actually from one of those countries. With that, the use of the word Style after the country name is acceptable. For example:
Belgian Style Golden Ale
German Style Wheat Beer
Irish Style Red Ale
But things get even more confusing when it comes to beers with additional ingredients added into them. Up until mid 2014 any beer that contained ingredients outside of the 4 main ones for beer (water, hops, malt, yeast) had to submit a formula to the TTB for approval before you could even submit 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 all spice. 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.
I’ve been wanting to write an article about this topic for a couple years now but always knew that it couldn’t be a short and sweet one. There is a lot to know when it comes to labeling rules and regulations and this probably why so many labels have errors on them, because there is just so much to know. Brewers, especially small ones, are busy making their beer great and probably only know the bare minimum about labeling so they just roll with it. The TTB does have a lot of helpful information on their website. I know, calling a government branch helpful doesn’t always seem to go hand in hand. I’ll admit that getting someone to return a voicemail or email over there, let alone pick up the phone, can be daunting but their site is actually pretty good.
I honestly don’t even know how I can make a TL;DR with this whole thing, it just doesn’t seem possible. With all that said I hope that this was helpful to some brewers, designers and just seekers of knowledge out there. If it can help save you from printing up a few thousand labels with incorrect information, awesome! If you have any questions about any of this please feel free to contact me. I’ll be happy to make some time to go into more detail (yeah it can get more detailed) for you. Keep making incredible beer brewers. Cheers to you all!