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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