CHICAGO (CBS)–With more breweries than any other U.S. city, Chicago has earned itself the title of the nation’s brewing capital.
A growing list of nearly 170 breweries in the greater Chicago area and Northwest Indiana makes us a beer-lover’s paradise.
The government shutdown could directly impact the city’s abundant craft beer scene, however.
That’s because beer makers are unable to get approval for their labels until the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau reopens. Part of the Department of the Treasury, the TTB regulates businesses in the wine, beer, tobacco and firearms industries–controlling which beers can be sold for consumption.
Before brews can hit store shelves, bars and restaurants; the TTB reviews label content for ingredients, alcohol content and even design–to ensure new brews are suitable for consumption.
At Chicago’s Begyle Brewing, owner Kevin Cary managed to escape any potential hardships some other brewers are facing in the throes of the government shutdown because he planned ahead.
Cary’s North Side brewery secured all the labels for its up-and-coming beers months ago, but said he empathizes with his beer industry counterparts, many of whom have batches of brews waiting to be bottled.
“It’s a big frustration both for breweries and for the government employees who have to deal with a backlog of applications when they go back to work,” Cary said. “It’s just not a good way to do business and I don’t think most employers would ever treat their employees like this.”
When government operations eventually resume, TTB employees will return to a backlog of applications from beer manufacturers eager to turn their batches of brews into a profit.
Although the warmer months are still far away, the delay in approvals could dent Chicago’s summer beer variety, according to Chicago beer expert and writer Karl Klockars.
“The early part of the year is a good time to plan ahead for the spring-summer beer drinking season,” Klockars said. “I was seeing winter beer labels being approved in August–to give a converse example — so if breweries have to push back those beers for any reason, it could represent a large amount of beer that they might not be able to sell in the busiest part of the year. ”
If the shutdown lasts a while, lots of handcrafted beer could spoil before it gets proper labeling. Klockars said at least a dozen new beers should have been popping up on shelves by mid-month.
“Beer is best fresh–so if this shutdown and backlog goes on longer than a few weeks or even months–some breweries are going to have to get rid of that now-stale beer that they weren’t allowed to put into a package,” Klockars said. “And if that’s the case, it’s basically like hitting the snooze button on an entire industry–one that thrives on innovation.”
That means perfectly good beer sitting in tanks waiting to be bottled, kegged or canned could spoil before it’s packaged.
“A perfectly good, innovative beer (could) get dumped down the drain in favor of brewing a beer that’s already been approved,” Klockars said.
On his blog, “Guys Drinking Beer,” Klockars writes about Chicago’s craft beer scene in a weekly newsletter. He also takes the time to pour through the TTB website to find out which new beer labels are approved each month.
In December, 69 new beer labels were approved in Illinois.
Cary thinks the TTB was understaffed before the government shutdown.
He only waited an average of three days for a label to be approved, but said that could change because the agency, in his opinion, isn’t big enough to keep up with the growing number of breweries opening in the U.S.
The U.S. saw a 16 percent growth in the number of American breweries in 2017 compared to the previous year, according to the U.S. Brewer’s Association, which reported 6,372 breweries in operation in 2017, the last year statistics are available.
“The agency isn’t adding enough staff to keep up with the number of breweries opening,” Cary said.
Some breweries, like Begyle, submit labels for approval to have them ready to go just in case they decide to release a beer.
Not everyone plays by the rules, however.
Cary said some brewers simply slap labels on their products without government approval, leaving customers in the dark about alcohol content and ingredients.
Without the TTB there to enforce lawful labeling practices, Cary said it opens the door wider for the sale of unregulated brews.
Klockars said that doesn’t mean some beers are unsafe to drink, however.
“Some companies may go a bit rogue and sell beers that don’t have official approval, but that shouldn’t be interpreted as allowing unsafe products to hit store shelves,” Klockars said. “And I doubt there will be much appetite to punish breweries for doing what they need to do to keep the lights on.”
The shutdown is affecting many government operations, including airport security and the farming industry.
CBS 2 has full coverage of the government shutdown.