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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Brewery Copyright Beer Label Woes: A Tale From Canada

What’s the inspiration behind your beer label? Do you know if it’s original?

So many of our brewery clients have rad acquaintances who are graphic designers, eager to get onboard and build out brand material for little cost. Other breweries may not have the personal connections, but recognize the importance of brand material, and make significant investments in outside creative professional services. Both are great routes, and our post last year touched on copyright concerns in structuring even the most informal of those relationships, to make sure copyright ownership flowed fully to the brewery. Today, I’ll renew our discussion, highlighting another important point. This one is unfortunately inspired by headlines involving our friends up there in Canada, and it emphasizes again how important it is to get a strong creative services agreement in place whenever you’re engaging outside help.

This is the original label design Canada’s Central City Brewing had adopted for it saison, before getting word of a potential copyright infringement claim.

Take a look at these two images. One is a beer label, the other an excerpt from a comic book. Eerie similarities, right? It turns out that Canada’s Central City Brewing hired an agency to create a beer label for its saison. The day before its release, the brewery proudly posted its rocking label art on its Twitter account.

This is artwork from the Powers comic book series, depicting character Deena Pilgrim. I think we can all agree that artist who made the beer label did not independently arrive at the design.
This is artwork from the Powers comic book series, depicting character Deena Pilgrim. I think we can all agree that artist who made the beer label did not independently arrive at the design.

Literally hours before the beer was due to be in stores, Twitter fans pointed out the infringement issue with the character Deena Pilgrim from the comic book series Powers. It seems the brewery had no idea, and thought it was getting a cool piece of original artwork.

So, what happened? The brewery had to put the release on hold and paste 24,000 new labels by hand onto its bottles. Below is an image of the new beer label. (Sidebar: Bear in mind that ideas are not protected by copyright law, but expression is. The concept of a foxy detective wielding her badge isn’t infringement, but as you drill down into specific choices—the placement of fingers on the badge, the style of the hair, the facial expression, the angle of the stance, the decisions involving light and shadows—that’s when you cross the line from idea over into expression. That’s when you run into problems.) Ultimately, this is a frustrating outlay of cash. And, although we’d like to think it was avoidable on the part of the ad agency, I’d like to think it’s easily reimbursable based on the agreement in place between the companies.

Here's the design that Central City ended up landing on for their Detective Saison. It may still have the same idea behind it, but the expression is what matters here.
Here’s the design that Central City ended up landing on for their Detective Saison. It may still have the same idea behind it, but the expression is what matters here.

So, how do you avoid this sort of issue? First, it’s important to get an agreement with your designer in writing that not only vests ownership in the brewery, but one that also is designed to address situations like this. That’s what a contract does, it sorts out who is liable for what, in the event all sorts of things go wrong with the relationship. This is the sort of thing that could foreseeable go wrong with a creative services relationship. We don’t know what was in the agreement here. But, it’s important to note that it was a professional agency that turned out the problematic work. Do you know where the design direction for your logos came from? Do you know what works were used as inspiration? It’s important to note that even the most talented of designers may not be familiar with the nuances of trademark and copyright, which are often confused in the media. In evaluating trademarks, a comparison of the goods/services in question comes into play. A badge-wielding agent could be used in connection with computer speakers and a brand of beer, and consumers probably wouldn’t be confused. But, when it comes to copyright, protectable elements of a work are afforded strong rights, even and especially when they’re used in different media and on different goods and services.

Best practice is to be proactive and get a copyright agreement in place. On the flipside, best practice is also to copyright your own works as soon as they’re created. No one wants to be the one slapping new labels on through the night, with doubt in your mind about just how easily you’ll get this expense covered. Beyond that, no one wants to be the company whose valuable brand material just got infringed upon. Taking both steps help best protect your brewing business, no matter how the dice roll.

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Is Your Distributable Beer Brand Trademarkable?

Your beverage brand is racy, but it passes label muster thanks to the First Amendment. Can it be denied a trademark?

Can this Happy Bitch get a trademark? You bet, although the First Amendment's protections don't extend to every trademark application. Read on!
Can this Happy Bitch get a trademark? USPTO has said yes! Although the First Amendment’s protections don’t per se extend to every conceivable brand direction you may want to trademark.

Credit goes to my beer trademark law chum Alex Christian over at Davis Brown in Iowa for pointing out this nuance, which is worthy of a post of its own today. In the past, I’ve written about the issue of having a potentially trademarkable beer name or logo, yet not being able to distribute that beer because of Certificate of Label Approval (COLA) issues. That is, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) may control a brewery’s speech on labels when, for example, the label is misleading, touts the intoxicating effects of the beverage, or would be appealing to kids. More on that here. Essentially, in that scenario, a brewery might have an otherwise trademarkable piece of branding material, but be unable to obtain a COLA to put that label or beer name into interstate commerce.

Here’s a different scenario. Imagine your beer name itself is distributable. It isn’t misleading. It’s not touting the effects of alcohol. It’s not appealing to kids. Now, if the label has subjectively “racy” content, we know the First Amendment is going to kick in and protect that brewery’s speech on the label. See my post last week on the case of Flying Dog and its Raging Bitch beer label, which caused a bit of a stir with Michigan’s Liquor Control Commission, which had initially (and improperly) rejected the label, contrary to Flying Dog Brewery’s First Amendment rights.

Could it be that the reverse is also true? That is, can you have a distributable beer label or brand that is not trademarkable? Indeed. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) operates under the framework of the Lanham Act. Bear in mind that within the Lanham Act, USPTO is to refuse a mark that “[c]onsists of or comprises immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter . . . .” There are a few other grounds for refusal, outlined in 15 U.S.C. § 1052. In fact, readers might be aware of the ongoing matter involving the registrability of “Redskins.”

So, you might say, wait a minute. If the First Amendment protects the government from restricting labels with subjectively scandalous content, then how can USPTO refuse registrations on this sort of ground?  You might wonder, can USPTO, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB), and courts applying the law really do this, without affronting First Amendment rights? So far, they can. The distinction is that, by not granting a federal trademark, the government has not prevented the party’s use of the mark. You can speak on. The use would just not be granted the presumptions and protections connected with a federal trademark. A great case on point here was the matter of 1-800-JACK-OFF, a trademark sought for services it doesn’t take much imagination to determine.

So, in sum, some trademarkable beer names are not distributable. In the reverse, some distributable beer names are trademarkable. In the case of Flying Dog Brewery, however, they do have a trademark for their “Raging Bitch” brand of brew. In fact, I was surprised to see just how crowded the field of “Bitch” marks is on alcohol beverages. Among them, we have the pure and simple “BITCH” mark, as well as a battery of marks from different owners, with most of these bitches seeming to favor wine brands. You’ll find “HAPPY BITCH” but also “CRAZY BITCH”, “NASTY BITCH”, the nautical-themed “BEACH BITCH” and then “JEALOUS BITCH”, though that “RICH BITCH” is no longer protected.

At any rate, when developing a standout product for a brewery or beverage business, it can be fun to push the boundaries with creative ingredients and processes. To match the brew’s personality or create some pop on a crowded taplist or retail shelf, it can also be tempting to push the boundaries with the brand material itself. The First Amendment does kick in to protect a brewery’s speech on its labels, allowing all kinds of vulgar things to potentially come to market. Thanks, Bill of Rights! Nevertheless, so far, to develop a brand under the protections of a federal trademark, you’ll have to keep it a bit cleaner. In fairness, although it’s still a subjective call at the end of the day, the powers that be who review trademarks take a pretty measured approach in determining whether a mark warrants refusal for these reasons under the Lanham Act. Still, for any brand owner or marketer, it’s important to know the line exists.

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Raging Bitch Lawsuit: Liquor Control Commissioners “In Heat” Over Flying Dog Label Rejection

Michigan Liquor Control Commissioners "in heat" over recent Sixth Circuit decision regarding a 2009 rejection of this Flying Dog Brewery label.
Liquor Control Commissioners “in heat” over recent Sixth Circuit decision regarding a 2009 rejection of this Flying Dog Brewery label. Click for full size.

Does the First Amendment extend to your brewery’s beer labels? You bet. Congratulations goes to Maryland’s Flying Dog Brewery for a big win this month. Unlike the brewery trademark disputes we’re used to seeing hit headlines, this brewery lawsuit involves Flying Dog’s rights to express itself on its labels. Like many cases tend to do, this one has been going on for quite some time. In fact, we reported on it here back in 2011. The background is that in 2009, Flying Dog sought to register its “Raging Bitch” beer label with the Michigan Liquor Control Commission. You can click the picture for a full-size version of the label. The MLCC did not approve the label, claiming it was offensive. In particular, it seems the MLCC took objection to language on the label that it found would be “detrimental to the health, safety, or welfare of the general public.”

The procedure gets a little messy. But, hang with me, because the outcome is important. When the MLCC denied the label, and Flying Dog lost its administrative appeal, Flying Dog filed a lawsuit pursuant to a federal statute, alleging the individuals at the MLCC had violated the brewery’s Freedom of Speech rights protected by the First Amendment. It’s not an unusual kind of lawsuit, except perhaps for the beer world. It’s the same kind of lawsuit involving government action that you’d see in headlines where a private citizen alleges that the police used excessive force. Constitutional violation. Keep in mind, however, that government actors can have different degrees of immunity from these kinds of lawsuits. It’s why you don’t see judges being sued every time they make a decision that impacts an individual’s rights. It’s prudent. We wouldn’t want a judge to be worried about being sued, for example, when trying to make the right, albeit unpopular, decision in a case. More on that soon.

At any rate, the MLCC Commissioners alleged that they had immunity, and put forth a couple of different theories, one being that their actions were quasi-judicial. The federal district court agreed, granting the Commissioners partial summary judgment. According to the court, it was the first time a court in the Sixth Circuit had decided whether members of a state administrative body who had the authority to make licensing decisions are entitled to quasi-judicial immunity. The district court thought so.

Flying Dog Brewery appealed the summary judgment ruling, and so the case went to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. In reviewing the case, the Sixth Circuit observed that to determine whether an individual is entitled to quasi-judicial immunity, the court would consider factors like the nature of the government official’s functions, and how being exposed to various forms of liability for those decisions would affect the appropriate exercise of those functions. Here are some factors that are characteristic of the judicial process:

  • the need to assure that the individual can perform his functions without harassment or intimidation;
  • the presence of safeguards that reduce the need for private damages actions as a means of controlling unconstitutional conduct;
  • insulation from political influence;
  • the importance of precedent;
  • the adversary nature of the process; and
  • the correctability of error on appeal.

Through a measured analysis, the Sixth Circuit found that the factors divided evenly both for and against a grant of quasi-judicial immunity. For those interested, the opinion is here, and it’s worth a read. The court decided to call the close question in favor of Flying Dog, whose constitutional rights were at stake. No quasi-judicial immunity.

The court next analyzed whether the Commissioners had a different type of qualified immunity. That is, the MLCC’s commissioners would be protected against a lawsuit, only if the brewery’s freedom of speech right was clearly established, in light of the context of the case. A right is clearly established if a reasonable official would understand that what he or she was doing would violate the right.

The Commissioners urged that the right was not clearly established. It is true that “commercial speech” is afforded less protection than, say, the content of your favorite film. When evaluating whether commercial speech falls within the ambit of the First Amendment, courts apply what’s known as the Central Hudson test. First, the speech must concern lawful activity and not be misleading. Next, the asserted government interest (here, the health, safety, and welfare of the people of Michigan) must be substantial. If both answers are yes, the court asks whether the regulation directly advances the governmental interest asserted, and whether the regulation is more extensive than it needs to be to serve that interest.

The Sixth Circuit reached back to a notable case the Supreme Court took on called Rubin v. Coors Brewing Co., 514 U.S. 476 (1995). That case involved the federal government’s regulation on alcohol content on beer labels. Yes, a couple of decades ago, federal statute 27 U.S.C. § 205(e) prohibited brewers from putting any ABV information on their labels, unless state law required it. (The concern was that brewers would get into “strength” wars.) The Supreme Court applied commercial speech principles and found the whole regulatory scheme irrational, especially because the same statute required alcohol content on wine and spirits labels. The following year, the Supreme Court decided yet another brew-centric case. Rhode Island had banned ads that displayed accurate information about the retail prices of alcohol. The Court determined that Rhode Island’s ban was not justified by the Twenty-first Amendment, and that the Twenty-first Amendment does not “diminish the force” of a battery of constitutional protections, including the First Amendment.

This beer label was at issue in Bad Frog Brewing Co. v. New York State Liquor Authority.
This beer label was at issue in Bad Frog Brewing Co. v. New York State Liquor Authority.

The Commissioners pointed to a case in the Second Circuit, where state liquor commissioners had been granted qualified immunity when they banned a vulgar beer label (the aptly named Bad Frog Brewery had a label with a frog giving the finger), and where on appeal the Second Circuit determined that the commissioners reasonably believed they were entitled to reject the application. The Sixth Circuit found that, if anything, that case put all state liquor authorities on notice that banning a beer label for vulgarity does violate the First Amendment. Thus, a reasonable official would understand that his or her actions would violate the right. No qualified immunity.

So, the outcome of the Raging Bitch case. It’s not a complete win, it’s a win of a case within a case. That is, the Sixth Circuit determined that the Commissioners were not entitled to any form of immunity. However, because the district court had never reached the issue of whether the MLCC commissioners violated Flying Dog’s clearly established First Amendment rights, the case gets kicked back down to the district court, where we can only imagine the commissioners are hoping to settle. This is especially so because a dissenting judge on the Sixth Circuit thought that the factual record was developed enough that Flying Dog should be entitled to summary judgment in its favor as a matter of law! It’s worth noting here that the federal statute permitting Flying Dog’s claim has a fee-shifting provision, whereby a court may allow Flying Dog Brewery to recover its attorneys’ fees if it prevails. Those fees would be in addition to any judgment Flying Dog received for its constitutional injury. Keeping in mind that this dispute has been alive since 2009, you can do the math.

If you made it this far, you’re either a lawyer or a truly brave and persevering soul. Ultimately, I’ve gotten so deep into this case today because (1) I love a good Con Law session and (2) because there’s no doubt now that, thanks to one Ragin’ Bitch, state authorities are firmly on notice that a brewery’s beer labels have significant constitutional protections. I’ll raise a beer to that.

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New TTB Cider FAQ: TTB Clarifies Labeling and Other Regs for Cider Industry

TTB Cider FAQ: What Producers and Cider Start-ups Need to Know
New TTB Cider FAQ: What Producers and Cider Start-ups Need to Know, Straight from Uncle Sam.

There’s a new TTB Cider FAQ out. We’ve touched on Washington Cider Law in the past, but the feds play an important role in it too. Just today, TTB has provided helpful insight to the growing craft cider industry. Here’s a link to the new TTB Cider FAQ, with six bullet points from us below covering more notable stuff, especially for those comparing regs on the cider side with things on the beer side. Different worlds, but we help with both sides at Reiser Legal.

1. Cider is a wine, we know that. It’s not a malt beverage under the law.

2. From TTB’s labeling standpoint, to call a product just “cider” it has to come from fermented apples and optionally contain added sugar, water, or alcohol. Anything else, it’s not just “cider.” Fortunately, when you submit your formula, TTB will provide a suggested statement of composition to help you, and you can always designate a fanciful name on the label, so long as it’s not misleading.

3. If your cider contains less than 7% ABV, you do not need a COLA. This stems back from the TTB/FDA regulatory authority divide we’ve discussed in the past. If your cider is 7% to 24% ABV, you need that COLA to ship in interstate commerce, as you’re subject to TTB authority. Notably, Washington is going to want that COLA to get your project on the shelves here. Either way, even if you don’t need to obtain a COLA, if the cider leaves the premises, it still has to comply with certain basic labeling requirements.

4. Because cider is a wine, 7%+ ABV cider is subject to TTB’s standards of fill. That means 12oz packages (like the cans we know and love to see on the shelves) are no good for cider at that ABV. Below 7%, it’s all good. Notably also, as long as you’re shipping wine in containers above 18L (4.75G), you don’t have to comply with TTB’s standards of fill. Here are some standards of fill, which feel pretty arbitrary but it’s a reg so what do you expect:

  • 3 liters
  • 1.5 liters
  • 1 liter
  • 750 mL
  • 500 mL
  • 375 mL
  • 187 mL
  • 100 mL
  • 50 mL (just a sip at 1.6907!)

5. If you’re only making cider below 7% ABV, you don’t need a basic TTB permit. Keep in mind, you’re still subject to applicable federal authority, and your local liquor board (in Washington, the Liquor Control Board) more than likely has its own sets of permitting requirements and onerous regs.

6. If your cider has CO2 in it (technically about .392g CO2/100mL, be careful. If CO2 is coming from secondary fermentation in a closed vessel (like a bottle), it’s considered “sparkling.” But, if you’re injecting CO2, it’s artificially carbonated so it has to be labeled as such. Note that sparkling/carbonated wines are taxed at higher rates. Speaking of tax, there are all kinds of nuances with respect to how you’d be going about your cider business.

The takeaway on the TTB Cider FAQ:

Regulations are really confusing, inconsistent among industries, and you might be subject to a completely different set of regulations depending on how much alcohol is in your project. For anyone thinking about starting a cidery in Washington State, we’re happy to help you wade through these tricky regulations. We’ll post further resources for cideries on the blog soon.

 

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