Small local brewers and distillers face uncertainty during government shutdown

Co-owner Ben Gruner looks over charts as the crew gathers around the control panel as Gruner Brothers produces their first ever beer in the new brewery on Thursday, Oct. 18, in Casper. The brewery is housed in the former Petroleum Club building. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)

At Casper’s new Gruner Brothers Brewery,  the beer is brewed, the canning lines are ready and the labels are printed.

There’s only one problem. Part of the federal government isn’t working.

“Since we’re a new brewery we’re waiting to get our labels approved, and with the government shutdown that will delay our can release,” said Ben Gruner, co-owner of Gruner Brothers Brewing.

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One key element of the federal government for breweries is label approval by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which is now inactive during the partial government shutdown.

The TTB checks the labels on beer and spirits labels for accuracy and makes sure they meet specific regulations such as alcohol content, bar codes and health warnings.

“We should have the final labels done today or tomorrow and then we have to submit them, but I don’t know if we’re submitting them into a black hole or what,” said Gruner. “If the pile (at their office) stacks up, we’re going to be so far behind.”

The timing is particularly disruptive to Gruner Brothers Brewing, who just started brewing in October and were planning to have cans on the shelves by next month.

“We were hoping to have the cans out in the next 30 days, but they’re saying the wait is 43 plus days and that’s if they were open,” said Gruner.

For craft distillers such as Casper’s Backwards Distilling, the regulation process that is now at a standstill is even more involved.

“Formulas are when we submit a recipe that they approve so that we can put new products on the market,” said Backwards Distilling co-owner Amber Pollock. Formula approval includes anything that involves botanicals, according to Pollock, such as all of their gin products.

“We’ve got some products in the works that would need formula approval before they hit the market,” said Pollock. “Essentially we aren’t able to release anything new that hasn’t already been TTB approved until they’re operating again.”

Pollock says that until now TTB has reduced the approval wait time to a few days for labels and several days for formulas. Pollock, as well as Gruner, are concerned about the backlog that will inevitably pile up as the TTB office is shut down.

Every brewer who introduces a new brew and label will be submitting, said Gruner. Craft brewers in particular rely on new, interesting and seasonal varieties to keep customers interested.

“There’s something like 7,000 plus breweries across the United States,” said Gruner.

“I anticipate there will be a backlog,” said Pollock, who recently rushed to submit the formula and label for a new product to get into the queue. “We didn’t want to be in the back of that line when it opens back up,” she said.

Gruner Brothers will still produce beer and sell it in kegs and at their tap room in the former Petroleum Club building. But as the fight over President Trump’s proposed border wall continues, the small businesses will have to keep future plans on hold.

Pollock says the uncertainty makes it more difficult to run an already competitive business. “The longer it goes the longer the backlog,” said Pollock. “If it’s weeks it’s not the end of the world, but if it’s months that could be a big change in our trajectory of the year.”

“It’s not really fair to breweries, small or large,” said Gruner.