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New Belgium gets it wrong: Stop complaining about beer labels

New Belgium gets it wrong: Stop complaining about beer labels
The label in question.

New Belgium Brewing's social media specialist created a small controversy yesterday when he complained in his blog on the brewery's website that the federal government was "leaking upcoming beer labels" and that bloggers were following suit.

But the points he made ring hollow.

"When the [Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau] releases new beer label art, before this new beer hits the liquor store shelves, it's kind of a stinker for us. This practice takes away our chance at a Big Reveal on the new, awesome label art that we have worked so hard to create," wrote the New Belgium blogger, who goes by the name Juicebox. "And then there's the bloggers...Some beer bloggers also release the images of the new label art from the TTB's website. They take the rarely seen content from the TTB's website (lets be honest, how many people are just perusing the TTB's site?) and launch it into the blog-o-sphere."

Juicebox specifically referenced an upcoming collaboration between New Belgium and California's Lost Abbey Brewing called the New Belgium & Lost Abbey Brett Beer. But his argument is just plain wrong. Here's a point-by-point rebuttal; New Belgium's comments are in gray with my responses following them.

Let's pretend there is a new beer in the pipeline at NBB. Say, a brettanomyces inspired collaboration with Lost Abbey. Then, everyone involved decides on the beer (recipe, brewing, etc...), and then decides on the name (let's call it -- the Lost Abbey Collaboration), the next step is to design the label.

Let's not pretend: Both New Belgium and Lost Abbey talked about this collaboration on Twitter, on Facebook and on their websites, pointing out that Lost Abbey's Tomme Arthur was flying to Colorado to participate in the project.

A designer at NBB takes the overarching ideas about the beer, gets some input from her co-workers and considers the overall aesthetic of New Belgium. Then she gets to work designing. She puts some loop-dee-loops here and some color there and then BLAM-O! The label art is done and awesome.

The label looks like every other New Belgium label. It is not the label that matters. It is the beer behind it.

But we can't just throw the label on the bottle, and then fill them bottles up with beer, and then ship them out to you. Nope, we have to get the label art approved, by the TTB (the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau). This holds true for anything we do: new beers, beer updates, new labels for existing beers, etc... The TTB wants to make sure the label art fits in with all relevant federal regulations. They are there to make sure we are saying the right things, on the label, in order to correctly inform our consumer. The TTB expects labels to include our name and address, brand name of the beer, class designation of the beer, net contents of bottle, etc (you can go to their website for more information). They do good work, important work. But, as part of their label approving process, they release an image of the beer label on their website for all to see.

It's not like the TTB is exposing New Belgium's dirty laundry. The goal of having certain information be made public is to protect people from potential abuse -- by governments, by police, by big companies with profit motives and marketing plans. Criminal records are public. Divorce records are public. Business and liquor licenses are public. Essentially, the federal government is asking food companies, beverage companies, vitamin companies to not lie. They approve liquor labels to make sure these companies aren't marketing toward children or bragging about nonexistent health benefits or nonexistent qualities of other kinds. Sometimes the bureaucrats behind this can make things more difficult that necessary. But it's better than having no oversight at all.

When the TTB releases new beer label art, before this new beer hits the liquor store shelves, it's kind of a stinker for us. This practice takes away our chance at a Big Reveal on the new, awesome label art that we have worked so hard to create.

I am sorry that New Belgium's marketing plans are being thwarted by the public's right to know, but the reasons for that are laid out above. And The Big Reveal should be in how the beer tastes, not what the label looks like. That's something you can't get on the Internet. And that is what the brewery should be worried about.

And then there's the bloggers. I love bloggers, beer bloggers especially. I mean shit, I am one. These are the people, the men and women, who preach the good and sound word of craft beer. They inform the public of everything from beer reviews, to events, to local tap lists, to news, to anything else beer related. Some beer bloggers also release the images of the new label art from the TTB's website. They take the rarely seen content from the TTB's website (lets be honest, how many people are just perusing the TTB's site?) and launch it into the blog-o-sphere. The idea is to inform their readers of new beer releases and to speak to the general happenings in the world of craft beer and beer styles. It's a scoop-able story, for sure. And, it's flattering. To see that writers and readers care enough about your brand to want to see the art (and style, and stats, and etc...) before it's released is a compliment. And we appreciate that compliment. But it still doesn't put the punch back in the Big Reveal.

Yes, there are several websites that publish beer labels the second that the TTB releases them. I could complain about them, too. Sites like Beer Pulse exist to generate traffic by taking other people's information and republishing it with links. It is a good service, but it sometimes ruins my chances of publishing my own scoops and it doesn't provide the perspective that an interview with a journalist would. But, again, it is public information. The contention that bloggers are taking "rarely seen content" from some obscure website is faulty, however. It takes about fifteen seconds to find the information online -- and you can bet that New Belgium's lawyers use it all the time to make sure no one has infringed on their trademarks. And looking for information is exactly what journalists -- and in this day and age, bloggers -- do. That is our job. That is how we find out about corruption, about trends, about problems that exist in our society that people are trying to cover up. Beer labels don't fall into these categories, but if New Belgium were dumping waste into a river or releasing harmful chemicals into the air, you better believe the public would want to know, and hopefully the information would be publicly available. In fact, the public would rely on journalists to find that information so that they didn't have to ferret it out themselves.

So here is a couple questions for you -- Is there a way for breweries to band together and get the TTB to stop publishing the label art in their approval process? And if that's not possible, is there a way for bloggers to get their story and then not re-publish the art? Is that even worth it? Probably not.

So, you would like to subvert the public information process, clamp down on freedom of speech and make it possible for abuse to occur again -- so you can preserve your Big Reveal? That doesn't sound like a very good idea. Oh, and bloggers and journalists aren't interested in helping you with those marketing ideas unless you give us part of your 401K and a percentage of New Belgium's profits. In the meantime, maybe New Belgium should rethink its marketing strategy -- put out a press release about the beer BEFORE you apply for the label. Own the story yourself. Or worry more about the beer when it comes out than a few images of the label floating around the Internet. A perfect example of this is Left Hand Brewing, which managed to keep the specifics of its Milk Stout Nitro secret even after the label hit the web. Then the brewery talked about it with the media when it was ready.

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