Pintful

Pintful: Government shutdown hits North Carolina's craft beer makers

jfrank@newsobserver.comOctober 15, 2013 

  • What’s on tap Lonerider Brew-It-Forward Release

    4:30-7 p.m. Thursday at Bottle Revolution, 4025 Lake Boone Trail, Raleigh

    The Lonerider homebrew competition winner’s beer is the featured tap at Bottle Revolution. Asheville’s Adam Reinke won the 2013 with a Schwarzbier. Try it on tap and in 22-ounce bottles. Info: bottlerevolution.com/whats-new/

    Wilmington Beer Week

    Noon Saturday, 3400 Randall Parkway, Wilmington

    Lighthouse Beer & Wine is hosting its 12th annual beer festival Saturday in Wilmington, promising 100 craft breweries. The Saturday festival culminates a weeklong celebration dubbed Wilmington Beer Week with special tastings and events around the city. Info: lighthousebeerfestival.com/

    BottleMixx Anniversary Celebration

    10 a.m.- 9 p.m. Oct. 26, 8111 Creedmoor Road, #153, Raleigh

    The Raleigh bottle shop will mark its first year with a special all-day event including a food truck, free tastings and giveaways. The featured beer is a Foothills Brewing cask of mint chocolate coffee People's Porter. Info: bottlemixx.com/Events/

The effects from the federal government’s partial shutdown are far-reaching: The national parks are shuttered. Many government services are delayed. Hundreds of thousands of federal workers are furloughed.

And now add one more consequence to the list: no new breweries or beers.

The political impasse in Washington means a little-known government agency called the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau is closed. The TTB, as it is known, is a division of the Treasury Department that processes beer excise taxes and approves new breweries, recipes and labels.

And even if Democrats and Republicans reach a deal this week, the backlog is likely to cause problems for weeks to come.

For North Carolina, where the craft beer scene is growing by the day, the federal stall is particularly painful. A handful of new breweries across the state are facing indefinite delays to open, and dozens of existing brewers who are trying to expand into other states or debut new beers are stymied.

It comes at a key time in the beer calendar, when breweries are trying to debut new seasonal beers for the winter months to satisfy a market always seeking new tastes and boundary-pushing recipes.

Fortnight Brewing Co. expected to debut its new Cary brewery in a few weeks. Company president Stuart Arnold said the brewery applied for its federal permits to open three months ago and expected to have them by now. “We were targeting a November opening date, but now we are not really sure,” Arnold said.

“I can’t predict what is going to happen,” he added. “Hopefully we are the top piece of paper … and the first thing to do when they get back to work.”

Kayne Fischer, a co-owner of Natty Greene’s Brewing Co., which has operations in Greensboro and Raleigh, said the “timing couldn’t be worse.” Natty Greene’s is redesigning all its labels and trying to expand into the Virginia and Washington, D.C., markets.

Carolina breweries can sell within the state after receiving approval from the Alcohol Beverage Control Commission in Raleigh, but distributing across state lines puts them in federal jurisdiction. So each new label and each new beer sold across state lines needs TTB consent.

“We went to pitch to these (beer distributors) up in Virginia months ago,” Fischer explained. “We pitched our brand lineup with the confidence that we could get it to them. With this shutdown, we can’t deliver.”

The new labels for a couple of Fischer’s core beers were recently approved but not the Red Nose Winter Ale, the company’s No. 1 seasonal seller, which is supposed to land on shelves and taps this month.

Not only will Natty Greene’s lose direct sales, but if the brewery doesn’t land with a splash in a new market, distributors won’t push its product as strongly, he said. The old axiom about first impressions is real in the competitive market for bar taps.

“I can’t put a price tag on it; it’s priceless,” Fischer said of the shutdown’s effects.

Sean Wilson at Fullsteam Brewery faces a similar problem as his Durham brewery tries to expand to South Carolina. He can’t get labels approved to sell some of the brewery’s more eye-catching beers outside North Carolina.

“The prospects look a little bleak for us to get anything creative or unusual out there to this market,” said Wilson, who is also president of the N.C. Brewers Guild. “It hurts us in the long run as we look to roll out with our brand strategy. It’s not the best showcase of what we do when we enter a new market and show off some of the real creative beers we do.”

The federal process for label approval takes about a month as regulators and brewers go back and forth about what the label needs to say to describe the beer recipe. But even a quick end to the shutdown won’t solve the problem. Applications from brewery’s across the nation have piled up for two weeks.

Expecting delays in Washington once the government reopens, Sumit Vohra, CEO at Lonerider Brewing in Raleigh, said he has postponed brewing any new beers until next year. “We don’t want to brew another one until they are back online,” he said. “There’s a shelf life to beer.”

At the moment, Lonerider is awaiting approval for one new beer that Vohra hoped to debut soon. It’s a Belgian witbier called “Trickshot,” made in collaboration with Trophy Brewing in Raleigh. “We brewed the beer. It’s sitting in tanks, but we can’t sell it” outside the brewery, he said.

The shutdown shows just how the federal government closely regulates the beer industry, something out of the view of most drinkers. “I think that’s where the consumers aren’t aware just how much is involved,” said Wilson, who said his hurdles are “small potatoes compared to the fact that there’s people out there ... not working.”

And small brewers, a generally apolitical crowd, are caught in the political crosshairs. “I don’t care for political postures,” said Arnold at Fortnight. “When it drags on for weeks and affects small companies, I think it’s really upsetting that these people don’t get together and talk” to resolve this.

What I’m tasting

Before the winter beers hit shelves soon, I’m still enjoying the pumpkin beers. Two new big offerings drew my attention in recent days: Blue Mountain Barrel House’s Spooky, an imperial chocolate pumpkin ale aged in bourbon barrels, and Southern Tier’s Warlock, an imperial pumpkin stout.

The Spooky is more delicate than it sounds with intricate bourbon notes complimenting the subtle spices. Its antithesis is the Warlock, a sweet, dark beer with an overwhelming but intriguing spice character. The Spooky is 8.2 percent at about $12. The Warlock is 8.6 percent ABV at about $9.

Contact John at 919-829-4698 or jfrank@newsobserver.com.

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