Part 3 of 3: Why Beer Labels Usually Don’t Need (But Can Include) ABV and Nutrient Content Information

Over the last couple of days, we’ve been talking about beer labels—why they don’t always have to include information like ABV, serving size, calorie content, and the like, and also explaining why and how you can still legally volunteer this sort of information. If you’ve missed Parts 1 and 2 of this 3-part series, take a sec and get up to speed. When you’re ready, cruise along to today’s final part down below, where we share our thoughts about why, even though you totally can include this kind of information on your labels, you might think twice before you do.

Part 3. Volunteering Information. Even Though You Can, You Might Not Want to Do It.

TTBNow you know that if you want to include extra information on your beer labels like ABV and nutrition facts, TTB won’t get in your way—and if you do it in certain pre-approved ways, you won’t even have to get another COLA. It’s worth noting, though, that just because you can disclose this kind of information, you’ll want to carefully think about whether or not you ultimately do. Along with issuing its ruling approving the practice, TTB cautioned that this sort of voluntary information has to be “[t]ruthful, accurate, and specific.” Actually, though, this requirement of accuracy in “extra” disclosure has pretty much been the case since 1995, where the United States Supreme Court let us know that the First Amendment protected truthful, verifiable numerical statements about alcohol content. Chalk that Supreme Court case and its reasoning up to the dweeb-worthy category again, but it’s worth lingering on for just a second.

We’ve all often heard the saying along the lines of”it’s better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission,” but here, that old wisdom doesn’t really apply. Because TTB has given you carefully controlled permission, before you decide to stick ABV or other specific information on your beer labels, you’ll want to make sure that the number you land on is absolutely truthful and verifiable. We don’t know any intentionally dishonest brewers, but it stands to mention that even if you’ve brewed a few test batches and your numbers have been spot on, it would serve you well, and keep you within the law, to double-check these sorts of things before you revise your COLA. And, keep in mind, if your brews fluctuate from batch to batch, you’ll want to make sure your current label is always compliant, to keep you solid under the law. Even though you don’t have to get a new COLA to add this information to your existing labeled brews, the question remains open whether you can make midstream changes to update this sort of information once you disclose it on an existing COLA, or whether you need to get a completely new label approval from TTB.

We’re all for putting out useful information to consumers, and definitely understand why brewers might want to get this info in front of would-be buyers facing a fully stocked shelf of goodness. So, if you’re sure, go for it. Still, even though the beer label has its merits as a tool for communication, given the penalties you can get hit with for falling out of line, we find that some of that voluntary information just might be better left to places TTB and FDA don’t hold a stick, such as the taproom, Untappd, and the like. Technically, though, TTB’s reach (and, thus, its accuracy requirement) extends to all the places you advertise your beers. However, it’s far easier and definitely more cost effective to update your website or chalkboard with batch-to-batch information, versus applying for a new COLA. As we mentioned yesterday, mandatory label disclosure of this sort of information might be coming down the pike soon, but we’re not there yet (and, cheers to that!).

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Part 2 of 3. Why Beer Labels Usually Don’t Need (But Can Include) ABV and Nutrient Content Information

This example Serving Facts statement is in a TTB-approved format that's acceptable for a 23.5 fluid  ounce malt beverage can containing 12 percent alcohol by volume.
This example Serving Facts statement is in a TTB-approved format that’s acceptable for a 23.5 fluid
ounce malt beverage can containing 12 percent alcohol by volume.

Yesterday, we walked through a bit of the history behind beer labels, covering why—for the most part—beer labels don’t need to include nutritional information like other products on the shelves. Today, in part 2 of this 3-part series, we answer a common question: just because you don’t need to include this information, can you? The answer is basically yes, but as you’d expect with any piece of regulation, the answer is basically yes…with an asterisk.

Part 2: You Can Include ABV and Nutrition Facts If You Want

Even if you don’t fall under FDA regulation, and enjoy the laxer labeling standards of the TTB, we’ve heard from a number of brewers who still want to include ABV and sometimes other caloric and nutritional content on their labels, but aren’t sure whether they legally can do it (mostly because not everyone is doing it). To address some of this confusion, TTB issued a ruling this year letting brewers know that they could volunteer nutrient content information, including calorie and carbohydrate content, in addition to ABV details.

So, whether you’re brewing up a lighter low-calorie beer, keeping things low on the gluten side, or wanting to show off (or at least disclose) your heavy-hitting ABV to consumers, TTB has definitively said that it’s okay for you to do so. And, notably, if you’ve already obtained a COLA and wish to add these kinds of facts, you don’t need to obtain another COLA—as long as you present them in one a few pre-approved formats. There are helpful examples included at the bottom of the TTB Ruling. (Also, as we’ll get into tomorrow, it goes without saying that you’ll definitely want to make sure this information is accurate.) If you don’t like the pre-approved formats and want to present them a different way, that’s okay, but you would need to obtain a new COLA. Also, keep in mind that serving sizes officially vary based on ABV, so that will affect how you present your nutritional information. You might be interested to know that a malt beverage serving size is 12 fluid ounces if it’s at or below 7%, 5 fl oz if it’s 7% to 16%, 2.5 fl oz if it’s 16% to 24%, and for the truly ambitious, it’s 1.5 fl oz for everything above 24%. Also, alcohol content should generally be provided in the ABV format, though FDA took the time to assure that you can present the number of fluid ounces of pure ethyl alcohol per serving if you really, really want to…

Ultimately, although it has some snooze-worthy moments, this recent guidance is worth a read-through to make sure what you’re saying on your labels, and also how you’re saying it, is fully compliant. Keep in mind, too, that this guidance technically applies also to your “advertisements.”

So, what’s coming down the pike? All in all, FDA issued this guidance in response to inquiries from industry members—but, sometimes, you have to be careful what you wish for, because FDA is currently working on rule-making that would require detailed Serving Facts statements on all alcohol beverage labels. For now, though, no worries; we’re not there yet. Tomorrow, we’ll wrap up this series of posts with Part 3, explaining how, even though you can legally volunteer a lot of this information, there are reasons you might think twice about doing so.

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Part 1 of 3: Why Beer Labels Usually Don’t Need (But Can Include) ABV and Nutrient Content Information

Beer labels!

Beer labels. They definitely can be an artist’s canvas, but more often than not, they’re a prime example of federal regulatory oversight in overdrive. For those brewers who are already shipping across state lines, or thinking about it, you know you need to get a “Certificate of Label Approval” (COLA, for short) to legally do so. These come from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), and every beer you see in interstate commerce must have a TTB-approved label. You might recall now, though, that not every beer you see on the shelves contains ABV or Serving Fact information, but some of them do. Over the next couple of days, we’ll walk through what the deal with that is, and dispel common confusion about whether or not you must, or should, include this kind of information on your labels.

Part 1: History & Jurisdiction. TTB is not the FDA, and for brewers, that’s a good thing.

The reason beer labels typically don’t have to include that black-and-white box you see on everyday food products is because just about all beer is regulated by TTB, and not the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). FDA and consumers have actually tried, really hard, to get control over the labeling of alcoholic beverages, but TTB (formerly the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, how’s that for tough?) has been able to hold them off because of a piece of legislation that’s been on the books since 1935 called the Federal Alcohol Administration Act. Beverage history dweebs like us could fill a college syllabus with the background of that Act and its tension with FDA authority. But, suffice it to say that it gives TTB primary control over certain alcoholic beverages, including beer.

We say “primary control,” because the division of labor between TTB and FDA is not as neat as it could be. For example, when you seek a COLA, you have to disclose the ingredients in the beer, and FDA is technically charged with reviewing those to make sure the beer is safe. (For a good example of this oversight in action, recall the Four Loko adventures of alcohol + caffeine, where on-the-market malt beverages were ultimately banned and considered “adulterated” by FDA, even though they had successfully obtained label approval from TTB.)

If you only remember one thing from this series of posts, it’s that in order for your beer to fall under that Federal Alcohol Administration Act (FAA Act), putting it within TTB’s authority, you have to make sure your beer includes two ingredients: malted barley and hops. That’s because the FAA Act, back in 1935, decided that unless an alcoholic beverage contained malted barley and hops, it just wasn’t a malted beverage—sort of like a mini Reinheitsgebot. Thus, if there’s no hops or malted barley in the beverage, then TTB isn’t in charge, you don’t need a COLA, and you’d be regulated by FDA as a standard food/drink item.

For most brewers, falling under TTB jurisdiction is no problem. But, for anyone considering diving into the gluten-free market and mashing exclusively with stuff like rice or sorghum, you need to know that you’re regulated by FDA. This means that, for those beers, you’re required to comply with all of FDA’s labeling standards, and it’s why you’ll see (or should!) Nutrition Facts sections on non-barley-based beers, such as the Raspberry Ale from Colorado’s New Planet.

Tomorrow, we’ll introduce part two of this series, answering a question we often receive. That is, even if you fall under TTB authority because you use malted barley and hops, whether you are still legally allowed to include other information like an ingredients list, nutritional breakdown, calorie information, and alcohol content—and, if so, (1) what sort of format you’re allowed to display it in (for example, alcohol by volume, alcohol by weight?) and (2) the sorts of tests you’d need to back any of this information up. We’ll see you then.

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Our Very Best, To One of Our Very Best

great-raft-commotionEvery single one of my clients is dear to me. I mean, come on, you all make beer for god’s sake! How could I not feel that way?

I get giddy about each and every one of those clients proceeding to become a successful champion of beer-making wonder. And I like to brag about it.

Great Raft Brewing is one of those clients that you get excited to help out each and every day. They are going to be juggernauts in the Southern brewing scene.

Today, they graced the pages of my very favorite booze industry website, Oh Beautiful Beer. Check out those wonderful cans.

Best of luck to Great Raft – and all our clients – as you begin to take over the palates of your consumer base. Cheers!


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