TTB Issues New Rule Exempting Barrel-aged and Specialty Beers from COLA Formula Requirements

We all know that when you’re shipping a beer into interstate commerce, it needs a TTB-approved label (also known as a certificate of label approval or a COLA). This past week, TTB issued Ruling 2014-4 that hands down some good news for a lot of producers throughout the country. In the past, TTB required brewers to take extra steps when seeking labels for brews featuring┬ávarious fruits, spices, or other food-like ingredients that were nonetheless fairly common in classic brewing. Notably, barrel-aged beers fell into this more burdensome category, requiring that brewers submit formula disclosures to TTB.

Here’s a brief rundown on the new ruling. Those brewing with this list of added ingredients (ranging from honey and maple syrup to a variety of traditionally used fruits and spices), are no longer subject to this extra requirement. And, those aging using traditional processes with liquor or wine barrels, are also no longer subject to the extra requirement. TTB is also okay with tossing wood chips into the fermenter or otherwise using staves or spirals from barrels, without taking any extra formula-disclosure steps. Here’s the important caveat, though, on that. Some smaller breweries who may not wish to invest in a barrel may be borrowing from tried-and-true homebrew methods, soaking oak chips in bourbon, for example. TTB is still concerned about these methods and still requires formula disclosures for brews that come about this way.

So, for those aging in empty barrels or using non-soaked methods, this rule is a plus. But, here’s another important caveat. In the rule, TTB reminds brewers of its advertising regulations. If you’re getting oak flavor from woodchips but not barrels, you can’t suggest the beer is barrel aged. Probably not a problem for most brewers who err on the side of straightforward descriptions, but for those trying to add that “barrel flavor” in a non-traditional way, it’s worth reviewing your marketing and label copy to make sure you’re not getting too close to the line and misleading consumers. TTB specifically says that “lager with whiskey flavors,” “bourbon-flavored lager,” and “Chardonnay lager” would be prohibited as misleading.

We’ve hit on most of the big stuff, but breweries would be well served to review the rule and discuss its nuances with their beer attorneys. In particular, some of TTB’s naming conventions are worth reviewing. If you’re brewing with some of these exempt ingredients, for example, honey, it’s not enough to refer to it on the label as an “ale” or “beer” without modification. TTB would require that you specifically call out the ingredient (“honey ale”) or the category (“fruit ale”) in one of their sanctioned ways. The full text of TTB 2014-4 is available here, and Reiser Legal is available to answer specific questions about these new federal regulations for brewers that might have them.

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