The (Slightly Frightening) Approval Process for Beer Labels

You have probably heard about the controversy involving Port Brewing Company's beer label for their Witch's Wit ale. It's made national headlines, and caused the company no end of grief.  How did the label get approved in the first place if it's so offensive?  Actually, beer labels have to undergo a considerable amount of scrutiny before being allowed to actually grace a bottle in public.  What's the process?

The ATF actually controls what labels brewers can use (and which ones they cannot).  There are several criteria that a beer label has to meet in order to be approved by the ATF, as well.  These include that the name and address of the bottler be included.  This can be something as simple as the brewery name and state.  The label also has to include a designation for the type of beer – such as class or style.  The product warning information must be included (and not on the neckband). 

The ATF also specifies the type size that can be used – to the millimeter, as well as forcing manufacturers to use contrasting colors for required information (such as the aforementioned product warning label).  There is even a strong emphasis placed on numeral usage.  Generally, the ATF feels that numbers over 30 are generally acceptable.  This rule stems from the problem of breweries trying to compete based on alcohol strength, and placing the alcohol content in the branding on the bottle.  If the number to be used is under 30, then further information must be included on the label.

There is even more rigmarole to go through for beer manufacturers, though.  This is because the ATF is not the only authority that can veto label designs, type, wording and other considerations.  State regulatory agencies also have a say in what can be used and what cannot be used.  Often, the state's requirements are even more stringent than the ATF's, which is one reason that you will sometimes find different labels for the same product used in different states. 

State laws can even prohibit the use of certain names for beers, including designating the style.  For instance, if a brewer wants to call their product a stout, but it doesn't have the right alcohol content, then some states will not allow that name.

With all the regulations, rules and laws governing labeling for beer, it's a wonder that there are any labels at all, much less ones that can cause controversy.