Saturday, September 19, 2009

Uncle Sam, Nanny

"Barleywine is a term originally used by British brewers to describe very strong ales. Though individual examples of this style vary widely, barleywines are characterized by their full body, high alcohol content, pronounced residual malt sweetness, fruity esters and, in the case of American versions especially, distinctive hop character, with a flavor profile that can lean towards the sweet or the bitter, or somewhere in between, and a color ranging from amber to deep copper. Barleywines tend to age nicely, especially bottle-conditioned versions, and have become quite collectible."

That style description - well-known to any beginning homebrewer or casual beer fan - could not be made on our website. In fact, I've just spent the last hour expurgating all references to alcoholic content and relative strength from the descriptions of our beers on our website in order to comply with Federal law. That in response to a letter we recently received from the Federal Tax & Trade Bureau which cited our website as violating the Federal Alcohol Administration Act (FAA Act) and TTB advertising regulations. (That statement above was one of the examples cited in the letter as violating the law.)

The specific law - 27 CFR 7.54(c)(1) - says:

(c) Alcoholic content. (1) Advertisements shall not contain the words “strong,” “full strength,” “extra strength,” “high test,” “high proof,” “full alcohol strength,” or any other statement of alcoholic content, or any statement of the percentage and quantity of the original extract, or any numerals, letters, characters, figures, or similar words or statements, likely to be considered as statements of alcoholic content, unless required by State law. This does not preclude use of the terms “low alcohol,” “reduced alcohol,” “non-alcoholic,” and “alcohol-free,” as used on labels, in accordance with §7.71 (d), (e), and (f).

Interestingly, the law does not prohibit you from stating the actual alcoholic content, in numerical terms (ABV). A later section of the Code of Federal Regulations (27 CFR 7.71 (a)) says:

(a) General. Alcoholic content and the percentage and quantity of the original gravity or extract may be stated on a label unless prohibited by State law.

So there you have it. While you are permitted to state that a particular Barleywine weighs in at 11.5% abv and a particular Pale Ale weighs in at 5.1% abv, but you can't say that the former is stronger than the latter. Nor can you assert that one of the things that distinguishes a Double IPA from a regular IPA is that the former has a higher alcohol content than that latter.

Evidently, Uncle Sam doesn't want you, the consumer, to have this information, or, more likely, he doesn't trust what you'd do once you had it. After all, if everyone knew that Imperial Stouts were stonger than their non-Imperial cousins, who knows what would happen?

Monday, September 7, 2009

Why We're not Shaving Heads for St. Baldrick this Year.

Last year, Smuttynose Brewing hosted what we hoped to be the first of many annual St. Baldrick's events. It was a smashing success - 24 intrepid souls volunteered to have their heads shaved, and in one afternoon we raised over $22,000 for childrens' cancer research. This year,
we planned to hold an even bigger event in the middle of Market Street in front of the Portsmouth Brewery on the same day as the Portsmouth Criterium bike race (which requires Market Street to be closed to traffic), with more heads shaved and more money raised.

That was our plan, until I made the decision to cancel the event. A few weeks ago, we were finishing up our list of administrative tasks and were about to launch our big publicity push to kick things off when I received an email from the St. Baldrick's Foundation with the subject line "Welcome to our Background Screening Process." Inside was the following message:

Thank you for volunteering for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation. You have been listed by your Volunteer Event Organizer as one of the key volunteers in a position of responsibility for your event. As you know, protecting the integrity of donations and the safety of our constituents is important to the reputation of the Foundation and its volunteers. Therefore, certain key volunteers are asked to complete a background screening before your event can be made ‘live’ on our website.

To be prefectly honest, I was somewhat taken aback by this; we'd done the event last year and hadn't been asked to submit to a background check. Moreover, I've worked with a number of non-profits and fundraisers and had never seen a request like this - but I went ahead and clicked on the link provided and was directed to a website with this opening screen.

I was just about to start filling out the form when something stopped me cold in my tracks. It wasn't the prospect of being investigated. As a holder of two federal Brewers Notices and a state liquor license, my background has been thoroughly scrutinized. Yes, it was partly the presumption and chutzpah of the demand that I submit to this demeaning and invasive process in exchange for the privilege of volunteering many hours of my time raising funds for this cause. But that wasn't what stopped me.

We live in a world where we are subjected to daily invasions of our privacy by government, by banks, by credit agencies, by employers, and for the most part, we all go along to get along, don't we? This time I just had to say no.

I can certainly see why any organization that depends on volunteer contributions would want to minimize sticky fingers in their collection baskets, but in my opinion this is one of the most egregious examples of lawyerly overkill that I've ever seen. I'm sure the St. Baldrick's Foundation will do fine without our event and that my little protest doesn't matter much in the grand scheme of things, but it matters to me. For our part, we'll find other worthy causes to support - Lord knows there's no shortage of worthy causes, maybe even some that don't need to verify that we're moral enough before they take our time and money.

I hope those of you who looked forward to participating this year can understand my decision, whether you agree with it or not. As always, I welcome your feedback.