The Federal Government Shutdown’s Effect on Montana Beer

I wasn’t planning to write about this topic. First, I figured the federal government shutdown would be over by now. Second, a hundred other bloggers and media sources have already covered the basics.  The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), the federal department responsible for approving new beer labels, is shutdown, preventing some breweries from releasing new beers because there is no one working to approve the labels. 

Then, Missoula’s KPAX television station ran a story with the title “Government shutdown won’t hurt Montana breweries” that does not present the complete picture.

From a practical stand point, that may end up being the case.  Montana does not require its breweries to obtain TTB approval for beer labels, thus breweries which solely sell/distribute their beer within the state can continue to release new beers with no impact.  Some states do require TTB approval even for beer which never leaves that state’s borders.

Yet, any Montana brewery distributing beer to other states is required to obtain TTB approval for the labels.  Think Bitter Root, Bayern, Big Sky, Red Lodge Ales, Yellowstone Valley Brewing, and others.  Jason Goeltz, General Manager of Bitter Root Brewery, confirmed labeling approval is required for the beers Bitter Root distributes out of state, but the brewery presently has no pending label applications with the TTB.

That’s not the case with Big Sky which has one label for a new spring release caught up in the shutdown. Co-owner Bjorn Nabozney notes that preparing a new beer for distribution is a process that breweries begin many months in advance of a planned release. “We expect delays in every new label we produce so under normal conditions we start the approval process 6 months before we intend to release any packaged beer,” said Nabozney.

Specific to their pending label approval, “we have about 60 days before we need to really get concerned,” said Nabozney.  “The crunch then becomes can we get the labels printed in time to package; we generally work 120 [days] out from a press date. As it stands we are continuing our prepress work, while operating under the assumption that when the government goes back to work our label will be approved and we just have to tell the printer to run the job.”

I think we all presume – and certainly hope – the government will be back to work well within the next 60 days.  Even then, the TTB will be faced with a considerable backlog of work.  The agency approves hundreds of beer labels in a typical week.

But label approvals are not the TTB’s only function related to beer.  

Anyone desiring to manufacture beer, with the exception of home brewers complying with state and federal laws, must receive TTB approval before brewing may begin.  Like labels, no one at TTB is processing new brewery applications either. Thus, any Montana brewery currently in planning or under construction may be impacted by the shutdown.

Kalispell Brewing Co. is one such brewery which hopes to begin brewing within the next month. Fortunately, according to co-owner Maggie Doherty, KBC has already secured its TTB approval and won’t be delayed by the shutdown.

Great Burn Brewing in Missoula received good news this past Monday night with the Missoula City Council approving its conditional use permit. Owners Mike and Greg Howard and Diana Garrett expected to begin construction activities soon thereafter.  While TTB approval is not necessary to begin construction, no brewing can begin until the TTB approves its application. I’ve asked Great Burn about their status with the TTB, but have not yet received a response.  Update: Great Burn submitted its paperwork two weeks before the shutdown, but did not receive approval before the shutdown put all paperwork processing on hold.

So there you have it – more of the story.  Because Montana does not require TTB approval for beer made and sold exclusively within the state, Montana breweries are not feeling the same effects as brewers in some other states.  However, the longer the shutdown continues, the more likely it is we’ll see some impacts here.  More good reasons for Congress to get its act together.