New Belgium gets it wrong: Stop complaining about beer labels

Categories: Beer Man

Thumbnail image for NewBelgiumLostAbbeyBrett.jpg
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.

Follow Westword's Beer Man on Twitter at @ColoBeerMan
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17 comments
Enough BS
Enough BS

 blah, blah, blah.  Is it a pain for the beer companies?  yes. Does anyone really actually care about this other than those with a financial interest and a few beer label geeks?  no.

Why doesn't NBB worry about what it REALLY should - e.g., BRINGING BACK 2BELOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I don't even actually care if you keep Snow Day, although I won't buyanymore of it.  but bring back the 2 Below!  NBB really ought to have it as a year round beer.

Just Me
Just Me

I don't get the point of the TTB releasing the label to the public at all before the beer hits the shelves?  I understand the label needs to be approved, but why release the info to the public before they can even purchase the beer?  I don't think Pellegrino would have been too happy if their Missoni collaboration label was put online before they showed it to the world.  Why shouldn't the company have the right to control their copyrighted artwork?!  I think that the blog was perfectly reasonable and respectful in nature.  What is all this uproar about?

epl
epl

 Agreed.  A few more points--what is this "big reveal" that NB is referencing?  This isn't a movie that gets leaked online a week before the premier.  It's more akin to the movie poster being released ahead of the movie's release as a marketing tool (which, of course, happens with every single movie.)  Further, NB, as far as I know, doesn't have release parties at their brewery (like, say Avery).  Is the "big reveal" some communal event where, at liquor stores all over America, patrons are introduced to the label at the same time?  I'm seriously confused about this.

Finally, I think it's important to note that as the craft beer scene continues to expand, the amount of options on the shelves of liquor stores will continue to grow.  As such, walking along the beer aisle at, say, Argonaut, can be a bit daunting (even for a beer geek like me.)  I use the pre-release of label art to alert me to what beer I'm looking for.  By knowing what the label looks like before heading to the store, I'm better able to find a given beer quickly which, in turn, allows me to start enjoying sooner. 

MustLoveBeer
MustLoveBeer

Dang, they must be thrilled when I shared that label and all the NB Fat Tire True Story labels. Bad, bad me! Then again I've only posted about 1000 labels so far. Love the artwork on some of them. Some truly skilled beer label artists out there.

Trevor Johnson
Trevor Johnson

This is the least surprising beer label ever. Epic NBB cliche everywhere. I bet the beer is kick ass though!

Jdproctor2s
Jdproctor2s

I don't understand why all you dorks are so mad that they want to keep the LABEL ART (not government required info) under wraps until they are ready to reveal it. Most craft breweries try to convey a unified theme with their labeling designs and artwork. Small companies Wanting to have some control over their intellectual property shouldn't cause this much controversy. They aren't trying to disband the TTB, they wild just like To have a way to review the labeling without disseminating the artwork to the public.

adamnason
adamnason

"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."

I run BeerPulse. This morning, I woke around 8am pretty exhausted after going to sleep at close to 3am (apologies to those with kids out there, I know you have it worse). I hadn't left the apartment or showered in two days and had been at my computer for at least 34 out of the past 48 hours. I woke up with the intention of soaking in the bath tub for at least a half hour right off the bat just to get rid of the stink...literally! And that's when I got a message on my phone that Anheuser-Busch had just released its fiscal year 2011 earnings. And I had that sinking feeling in my gut...all I wanted to do was take a damn shower, at the very least, and here is yet another thing to add to my list of things to report on. I had seen the New Belgium post yesterday, knowing that I am the ring leader of the ire...having pioneered the label sharing efforts four years ago. So just now, I read this and interpreted it with perhaps a bit of a bleary eyed, beat down kind of view...yup, I'm going to hit submit and probably regret it.

BeerPulse probably exists for a different reason for every reader. To New Belgium's graphic designer, it may or may not be little more than a menace. To Jonathan, it may be some kind of traffic generator machine that ruins his scoops. To an industry person, I hope it is invaluable. To a beer geek, I hope it is something that brightens their day. For me, the site exists to provide the most comprehensive, informative and entertaining look into the beer world on a daily basis. The level of information that hits the site on a daily basis rivals or even surpasses industry publications that charge hundreds of dollars a year (to be clear, I think those pubs are worth that $$).  I'm proud to be able to pull off keeping the site going at absolutely no charge to readers. And I would never have been able to do that without starting by sharing the label artwork.

When Jonathan refers to "republishing of links," I believe he is talking about my method of curation (though I'm not positive). I pull from the TTB, brewery blogs/sites/social media, podcasts, videos, newspaper sites and other bloggers. When doing so, I don't do the Huffpost style full article paraphrasing either. I'll typically grab just 2-3 sentences, link to the original report and leave it up to the reader as to whether it is enough of a hook for them to click through and learn more about the subject matter. I sent nearly 100 clicks over to Melissa Cole's blog post today about how women are wrongly portrayed in the media. To me, that's a win.

Make no mistake. There is plenty of original content too...like yesterday's write-ups on Coors Light Iced T, Batch 19, craft beer's growth in supermarkets, etc.

As someone who wears the journalist hat from time to time, I understand that it is important to report with a critical eye on what people do though I'd urge journalists to exercise greater caution when reporting why people do what they do. And as always, if you have a personal issue with someone, it is generally a good idea just to contact the person directly.

Cheers to Jonathan and New Belgium for doing what they do,Adam

P.S. I'm happy to report that I've showered and plan to get some fresh air tonight!

mojo
mojo

Wow, overreact much? Go have a beer.  New Belgium wasn't going big brother on you, they were merely expressing frustration with the TTB approval process and trying to foster a conversation. They weren't trying to "subvert the public information process, clamp down on freedom of speech and make it possible for abuse to occur again" Jesus! Sounds like you need to find a way to get the sand out of your vagina! 

HeyHo
HeyHo

"Criminal records are public. Divorce records are public. Business and liquor licenses are public."

Actually, in Colorado, the only thing "public" about divorce records is the date the divorce was final.  All other information is sealed by default. 

jonathan_shikes
jonathan_shikes

 Thanks Michael. I appreciate you taking the time to respond.

Mantonat
Mantonat

Sister? Do you know something about Jonathan that the rest of us don't?

SH
SH

 Different federal agencies with different oversight.  And different legal and legislative minutiae.  Don't try to understand it; it is stuff like this that keeps so many employed by the Federal Govt.

adamnason
adamnason

"all you dorks" how intelligent of you.

Try this one...they have 100% control over being the first ones to reveal label artwork and a large amount of control over the timing of when they reveal it. No one is putting a gun to their heads telling them to submit a label 2-3 months in advance when a label clears in a week 99% of the time.

SH
SH

 Really?  There is a clamor for the 2011 financials -  from your website, no less - so fierce that you cannot take a 10 minute shower?

Why don't you save the complaining for when you have a real job that is actually fatigue inducing. You aren't a coal miner or finding a cure for cancer.

jonathan_shikes
jonathan_shikes

Adam, I appreciate your comments. It wasn't meant as a dig -- I click on your posts at least a couple times a day. My comment was meant to show that I get frustrated, too, but that I wouldn't want you to stop doing what you are doing.

adamnason
adamnason

I think there is more of a silver lining here in that New Belgium chose to start a conversation about this in the first place. There are a lot of other things that New Belgium could blog about...like a big thank you to Jonathan and others like him in the Colorado scene that do what they do in publishing. It's kind of like when the boss ignores all the great things you do day-in, day-out and calls you out on the one thing he/she doesn't like. As for starting a conversation, they could have easily done so one-on-one.

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