What Beers Need TTB Formula Approval?

When does your carefully craft brew require a TTB formula approval? It's not as straightforward as it seems.
When does your carefully crafted brew require a TTB formula approval? It’s not as straightforward as you might hope. Read on for important background on TTB formula approval requirements.

Government authorities are great at drawing confusing lines. One example is understanding what beers need a TTB formula approval. (Note that TTB, or the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, is the primary federal regulatory authority over alcoholic beverages and producers.) Before getting to the question of which beers require TTB formula approvals, it helps to cover some background material, and the necessary rigmarole it takes to get one. What are they, what beers need them, when do you apply, how long does it take? Read on and we’ll roll through it.

What is a TTB formula approval?

When brewing certain kinds of beer with certain ingredients and processes, TTB requires that the agency first approve your formula (your recipe / process essentially) before it will consider your beer for a Certificate of Label Approval (COLA). That process is commonly referred to as a TTB formula approval. This is required for a range of beers, as we’ll cover soon.

When do I seek TTB formula approval?

The time to seek formula approval is when you’re planning to package and distribute a product across state lines. That’s when you’d need to get something else, called a Certificate of Label Approval (which authorizes you to move that beer across state lines). The formula approval is a prerequisite to the COLA for beers that need it. Here’s another scenario that’s important to know. If your state requires a COLA before packaging and selling your product even within the state, then you’ll need to go through the formula-approval process first. (Submitting your TTB COLA label approvals is technically required by the Washington State Liquor Control Board, for example, so you’d need your (1) TTB formula approval and then (2) TTB COLA label approval, before you have authority to sell packaged product in the state).

How long does it take to get a TTB formula approval?

TTB does a great job, but it’s not as fast as getting your COLA. You can view average TTB formula approval processing times at this website. At the time of writing, it’s taking TTB about 53 days (so almost two months) to issues its formula approvals. In part, TTB’s backlog is due to the increase in number of producers and, thereby, the beers hitting the market and crossing state lines. Sneak preview, though…Based on statements from TTB correspondents at the Craft Brewers Conference this year, they’d like to see the number of required formula approvals go down, and may be easing requirements even more, letting more beers through the gate without requiring approvals first. We’ll touch on that in a second. In any event, you will want to budget this time when planning to release any beer to market that requires a formula approval. And then you’ll want to keep in mind that, after the formula approval, it’s going to take some time to get your COLA as well. (Current TTB COLA approval wait times here. Battle Martin does a fantastic job getting through these. Yes, it’s one guy at TTB who does every beer label, and he’s refreshingly also most awesome to hear speak and to deal with.)

Which beers require a TTB formula approval?

Well, let’s be glad not all of them do. But, the line drawing here doesn’t make the most sense. TTB requires formula approval for any beer that is made using nontraditional processes. If you’re brewing up a traditional recipe, this doesn’t need to be on your radar. Water, malt, hops, and yeast? No worries. It does, however, come into play when you start using adjuncts or creative processes.

As a general rule, the kinds of beer recipes listed below require a TTB formula approval. However, there are very important exceptions to this rule which I’ll cover below.

To which flavors or other nonbeverage ingredients (other than hops extract) containing alcohol will be added;
To which coloring or natural or artificial flavors will be added;
To which fruit, fruit juice, fruit concentrate, herbs, spices, honey, maple syrup, or other food materials will be added; or
That is designated as saké, including flavored saké and sparkling saké.

Which beers are exempt from the general TTB formula approval rule?

Here’s a list of the exempt ingredients below (thanks to a ruling in 2014 relaxing the standards). This list came from urging by the Brewers Association, wanting to relax the onerous approval requirements for beer ingredients and processes that really were traditional. As you peruse the list, you’ll see that certain fruit additions are okay…but not others, at least right now. For example, coconut doesn’t make the cut. So if you’re using coconut in any beer, you need a TTB formula approval. Moreover, a multitude of spices got the green light, but if you’re using something creative like lemongrass in your wheat, it’s not going to pass muster. Last, and fortunately, ingredients like brown sugar, chocolate, coffee beans and grounds, honey, lactose, maple syrup, and the like are all okay. But, notably, if you’re brewing a batch of coffee and then using that brewed coffee in your beer process, that is not okay. Just the beans or grounds. Hmm.

Fruits (whole fruits, fruit juices, fruit puree or fruit concentrate)
apples
apricots
blackberries
blueberries
cherries
cranberries
juniper berries
lemons
oranges
peaches
pumpkins
raspberries
strawberries

Spices
allspice
anise
pepper/peppercorns
cardamom
cinnamon
clove
cocoa (powder or nibs)
coriander
ginger
nutmeg
orange or lemon peel or zest
star anise
vanilla (whole bean)

Other Exempted Ingredients
brown sugar*
candy (candi) sugar*
chili peppers
chocolate**
coffee (coffee beans or coffee grounds)
honey
maple sugar/syrup *
molasses/blackstrap molasses *
lactose

The below processes are also exempt. As you review the list, keep in mind that you can use woodchips (remember, though, you can’t say it’s a barrel-aged beer then or say on its label that it has barrel flavor, that gets to labeling issues), but you can’t soak those woodchips in alcohol.

  • Aging beer in plain barrels or with plain woodchips, spirals or staves made of any type of wood.
  • Aging beer in barrels, containing no discernible quantity of wine or distilled spirits, that were previously used in the production or storage of wine or distilled spirits.
  • Aging beer with woodchips, spirals or staves derived from barrels, containing no discernible quantity of wine or distilled spirits, that were previously used in the production or storage of wine or distilled spirits, or with woodchips, containing no discernible quantity of wine or distilled spirits, that were previously used in the aging of wine or distilled spirits.

In Conclusion, TTB Formula Approval: Moving Forward

Ultimately, based on comments from TTB authorities who attended the 2015 Craft Brewers Conference in Portland, TTB seems to be revisiting further ingredients / processes to include on the list. We’re hoping coconut and a multitude of other now-traditional ingredients make the cut. We’ll include them in a post whenever we get word. But, for now, as you make plans to expand into other territories, keep in mind that the COLA isn’t the first step for many of your creative beers. Instead, it’s TTB formula approval, then the important step of TTB COLA approval. Forgetting this, or doing them out of order, can add significant delays to your beer’s release time. If you have questions or concerns about your upcoming COLA or TTB formula approval needs, Doug and I can help, no matter where in the U.S. your brewery is located. Feel free to send us a note.

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