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TTB Funding

I read about TTB funding a few days ago in Wine & Spirits Daily. It is good but I still don’t understand why they don’t use more links. I had to look elsewhere for the letter, to the Senate, about TTB funding. The letter is here.

Here are some highlights and observations:

  1. The letter seems to cover the powers that be, in the beer, wine and spirits industries (BI, WI, DISCUS, etc.).
  2. They, and TTB, seem to set TTB’s funding needs at $101 million, for 2015.
  3. The letter says “Since 2007, TTB has had to shrink its workforce by 10% ‐ more than 50 full‐time positions – and this has had a direct, negative impact on the businesses that depend on it to operate and grow.”
  4. The letter reads like a big wet kiss:  “The Business Insider claimed in 2012, that ‘the TTB is the government’s third‐biggest revenue collector, after the IRS and Customs and Border Protection.’ It may also be its best: In fiscal year 2013, it took in $23 billion. That amounts to $457 for every dollar the agency spent collecting taxes ‐ more than twice the IRS’ ratio. No other federal agency does so much for so little, while also having a huge impact on the industry it regulates.”
  5. With a further embrace, the letter says:  “We need a well‐funded TTB to be able to process label requests quickly in order to get new products to market in this highly competitive global market place. We also need a wellfunded TTB to prevent and guard against unscrupulous actors from entering our marketplace who otherwise could harm the public with dangerous products, which has occurred outside of the United States with counterfeit alcohol.”
  6. “In recent years, the alcohol beverage industry has seen explosive growth across the United States and the number of businesses that the TTB regulates has skyrocketed.” Since 2007, “the number of wineries, breweries
    and distilleries in the country has grown by an astounding 53.1%.”
  7. While heaping praise upon TTB, the letter also takes a small jab at other agencies:  “In short, now is not the time to cut funding to one of the few federal agencies that is performing well and actually helping a significant US industry grow.”

From my perspective, it does look plain expensive to run something like TTB. I would imagine that not handling paper and not mailing out tons of labels and formulas has saved TTB a lot of money in the past decade. It would seem that most of the costs for systems like FONL and PONL and COLAs Online are one-time only costs. While those systems seem to work reasonably well, it is very difficult to have a dialogue by phone, in-person, or email, and though this is unfortunate, I suspect it saves a lot of money (at least in the short-term). On the other hand, in TTB’s quest for some internet-based efficiencies, they may have succeeded too much in making it easy to submit all manner of stuff. This forces TTB to deliberate upon every hare-brained scheme with about the same exertion as the next big thing.

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Craft is about MADE in USA

wc8

It took me a long time (perhaps too long) to realize that — craft is (largely) about MADE IN USA. With an emphasis on made. And less emphasis on USA.

This dawned on me when looking at gleaming copper, at Vendome in Louisville, with welders crawling around on the concrete floor — making stuff. It has become rare to have any real connection to people making stuff nearby, and quite apparently, we have a craving to get back to our roots, much as we flock to the beach every summer. If you have any doubt, take a look at the copper porn, arrayed here.

In trying to get to the essence of what is craft — and distill it down — so far I have the above concepts. I added MADE IN USA to this list just today. Please comment away to let me know what the concept really means or should mean.

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Non-GMO Beer

peak

I would like to know if the above beer qualifies as Non GMO. I would also like to know, without a big hassle. I am sitting here with blazing fast internet and a big screen, and yet I remain in the dark as to whether this beer can be considered Non GMO. It would only be more confusing at the point of purchase, with less time and a smaller screen.

On the one hand, a recent press release claims Peak beers are the first to qualify to use the logo depicted at upper right on the image above. On the other hand, I can’t find any approved labels with the same seal (and the above is of course not the actual label). The actual label, as approved, is here. As of 2011, TTB said:

TTB has received several Certificates of Label Approval (COLA) applications proposing to display bioengineered-related information on alcohol beverage labels. Terms frequently mentioned in discussions about labeling alcohol beverages with respect to bioengineering include “GMO free” and “GM free.”  “GMO” is an acronym for “genetically modified organism” and “GM” means “genetically modified.”  The terms “genetically modified organism” and “genetically modified” are not synonymous with the term “bioengineered foods.”  Plants can be genetically modified using any number of techniques, new or traditional.

TTB believes it is not necessary to mandate any bioengineered food labeling requirements at this time.  We also find that it is misleading to refer voluntarily to those bioengineered food labeling terms or any similar references on alcohol beverage labels.  This is consistent with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s position.

And yet FDA does seem to allow the Non GMO seal. Here is but one example (Silk almond milk). A Kashi cereal example is here. The seal and certifications are sponsored by the Non-GMO Project, “a non-profit organization committed to preserving and building sources of non-GMO products, educating consumers, and providing verified non-GMO choices.”

As of a few weeks ago, this suggests TTB was looking into it further.

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Craft Beverage Association, Survey

As of this date and writing, we have 168 good surveys.

Almost all of them are submitted by people with relevant experience; 77% of the respondents have more than two years of work experience in the alcohol beverage field.

The term “craft” has become crucially important to thousands of producers and millions of consumers in recent years.  And yet it has no agreed meaning.  We intend to change that within one year from launch, and fill the term with meaning in a fair, flexible, enforceable, modern way, to save it from abuse.

- Craft Beverage Association, July 19, 2014

These surveys provide solid feedback on what the term “craft” does mean or should mean, in relation to beer, wine and spirits.

ssIf you have not yet completed a survey, and you work in the alcohol beverage field, please complete the survey here. We would like to have at least 500 responses before drawing any major conclusions. We are off to a good start, with 152 responses in the first week.

The survey is sponsored by the Craft Beverage Association. This is a Washington, DC-based non-profit trade association that seeks to define the term “craft,” within one year from launch, in a fair, enforceable and flexible way, to fill it with meaning and save it from abuse. We would certainly appreciate your help. Please use the comments below, and the survey, to get involved, or to let us know the very best people who can help.

We will share the highlights on the Craft Beverage Association website, within a few weeks. But for now, we want to share a few excerpts from as below. Please note we will aggregate the survey data and keep it non-personally identifiable (like Google gathering traffic data) unless you clearly indicate a preference to the contrary (or we get your explicit permission). Based on the responses so far, it should take no more than 10-15 minutes to complete this thoughtfully.

Who should regulate?

whoMany responses say TTB is in a good position to help with this. The responses also say that trade associations would be good. Though parts of this are surprising, we need more responses on this point because there were many skips. But this is encouraging because our plan would leverage the strengths of TTB and trade associations.

Criteria?

criteriaLess surprisingly, a lot of respondents are saying that batch size and total annual production are crucial. Not so many respondents assert that the following criteria are at odds with true craft:  a) no change to ingredients or method in many years; b) the bottler grew/produced a majority of the ingredients.

Other

70% think the topic is important. 72% say they are more likely to buy a product marketed as craft and 60% say they would pay at least a few dollars more per bottle. 51% say they would like to help with this project.

Favorite quotes so far

Washington distiller:  Wow. Good luck with that. I mean that sincerely and without snark. I kind of think it’s like jumping into a shark tank with a sirloin in your shorts, but if you can get folks together on it, more power to you.

California distiller:  Without a meaningful definition that can galvanize everyone involved — makers, wholesalers, retailers, the media and the public — then craft beverage (liquor particularly) will become nothing more than a throwaway line. Most focus too narrowly on minuscule volumes and hobby level techniques without much regard for how customers see craft and what they’re looking for from craft made products. Am willing to help craft a new, better version with like-minded folk. This will create a level field and reduce the chances of confusion (or cheating)…assuming that craft can deliver on its promise to the public to deliver quality and innovation. If not — i.e., craft = amateur hour — then any small producer who makes decent products will run as far away from the term as possible. This is a tricky and touchy subject that will only get sorted out in time through a shakeout, but it’s important to discuss it openly.

mapMontana producer with 8-15 years of experience:  The term has very little useful meaning at this time. It has been diluted and there is no universally accepted definition, let alone an enforcement mechanism.

Colorado brewer:  We stir our mash by hand, turn every pump on/off manually, climb inside our kettle and tanks to clean and sanitize, etc. I would love to see craft have definition so that those who brew with robots separate themselves from those that brew by hand.

Colorado distiller:  I run all the mashes for my whiskey in-house. At the end of the day I’m picking grain dust out of my ears and eyes. That’s craft. Seriously though… it’s insanely hard to put words to, but I’ve heard folks propose that craft must involve substantial alteration of the initial ingredients for the sake of achieving a superior and/or interesting final offering.

California beverage lawyer with more than 32 years of industry experience:  It is a term of art that needs to be defined.

Idaho producer with 8-15 years of industry experience:  Putting “craft” on our packaging would be akin to a woodworker doing the same on a chair. It is unnecessary.

Texas producer with 16-32 years of industry experience:  The term has already been defined too broadly to be useful and it would be effectively impossible to narrow the definition now. The term no longer carries any practical meaning.

Virginia producer with 8-15 years of industry experience:  It is a term that is loosely used and I think lost meaning. Currently, are you more likely to buy a product marketed as “craft,” or more willing to pay more for it? Yes; I am a sheep. If TTB or another entity set out fair and enforceable rules for the use of this term (“craft”), would you be more likely to market your product as such, or to buy a product marketed as such, or pay more for a “craft” product? I do like rules and clearly defined lines.

From a Virginia brewer:  The most ridiculous excuse used by politicians to not make rules is that someone will take advantage of them. That may be true but there is no other choice in a society based on the rule of law.

New Jersey producer with 16-32 years of industry experience:  There is quite a lot of debate, it would be great to have a definition. Craft does not mean it is good or a good value.

South Carolina distiller:  For Jack Daniels, if they made a small batch product I do not see why they would not be able to market it as “craft”. I don’t think that they will though. For Anheuser Busch, I believe they already make a craft product called Ziegenboch that is limited in production, differentiates itself from all other mass produced beers and is only available in Texas. And is delicious. Who cares about wine.

Hawaii producer with more than 32 years of industry experience:  We practice craft methods and believe in them. Craft methods are the kind of work that humans are engineered for. That kind of work is satisfying and enriching. The words should be protected so that the trade and the consumer are not misled. There is a lot of mediocre product labeled craft. Also, non-craft producers are using it. If the product was genuinely craft-made, why not? Gallo has made excellent small-production wine. E&J is better than most VS Cognac.

California distiller:  It’s really more about where the inspiration for a beer, wine or spirit comes from, the methodology used in making it and the transparency shown by the craftsperson. Too many people insist on size of production being a criterion, while I would argue that there are large producers making better products than many of those who would qualify based on size alone. Others would argue that the founder has to be responsible for producing every batch, which is like saying that the chef at a restaurant has to make every dish to qualify for their Michelin stars. When we first started distilling, the terms “artisan distiller,” “craft distiller” and “micro distiller” didn’t exist. [We were] a great, world-class distillery that just happened to be small. I’m willing to argue obnoxiously about this.

Virginia distiller:  It is an inherently difficult topic. The people at Jack Daniels, for instance, spend a great deal of time crafting their product, and make use of a good bit of automation in doing so. Who am I, Joe Littleguy, to say that they are not craftsmen any more than I am?

Tennessee distiller:  I think this craft thing is mostly a marketing trend. It is a bad idea to make legislation that will increase bureaucracy and make the TTB more difficult to work with based on current marketing trends. I’m a small producer and don’t see the need to explain to my customers that I make my product by hand. I think it’s pretty self-explanatory. My iphone is made by hand in China. Should that be considered a craft product?

Colorado distiller:  Please don’t let those with the largest pocketbook be the ones to define what Craft truly is. It will be a travesty to those who consider themselves craftsman, those who work with their hands and hearts to produce as high a quality and enjoyable a product as possible.

Ontario distiller:  Consumers enjoy authentic craft products because it gives them a connection to community and geography. If consumers grow to mistrust these misrepresentations, something meaningful will be lost.

Please make sure to complete the survey and share it with knowledgeable people if you have not already.

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Help TTB Break the Logjam (Free the Labels)

In this blog, every now and then, we talk about how the label and formula system at TTB can be quite slow, despite various TTB efforts to streamline things. Some top examples are here:  101 Days (to get a spirits label approved); Streamlining; Sen. Schumer Says Labels Take Too Long; more streamlining. It is not a pleasure to observe that it can take more than five months to get an ordinary French Vodka approved (30 or so days at the TTB Lab, then 60 or so days to write up the formula approval, then 60 or so days for label approval — to say nothing about potholes and glitches along the way). Add a few weeks if you’d like to add a flavor.

For a change, today let’s give TTB a break and talk about what the submitters can do, to help speed things up. We will also cover what applicants should not do. Many of the same principles apply to both labels and formulas.

Applicants should:

  1. Start early. TTB and others do a pretty good job of showing the updated average processing times (APTs), for labels and formulas, so it should come as a surprise to nobody that both processes can take a very long time. Why not start early? This can help the system because it leads to fewer panicked status checks. It also should mean fewer expedite requests. Such requests can put a lot of stress on the system, tie up a lot of resources, and they can also mean other applications are jumping in front of and slowing down yours.
  2. Put in solid applications. It’s not so hard to put in a good application, especially if you are only handling one commodity (such as only domestic wine or only imported beer). An example would be knowing what kinds of products need formula approval prior to label approval, then attaching the formula approval to the label. TTB calls such applications, without errors or omissions, “perfected applications.” More than 43% of all label applications go back to the applicant as “needs correction” (see page 3 of the PowerPoint here). When all such labels are counted — submissions and resubmissions — TTB gets about 250,000 label submissions per year. TTB only has about one beer reviewer and 1-2 spirits reviewers — so this can sometimes be a very heavy load. If you think it’s easy, you are not paying attention; you can submit any old thing but the government has the burden to give a thumbs up or a thumbs down (and not just a maybe) to every one, under hundreds of pages of rules.
  3. Read the rules. In the days before the internet maybe you had a good excuse not to skim the rules. But with the rules essentially at your fingertips, free, you should probably do your part to peruse the rules before complaining that TTB is too slow. If you don’t want to read the rules you should probably hire a lawyer or consultant.
  4. Get familiar with ARTAL. This is the Allowable Revisions to Approved Labels. It can save you and TTB a lot of time. There is no reason to wait 6 weeks for a label approval, and inflict the extra work on TTB, when all you are doing is changing the alcohol content. On the formula side, when you have small changes that don’t impact labeling, you can save yourself and TTB a lot of time if you supersede rather than start anew. Otherwise, submitting a new formula usually, in turn, would trigger a new label approval.

Applicants should not:

  1. Submit for products they have no real intention of selling. Only a small percentage of all the products that go through TTB ever end up on store shelves. TTB has said it’s research tends to show that the number is as low as 10%, which would mean that the label and formula division is using more than 80% of its bandwidth on things that never go to market. In many ways the online systems have made it too easy and too inexpensive for applicants to dump work on TTB. In the olden days, the applicant at least had to pay for a stamp or FedEx, and now the system is free (if you ignore the time it takes to load the data and wait).
  2. Cry wolf. If you want to use up TTB’s time telling them it’s urgent, you should have a very good reason, and it should be a whole lot better than:
    1. we can’t sell without the approvals (too obvious, and applies to everyone in front of you in line as well)
    2. we can’t pay tax until we get the approvals (I am pretty sure TTB is not excited about the prospect of collecting a few hundred dollars in tax from you, especially when the same tax dollars are otherwise likely to get put in the till by another guy who planned ahead a bit more)
    3. an exaggeration
  3. Jam up the system with status checks or vague inquiries. There is rarely any advantage in contacting TTB about the status of a pending item, unless it’s well past the published norms. To the contrary, such requests (even when clear, polite, and when they include the ID numbers) mostly tie up the phone lines and scarce TTB resources. An especially detrimental variation is the vague status request. A good status request would be a few days after the APT, with the ID number, such as “Why is label ID 14018001000065 taking so long?” A bad status request would be, “We put in a chardonnay label a few days ago, can you check on it, it should be easy because only a few words changed, and you can find it under Jones Winery, in Napa. No I don’t have the ID number or permit number handy.” With the old, paper-based system there was at least a small chance your paperwork was stuck at the bottom of a forlorn tower of paper; in the current age there is almost no chance that the computer lost track of your application.

With this as a starting point I hope others (Ann, Deb, Marc, Teresa, Fred?) will jump in with ideas about what the industry can do to help push the wait times lower, for the benefit of all.

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