The craft brew industry worries about regulatory holdups after the retirement of one epic regulator
It’s that glorious time of year when craft brewers begin moving their fall seasonals from the fermenting tanks into the finished bottles. But if these brewers didn’t start the label approval process early, they could be in for an unwelcome surprise.
The notorious king of beer labeling, Kent “Battle” Martin, has vacated his throne at the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), and it’s causing headaches for craft brewers across the country.
Let’s back up a moment for context. If a brewery wants to sell beer across state lines, it must have its label approved by the TTB. For years, Battle was the sole TTB employee tasked with approving beer labels for the federal agency. A decade ago, that likely wasn’t too hard of a job. But with the growth of the craft movement, Battle became exceedingly busy.
“You’d hear stories about him having three laptops open at brewer’s conferences, because he couldn’t work fast enough on just one,” says Grant Pauly, the brewmaster at 3 Sheeps Brewing Company in Wisconsin. “I’d get emails from him on Saturday night or Sunday morning. You just knew he was working all the time.”
“Since 2004 he’s been through every single label that’s been put out. It’s got to be close to 35,000 labels a year. That blows my mind,” says Giotto Troia, one of the founders of Mob Craft Beer, also located in Wisconsin.
Because Battle was such a pro, brewers could generally count on their labels being approved quickly. But a few months ago, the process came to a virtual standstill. “Usually it takes two weeks, but this summer it started to take between four and six weeks,” says Troia. No one knew why. “That’s a real problem for us. Everything needs to move in unison. We can’t always just let the beer sit in the tank longer.”
As the wait times went up, the rumors swirled. “It started circulating through the brewer’s circles that Battle had retired,” says Pauly. “But it was kind of a shock, it came out of nowhere.”
At recent brewer industry conferences, Battle hadn’t made any mention of retiring. In fact, Pauly skipped waiting in line to meet Battle at this year’s Craft Brewer’s Conference, figuring he could just catch him next year. “Something must have happened. He must have retired unexpectedly, because he wasn’t training anyone to replace him,” says Pauly. “Overnight the wait times went from 11 days to 45.”
Neither the TTB or Battle responded to multiple call and email requests for comment. However an internal TTB memo we found dated May 29, 2015, confirms that Battle has left after 20 years of government service. Pauly says he heard the agency hired one full-time and one part-time employee to fill the void. But wait times are still long—as of early August, a pre-recorded message on the agency’s helpline said wait time was 24 days. When you’ve got beer ready to sell but no labels to go with it, that seems like an eternity.
A true public servant, working nights and weekends to make sure the American populous received its craft beer on time and with correct labels, Battle will truly be missed. Says Pauly: “The guy was awesome; I don’t think any of us appreciated him the way we should have until he was gone.” We’ll raise a glass to that—and to Battle, for a job well done.