Label-ese

Can't find your favorite alcohol? Blame bureaucracy.

In a moment of clarity, the very late Frank Zappa pointed out that "you can't be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. It helps if you have some kind of a football team or some nuclear weapons," he continued, "but at the very least you need a beer."

Well, no wonder the Republic of Texas didn't last long. "Texas is one of the most difficult states in which to get labels approved and products licensed," claims a spokesperson for the National Association of Beverage Importers in Rockville, Maryland. Newcomers to the Dallas area often complain about the confusing patchwork of wet and dry areas, the operation of private clubs and the unavailability of some alcoholic products. The first two points result from the archaic (and arcane) patchwork of local regulation, state law and Southern Baptists. Many people blame the final item on the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

"The state has an interest in knowing what's coming into the state," explains Allen Johnson, supervisor of marketing practices at TABC, "not only because alcohol is a mind-altering substance, but for tax considerations." Despite the finger pointing and popular misconceptions, the commission does not actively block specific alcoholic products from their rightful place on the shelves of retail outlets--at least according to distributors and retailers speaking off the record.

But the key word is "actively." TABC simply works within a system of regulations that sometimes discourages and often delays the bottle from reaching the shelf and thence the consumer.

The commission engages primarily in label and content analysis for consumer protection and tax collection. For any new or revised product entering the state, the manufacturer must submit an application form, initiate the label approval process, pay the approval fee ($25) and provide a copy of the label. Change anything--from the color of the label to the vintage year--and the process begins anew. For wine, the marketing-practices team simply checks the label for required elements (brand name, alcohol by volume, size of container, producer or importer), completing approval within a week in most cases. Beer, ale and liquor--well, that's another matter. The TABC chemist tests each of these items, distilling out the alcohol and weighing it by volume. It can take a full day just to test one beer. And yes, he dumps the stuff down the drain when he's through.

The reason for all of this rigmarole has to do with state law and state tax. According to the state, any malt beverage weighing in at 4 percent alcohol or less earns a beer label, taxed at 19.4 cents a gallon. Above 4 percent and it becomes an ale, malt liquor, porter or stout, earning 19.8 cents a gallon. At least Texas ranks below the national average in tax on beer (23.9 cents a gallon) and liquor, which our state collects at $2.40 a gallon compared with Florida's $6.50 a gallon. Still, last year, the state pulled in almost $515 million in alcoholic beverage taxes.

Imported beers create even greater confusion. European manufacturers commonly bottle beers--malt beverages rather--in 11.5-ounce bottles (something to do with the metric system). Unfortunately, nonmetric Texas limits these products to 7, 8, 12, 16, 24 or 32-ounce bottles. "Unless it fits in those sizes, it can't be approved," says Johnson. Here's the kicker: Those size requirements do not apply to ales and such, only beers. Alcohol content, then, is everything.

Johnson claims that it takes only two weeks, generally, for his team to approve malt beverage products, depending on the backlog. "There are only three of us--me, the chemist and an administrative technician," he says. Retailers say the system works pretty well.

For the purpose of alcoholic beverage approval, the state interacts directly with the manufacturers. The manufacturers then ship approved products to wholesalers, who distribute the stuff to retail outlets. Consumers sit at the bottom of the chain, powerless. If you want a rare item such as a Thomas Hardy's Ale, you must generally forget about it and settle for a lesser ale. Local establishments waited six months for TABC to approve bottles of L'Espirit de Courvoisier, the ultraexpensive cognac blended from Napoleon's own collection, and Johnson blames the manufacturer. "Quite frankly," he explains, "if there's a manufacturer or importer in New York, they'd have to get approval, and if it is a small order, they may not do it."

In other words, the hassle of written applications and label fees discourages the importation of small batch items and products promising a lower sales volume.

Oh well. At least we don't live in Pennsylvania, where state-controlled liquor stores close early, and hard-core drinkers must make special trips to distributors to purchase cases of Rolling Rock.

Bottle shops, you see, limit patrons to two six-packs at a time. By state law.

 
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