Legal Beer Shipping Through US Mail? Maybe Soon.

Will shipping alcohol through the US Postal Service finally be legal?
Will shipping alcohol through the US Postal Service finally be legal?

Legal alcohol shipping? Congresswoman Jackie Speier of California says she’ll introduce a bill that just might make it so. Announced through her Facebook page on July 14, 2015, Congresswoman Speier would like to “tear down the last vestiges of #Prohibition” by introducing a bill that will undoubtedly be unpopular with craft beverage fans across the United States. The bill would make it legal for consumers to ship alcohol through the United States Post Office, “expanding consumer choice and keeping the Post Office solvent in the process,” according to Congresswoman Speier.

For those out of the loop, it’s currently illegal to ship alcohol through the US Mail. It’s also not okay through third-party carriers such as FedEx and UPS, although violating their rules is not as risky as the USPS’s. For example, violators of the United States Post Office alcohol shipping prohibition technically “shall be fined . . . or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.”

Don’t get too excited yet, though. This isn’t the first time a bill like this has been introduced. However, it’ll be the first time such a bill has been introduced (if it indeed is) on new Postmaster General Megan J. Brennan’s watch. Previous Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe, however, publicly supported previous steps to open up alcohol shipment. Indeed, he even had ideas about making shipping easier, including introducing flat-rate boxes designed to ship bottles.

For the curious, the ban on shipping alcohol through the United States Postal Service stems back to 18 U.S.C. § 1716, a federal statute that came on the books back in 1909. The statute provides that “[a]ll spiritous, vinous, malted, fermented, or other intoxicating liquors of any kind are nonmailable and shall not be deposited in or carried through the mails.” Pretty straightforward.

Opening up beer and wine shipping through US Mail won’t be without its administrative challenges, but former Postmaster General Donahoe thought they were surmountable. For example, there are issues with shipping out of and into various states (some states allow it, some do not), and further issues with preventing delivery to those underage.

With interest in craft beverages at an all-time high, this may just be the time for a bill like this to make it through. Keep in mind, however, that secondary markets, from a consumer-to-consumer sales perspective, would still be illegal—and bartering or trading could still be deemed a sale of alcohol, prohibited under many state laws. Shipping of gifts back and forth to your buddies in different parts of the United States, however, may pass muster. So, perhaps it’s a good time to warm back up to your old college friends who may be scattered about the US, and living nearby your favorite hard-to-find source. We’ll keep you posted.

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TTB Brewer’s Bond Amount: How Much of a Bond Does a Brewery Need?

TTB Brewer's Bond
What TTB Brewer’s Bond amount does a brewery need? This post goes over the essentials for a TTB-compliant brewery’s operation.

What TTB brewer’s bond amount does a brewery need? Learn the essentials—calculating the right brewer’s bond amount, and choosing the right kind of bond.

What brewer’s bond amount does a brewery need? It’s a question that often comes up when a new brewery is completing its TTB application for its Brewer’s Notice. The TTB brewer’s bond form can look intimdating, but it’s fairly straightforward. First some background, then some guidance to frequently asked questions.

What is a TTB brewer’s bond?

A brewer’s bond is a way of guaranteeing TTB (or states that require them) that production tax, also known as excise tax on beer, is going to get paid. If a brewery fails to make its tax obligations, the bond is going to kick in and cover the deficient amount. That’s why it’s important to get a brewer’s bond amount right. In fact, if a brewer’s bond is too low for a brewery’s production, the brewery is not compliant.

How can I get a TTB brewer’s bond?

There are two kinds of TTB brewer’s bonds. A brewer’s surety bond and a brewer’s collateral bond. A TTB brewer’s surety bond is when a third party covers the brewery; it’s essentially insurance. The brewery pays a certain amount up front, and the insurance company is obligated to cover the bond. A brewery can get a surety bond by contacting an insurance agent. Many breweries go this route because the start-up brewery needs to put all of its cash toward start-up and build out expenses, and the bonds are relatively cheap. Typically $100 up front for a $1,000 bond and sometimes still just that $100 for a $5,000 bond.  To avoid having to deal with a third party, and keep filing paperwork every few years, another option is a Brewer’s Collateral Bond. Instead of paying a certain amount up front for the bond coverage, with a collateral bond, the brewery itself pays its full bond amount to TTB and TTB holds onto that cash. If a brewery doesn’t mind locking up the cash, it’s an option.

What TTB brewer’s bond amount is adequate?

The right TTB brewer’s bond amount depends on a brewery’s production. How many barrels of beer will a brewery produce in a quarter, and what would the brewery’s federal tax obligation on that beer be? That’s the amount of a TTB brewer’s bond a brewery needs to have on file. If a brewery anticipates its quarterly production and, in turn, brewery tax obligation is going to go up in a quarter, a brewery needs to strengthen its bond. The first bond a brewery files is an original. A superseding bond replaces that bond. A strengthening bond strengthens the amount of the one that’s on file.

Currently, the minimum TTB brewer’s bond amount for a production facility is $1,000. For nano breweries opening today, that’s sufficient. Or, at least, it wouldn’t take much more to be sufficient. If you plan to brew more than around 12 bbl per week, the bond would need to be bigger. We’ll walk through the numbers. Tax on beer is, at the time of writing, $7 per barrel for nearly all brewers. If you’re producing below 60,000 bbl per year, it’s $7/bbl today. So, a brewery would have to produce a bit more than 142 bbl per quarter—about 48 bbl per month or 12 bbl per week—to need a bigger brewer’s bond than the minimum $1,000 TTB brewer’s bond. Showing the math, $7 * 142 = $994. That 143rd bbl would bring the quarterly tax obligation to $1001, putting a brewery over the $1,000 minimum coverage. A greater bond would be required.

Notably, if a brewery is seeking a surety bond, very frequently a brewery can pay the same up-front amount, but get a much bigger bond. If a brewery is not posting a cash brewer’s collateral bond, it’s best to get the biggest surety bond it can while paying the lowest amount. This covers the brewery for increased production, without thinking twice. A brewery can shop around for coverage, often a $5,000 bond can be obtained for the same price as a $1,000 bond—that’d be 5x the coverage, giving headroom for production of up to nearly 60 bbl per week. As a brewery expands, or makes plan to, the amount of bond coverage on file with TTB should be in the back of the brewery’s mind.

Do TTB brewer’s bonds expire?

They do. Keep in mind that a brewer’s bond expires after four years. A Brewer’s Bond Continuation Certificate, whether for a surety brewer’s bond or a collateral brewer’s bond, must be filed and accepted by TTB.

Can a brewer change its TTB brewer’s bond type?

Yes, a brewery could switch from a surety brewer’s bond to a collateral brewer’s bond, or go from a collateral brewer’s bond to a surety brewer’s bond.

Help with a TTB Brewer’s Bond or TTB Brewer’s Notice Application

We regularly help handle TTB bonds as a part of our two Brewer’s Notice federal licensing packages. The first is our Comprehensive TTB Licensing Package, where we oversee the entire licensing process, guiding a brewery through every step of the way and handling all the application drafting. The second is our TTB Application Review, which is geared toward DIY breweries who want to save money by taking a stab at the Brewer’s Notice, but want an experienced professional’s review for completeness, removal of errors that may hold up the application, and guidance on streamlining the application for an efficient TTB review. Breweries in planning may call or email for details.

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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)
juniper berries

cocoa (powder or nibs)
orange or lemon peel or zest
star anise
vanilla (whole bean)

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

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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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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TTB Compliance: Brewery Tax-Determined Beer Notes

Complying with TTB's Brewery Tax-determined Beer requirements doesn't seem easy at first, but a review of the regulations will help you bring your operation into compliance.
Complying with TTB’s Brewery Tax-determined Beer requirements doesn’t seem easy at first (and it’s not a thrilling project), but a review of the regulations will help your brewery operation start off with TTB-compliant first steps.

Here’s an overview of some TTB brewery requirements related to tax determination. We regularly hear from start-up breweries concerned about complying with TTB’s tax-determination requirements and this is understandable, as the regulations and attendant record-keeping requirements are confusing. Beyond that, this is one of the areas where a homebrewer entering the commercial brewing environment for the first time has a lack of experience and skills. The notes here are no substitute for checking in with your brewery attorney, and potentially taking a cruise through the Code of Federal Regulations to get hip to all of this. Still, here’s an overview of what you’re looking at. More notes on record-keeping will be posted on the Brewery Law Blog before long.

TTB Tax-Determined Beer Overview

Keep in mind that TTB is the Alcohol and Tobacco, Tax and Trade Bureau. Tax is the biggie here. TTB is concerned about protecting the revenue, and they want to make sure you’re not evading tax by serving untaxed beer or miscalculating how much beer you’re producing.

1. Brewery Tax-determination Vessel

In your Brewers Notice, you’ll be asked to tell TTB how you’re measuring your tax-determined beer. For more breweries, this is through calibrated brite tanks. Your equipment supplier can help you understand how these work if you’re not familiar.

2. Calibrating Your Brewery Tax-Determined Beer Measuring System

Note that if you’re using a meter, gauge glass, or the like to measure your tax-determined beer, this is the sort of thing you’ll need to test periodically. This works both ways, no one wants to be overpaying taxes, and TTB doesn’t want to see you underpay, either. In accordance with 27 C.F.R. §25.42, you need to test it “periodically” and maintain the following records in the brewery available for inspection by TTB: (1) Date of test; (2) identity of the meter or the measuring device; (3) result of test; and (4) corrective action taken, if necessary. Note that the variation in the beer meter can’t exceed +/- .5 percent. If it does, that’s when you need to take corrective action to get it as close to zero variation as possible.

3. Using/Labeling Your Brewery’s Tax-Determination Tanks

Pursuant to 27 C.F.R. §25.25, TTB wants your tax-determination tanks labeled in a durable way with the words “tax-determination” tank. Bear in mind that the purpose of the tank is to determine tax every time you add beer to it, and TTB expressly forbids simultaneously pumping into and out of a tax-determination tank. And, note, while it’s always fun to have a “brewer’s tap” in back for the gang to sip on or to offer to visitors, if that’s your beer for consumption, that must be tax-determined beer.

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