Frustrated NH brewers push back after statewide crackdown on beer labeling

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Blue, the To Share Brewery dog, with an earlier iteration of a label created in his honor. A recent design was rejected by the NH Liquor Commission for the likelihood it would induce minors to drink. Courtesy photo

MANCHESTER, NH – Over the past two weeks, the New Hampshire Liquor Commission’s (NHLC) enforcement division has rejected proposed labels for craft beers from at least a half-dozen breweries around the state saying they likely would induce minors to drink.

“Thank you for your label submission. In consideration of current New Hampshire State laws, New Hampshire Liquor Commission Administrative rules and/or anticipated legislation change on restricting product labels, the product label you have recently requested is not approved. The product labeling, illustrations, or packaging contains cartoons/fictional characters that the Division has determined is reasonably likely to induce minors to drink (RSA 179:31),” was the message Aaron Share of To Share Brewing Co. in Manchester received when NHLC rejected a fourth label last week.

Above: Two of the four rejected labels as proposed by To Share Brewing in Manchester.

That rejected label featured the words “Balloon Music” in navy blue, with a musical staff and scale with notes in orange, yellow and pink, all on a light blue background with a sprinkling of colors. Another label under review is a caricature of his dog, Blue.

“Very frustrating,” he said.  He works with local artists to come up with a label, he said, and his brand incorporates comic book and graphic novel styles.  The denials, he said, will have a trickle-down effect on those artists.

Share, after the rejection, contacted State Rep. Matt Wilhelm to find out why that was happening.

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Aaron and Jenni Share toast in front of an interior mural of comic book-style art, which has been central to their theme as a brewery since opening in 2018. Courtesy Photo

Wilhelm, in an email response, told Share the NHLC Division of Enforcement & Licensing said they were recently lobbied by different youth groups who identified “cartoon-ish” images as likely to induce minors to drink. 

‘The Commission has recently denied many labels because of this lobbying by minors who they feel are in the best position to advise them on what is tempting or not,” Wilhelm wrote in an email to Share. 

Wilhelm pointed to a news article from July 14, 2023, in the Boston Globe concerning a rally in downtown Dover by Dover Youth 2 Youth, an after-school drug prevention program connected to the Dover Police Department.  The event showcased alcoholic products the children said targeted them.

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NH State Rep. Matt Wilhelm, D-Manchester. File Photo

The group issued a news release on July 12, 2023, announcing the rally.  In it, they took “Big Alcohol” to task and also cited two NH breweries, Concord Brewing Company and Smuttynose Brewing Co. for having products that appeal to children. Concord Brewing Company has cans designed like the Disney animated movie Finding Nemo, according to the news release. On the side of the can, it asks “how many fish can you find?” and you have to go around the can looking for the different fish, almost like a children’s menu at a restaurant.

Smuttynose Brewing Co. has the UNH Wildcats team mascot and the UNH official shield logo.

“This is especially bad because most students on a college campus are under the legal drinking age, and won’t be until their junior year of college,” according to the news release.

The group advocated for alcohol companies to be more responsible and stop targeting and advertising to youth, stop using candy flavorings in their product, stop decorating products with kid-friendly designs, and stop making products that are attractive to youth.  They also pointed to products with alcohol in them such as Sunny D vodka seltzer.  

“I feel like Sunny D vodka is targeting me and my friends because it used to be a kid drink and now, they put alcohol in it,” Dover Youth 2 Youth sixth-grader Maggie Elliott was quoted in the news release. 

New Hampshire brewers, however, say they do not market their products to children.

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A label design for Woodstock Brewing Co. that has been rejected by NHLC.

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Another Woodstock label rejected by NHLC.

Molly Rice-Norby of Woodstock Inn Brewery in North Woodstock feels the same frustration as Share. Woodstock Inn Brewery was the first microbrewery in the state when it opened 40 years ago.  Until last week, none of their labels had ever been rejected.

“We’ve had two labels denied,” she said.  One featured a cartoonish graham cracker with a smiley face, reminiscent of artwork from the 1950s and created for their s’mores beer.  The other, frosty goggles shred pale ale, featured a skier with goggles.

“It was already approved by the federal government,” Rice-Norby said.  “The last step was the state.”

E.J. Powers, spokesman for the NHL, said the division’s review of the labels occurs after products are submitted to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).

 “The TTB primarily focuses on product descriptions and statements – it doesn’t look at labels or imagery,” he said. Here is a link to TTB criteria. “TTB also doesn’t take state laws into consideration when it approves or rejects products – as each state’s alcohol laws differ. Just because a product is approved by TTB doesn’t mean it is automatically accepted by individual states for sale.”

The liquor commission’s enforcement division has recommended both of Woodstock’s labels be rejected.  Until the commission acts on that recommendation, the labels are under review.

If they are denied, Rice-Norby intends to appeal.  “The appeal process is all within the liquor commission so it’s appealing to the same people who already said no,” she said.

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This Litherman’s Limited Brewing Co. beer label not only paid tribute to Liberty, the Concord Police comfort K9 but it helped raise money to support the NH K9 program.

The commission will take up both Share’s and Rice-Norby’s denials at their regularly scheduled meeting this Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023.

Rice-Norby, who is also chairman of the board of directors of the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association, said the rejection of the labels are “costing all of us money.”

C.J. Haines, executive director of the New Hampshire Brewers Association, said she has asked the commission for specific guidelines other than what is stipulated under state law.

“It was a very abrupt change that otherwise seems slightly harsher than it has in the past,” she said. NH has more than 100 breweries statewide, she said, “so this will have a rolling effect.”

A Nashua brewer, she said, had a label rejected that was one they had previous approval for; the only change was a different flavor of beer.

She said there are also beers from out of state coming to New Hampshire that are also being rejected even though they have federal approval.”

Haines said it is a state’s right to add restrictions to the labels. However, the brewers believe the change will make New Hampshire one of the strictest in the country when it comes to alcohol products.

While brewers can appeal the commission’s denial, “If they go through the appeals process it delays their production which can hinder their sales,” said Haines.

Powers said the NHLC Division of Enforcement & Licensing has a number of responsibilities as it relates to enforcing the state’s liquor laws.

A critical component of that responsibility, he said, includes following state law for the review of beverage alcohol labels before they reach store shelves to ensure they do not induce minors to drink or violate criteria outlined in NHLC Administrative Rule 506.09(a)(2). 

“The Division takes its process seriously and closely reviews approximately 5,400 labels each year – approving 96% of them,” Powers said.

For those labels that are denied, the Division provides recommendations on how to modify the label to adhere to state statute and administrative rules.   

Asked about wine and liquor sold in the state-operated liquor stores that have caricatures on them, Powers said wine and liquor labels are approved by the NHLC as well. 

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Molly Rice-Norby of Woodstock Inn Brewery says there are comparable labels used in marketing at NH Liquor stores not being rejected including the images above, which she assembled.

“NHLC has discretion over items sold in NH Liquor & Wine Outlets,” he said. “These sales occur in a controlled environment, which minors don’t have ready access to, unlike grocery or convenience stores.

But similar labels that enforcement are rejecting can be found on bottles of wine not only in grocery stores but also in state-operated stores.  

Kate Frey, Vice President of Advocacy at New Futures in Concord, said the rejection of labels featuring cartoon characters or images attractive to children is coming “from a place of prevention.”  New Futures provides nonprofit, nonpartisan, evidence-based solutions to New Hampshire’s health challenges.

Frey said the youth groups have concern about any addictive substance that is attractive to children.  One of those products that is been on long concern and frequently found for sale in corner stores sometimes next to Beanie Babies, are BuzzBallz, she said.  The spherical balls contain 15 percent alcohol and come in various colors reflecting the drink:  Choc Tease, Forbidden Apple, Lotta Colada, Strawberry Rita.

Below are examples of products on the shelves of state-operated liquor stores that some argue are similar to those being rejected by NHLC for craft breweries. Photos/Pat Grossmith

BuzzBallz are also on the shelf at the state liquor store on Gold Street in Manchester.  In that same aisle are Twisted Snotz, individual shots of drinks in colorful packaging designed with names to entice a young buyer such as: Buttery Nipple, Pineapple Upside Down Cake, Pussy Cat and Sex on the Beach.

The brewers say if the change applies to them, then it should also apply to what the state stocks on its shelves.

Frey said the intent of eliminating “cartoonish” advertising is to protect children from addictive substances, be it alcohol, tobacco or cannabis, 

“They may not even be deliberately doing it but we have to be aware of what is attractive to kids,” Frey said. “The only people who really know that are the youth.  We should work together.  We’re concerned about all of the products and not just the microbreweries.”

Frey believes there are ways to establish better criteria, rules and regulations that everyone can agree on.

“There are reasons that cartoons are a great concern,” she said.  “The youth are concerned for people their age, their friends and colleagues.  They want to keep them safe.”


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About this Author

Pat Grossmith

Pat Grossmith is a freelance reporter.