"It's just going to get worse — because now it's coming for your beer."
Late-night talk show host Stephen Colbert recently had these ominous words to say about the government shutdown that began in late December and now shows no signs of letting up. And it's true: The shutdown means that airport security workers are doing their jobs without pay, that national parks including Big Bend in West Texas aren't fully operational and that new craft beers are being held up from release. OK, some of the ramifications are far worse than others.
Nonetheless, some brewers are feeling the pain of the shutdown.
Before brewers, cider makers and other alcoholic beverage producers can release new products, they have to get label approval from the government. In Texas, if the beer isn't crossing state lines, breweries have to get permission only from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. But if the beer is distributed to other states, approval from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, or TTB, is required, too. And guess what. The TTB is one of the agencies not open during the shutdown.
As a result, new beers — here and elsewhere around the country — might not hit the market on time. (Beers that have already gotten previous label approval aren't affected, unless the label changes after a previous batch.)
The Brewers Association, the trade organization for U.S. craft breweries, noted in a blog post last week about the government shutdown that breweries might need to change up plans about their beer releases.
"During the shutdown, the TTB will not approve labels or process permits. Breweries should be prepared for the labeling and permit process to take longer than previously estimated. Also, be aware that when the government is funded again there could be a backlog. Breweries should plan accordingly," according to the Brewers Association.
For a majority of Austin brewers, it's business as usual during the shutdown. Even regional-sized brewery Real Ale Brewing doesn't distribute beyond the state, and many smaller breweries, like Austin Beerworks, don't send their wares out of Central Texas. Still others, as brewpubs, offer their beers almost entirely on-site. But breweries that do send their stuff outside of Texas are running into minor obstacles.
Hops & Grain has expanded into Colorado and had been hoping to roll out a new IPA there this month. With the shutdown, however, owner Josh Hare said the certificate of label approval, or COLA, hasn't arrived yet and might not come anytime soon.
"We're just waiting at this point," he said. "Luckily for us, this IPA is one that we already sell in Texas, so we aren't in a total bind. But things get difficult when you have pre-planned launch events with retailers that you have to put on hold. In the grand scheme of things, it's not a huge deal for us since it's just one beer and we don't rely on a lot of out of state distribution."
Still, he said, it's frustrating.
Argus Cidery is even more in a pinch. Co-owner Wes Mickel has been forced to push back a seasonal release, the Rye-Aged Doppelbomb Cider, that he said is "time-sensitive based on aging and packaging." He's not only waiting on the COLA from the closed TTB. After the acquisition of the COLA, he would then have to wait on label approval from the TABC, a process that now takes up to a month. And vendors — Argus distributes in Texas and about 20 other states — are expecting it.
That's the nature of the craft beer and cider industries. New products must constantly come out to keep consumers excited and demand high. Competition in this crowded field is fierce, and shelf space gets harder and harder to hold onto.
With President Trump and Congressional Democrats at an impasse about border wall funding, the government shutdown could continue into the foreseeable future, according to the New York Times. If it drags on for a whole year, as the president has threatened that it could, things could start getting dire. Many of the breweries that distribute out of their home states just don't have that kind of time.
"Everything is very time sensitive, and for releases such as this, they cannot be pushed back an entire calendar year," Mickel said, noting that the Doppelbomb is now about a month behind schedule.