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Sunday, 12 July 2015 21:49

Michigan craft brewers lament retirement of ‘pedantic pain in the ass’ federal bureaucrat

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Companies grapple with delays in approval process for beer labels

Ask West Michigan craft brewers about their experiences with the federal bureaucrat who singlehandedly approved thousands of beer labels over the last decade, and nearly all of them will have a story.

Some of those tales are even printable.

For many brewers, Kent “Battle” Martin was an awkward and gruff tyrant at the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) who could dictate the fate of new products going to market.

While his reputation as a stickler to detail earned him the label of “pedantic pain in the ass” in a report last year in The Daily Beast, to others who sought him out with a question about their labels, his knowledge was irreplaceable.

But now that Martin retired as the TTB’s malt beverage labeling specialist in May, brewers say they face a new set of challenges — namely that the TTB label approval process now takes longer despite the agency hiring two people to fill his shoes.

“I’m in week eight of an approval, and that’s twice as long as it usually takes,” said Jason Spaulding, co-founder of Grand Rapids-based Brewery Vivant, who said he didn’t realize Martin was retiring.

For all his quirks, Martin’s work ethic was beyond question. Brewers MiBiz spoke with for this report offered stories of Martin approving labels well into the wee hours of the morning, often on weekends. On other occasions, they’d see him furiously working on multiple laptops while attending trade shows just to keep up with the influx of label submissions while he was away from the office.

Martin personally processed more than 60,000 labels in both the 2013 and 2014 fiscal years, according to a June 5 article in Brewbound, a beer industry trade publication. From October 2014 until his retirement in late May, Martin had processed 25,000 labels.

All alcoholic beverage manufacturers must follow strict labeling guidelines to include a beverage’s class designation (i.e., beer, ale, stout or porter), the container’s net content listed in English units of measurement, the brand name, government health warning, and the address of the bottler, among other information.

Part of the U.S. Department of Treasury, the TTB must approve labels for alcoholic beverages to verify that the labels are not misleading and to ensure that they contain the required information.

With some styles of beer that are flavored with various types of ingredients, brewers are also required to submit a statement of process to the TTB to ensure the label accurately describes what’s in the can or bottle.

Given the changeover at the agency, what was already an arduous process is “taking a really long time,” Spaulding said.

Ironically, the current delays have some brewers lamenting Martin’s retirement.

Russell Springsteen, owner of Traverse City-based Right Brain Brewery, said that for all of Martin’s attention to detail, brewers could still find ways to work efficiently through his label approval process, albeit after some trial and error.

“I wouldn’t say we had it down pat, but you learn how to navigate through a one-man machine,” Springsteen said. “We would specifically try to design a label with what we thought he would want to make (the process) streamlined.”

For Right Brain, the makers of brands such as CEO Stout and Will Power Pale Ale, that meant designing labels with consistent font styles and sizes and avoiding the use of “fancy” adjectives, Springsteen said.

Right Brain also found that if Martin sent back a label for a correction, it was best to respond within an hour to stay at the top of his queue rather than wait until the next day, which could set the whole process back two weeks, Springsteen said.

Beyond the present bottlenecks at the agency, some craft brewery owners say the situation calls for more funding and manpower for the TTB.

“They’ve got two people to replace him and they’re not keeping up with what he could do,” said Larry Bell, founder of Galesburg-based Bell’s Brewery Inc. “In my opinion, we need more funding for the TTB. If you want business to happen and you’re going to regulate us, let’s fund it.”

A spokesperson for the TTB declined to comment for this story or to grant access to Martin’s replacements for an interview.

While Martin’s departure from the TTB has left industry with questions and concerns about the agency’s ability to keep up with the volume of label submissions, it’s clear the polarizing figure has left his mark on alcoholic beverage labels across the country.

When asked what he thought Martin was doing with his free time in retirement, Springsteen quipped, “Probably sleeping.”

Read 4124 times Last modified on Tuesday, 21 July 2015 10:09

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