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Buzz Kill: NH Liquor Commission Rejecting Local Beer Labels Over Art

To Share Brewery in Manchester is known for tasty beer served in a fun environment. Its Hugs & Belly Rubs Oatmeal Stout features a drawing of a cartoon dog with a big grin getting plenty of love.

But the New Hampshire Liquor Commission (NHLC) says you will never see it, because an artistic rendition of a dog might make the 7.1 percent ABV stout too appealing to children.

“I’ve been doing this for five years, and this is the first time we’ve been denied,” said Aaron Share, one of the owners of the To Share Brewery in Manchester.

NHJournal has learned the NHLC is implementing strict new rules on what beer makers may put on their labels, and they are doing it based on a questionable interpretation of the agency’s current power, along with a proposed law expanding that power but hasn’t been passed by the legislature.

In fact, it hasn’t even been written.

Information obtained by NHJournal indicates the Liquor Commission has been cracking down on brewers in part using the state law that says it has the power to ban advertising with “any subject matter or illustrations that the commission determines is reasonably likely to induce minors to drink.”

Critics say the rejected art, like Kettlehead Brewing Company’s “Buggin’,” doesn’t come close to meeting that definition.

And so, to reject labels like Kettehead’s “Swoll” brew, the NHLC is also relying on its understanding of changes to the law that have been proposed by progressive state Sen. David Watters (D-Dover). But those changes have yet to be drafted, much less enacted.

Many of the brewers contacted by NHJournal were hesitant to talk about the issue, not wanting to get on the wrong side of a state bureaucracy with the power to kill their business.

CJ White with the New Hampshire Brewers Association declined to comment, saying she hoped to get more information from the commission in the coming days.

Share is mystified by the rejection since the same “smiling dog” label has won approval from the state for years. An email to Share from Liquor Examiner Angel Harris cited pending changes as the reason for the label’s recent rejection.

“In consideration of current legislation and anticipated legislation change on restricting product labels, the product label you have recently requested is not approved,” Harris wrote.

The Hugs and Belly Rubs product was changed this year from an American Stout beer to an Oatmeal Stout, and the only change to the label for this year’s brew is swapping out the word “American” and replacing it with “Oatmeal.”

Other brewers told NHJournal they are having the same experience with previously approved illustrated labels. Some are even getting labels approved by the federal Alcohol Tobacco and Tax Bureau, only to have those same labels rejected by the Liquor Commission.

When reached by NHJournal, Harris declined to comment, referring the matter to Lt. Matthew Culver. Culver also declined to comment and referred the matter to the commission’s public relations firm, Montagne Powers. 

EJ Powers, with Montagne Powers, did not acknowledge the commission had changed the review process, or address the apparent use of pending rule changes, as cited by Harris.

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

Share and other brewers said they had not been able to get answers when they reached out to the commission. Instead, they have all been referred to as Montagne Powers as well. 

Some brewers suspect the problem is Watters’ ongoing war against alcohol advertising that he believes targets children. Watters confirmed to NHJournal that his efforts may lead to changes that have yet to be enacted. 

“Some decisions might have been made prematurely,” Watters said.

Watters has filed an LSR — a notice he plans to file a law — that would tighten alcohol advertising standards and make the appeals process more transparent. But, Watters told NHJournal, if the NHLCX is making decisions costing small businesses tens of thousands of dollars, they are doing it based on an LSR that doesn’t even have a complete draft yet.

Asked if he supports the treatment Granite State brewers are receiving, apparently as a result of his political influence, Watters deflected.

“I can’t speak to the way the commission makes decisions,” Watters said.

Watters said the commission will issue a new communication to the beer industry shortly to clarify the guidelines. He wants the state to adhere to common sense rules about labels and advertising. Those rules should allow for illustrated labels, he said.

“I don’t think it’s the case you can’t have a dog on a beer can. Maybe Scooby Doo isn’t so good,” Watters said. 

Share is fighting his label’s rejection, going to the Liquor Commission to request a review and possibly an appeal. His message for other brewers in the Live Free or Die State: “I suggest we all fight this. That’s what we’re doing,” Share said. 

But being a pragmatic businessman, Share also has a Plan B: a plain black label explaining why there is no art.

Dartmouth Med Student Sues Over Sex Assault

A former student at Darmouth’s Giesel School of Medicine says in a new lawsuit that he was thrown out after being sexually assaulted. And he claims he was told he lacked credibility because he had been drinking at the time he was attacked.

The student, going by John Doe in the lawsuit filed in the United States District Court in Concord, says he was assaulted by his male roommate while nearly black-out drunk, but the roommate was first to go to the school to claim he had been assaulted by Doe while he was asleep.

Among his claims, Doe’s lawsuit asserts his version of the story — that he was the victim — was discounted by the school’s investigator because Doe had been drinking at the time of the assault. The lawsuit claims that is not the case when the victim is a woman.

“Dartmouth has credited intoxicated cisgender female students alleging sexual assault against cisgender male students when the female student could not remember specific details of the alleged assault either at all or at least could not remember details of the alleged events in a linear fashion in similar circumstances, whereas the investigator in this case held the same facts against Doe’s credibility, resulting in a finding that Doe was responsible against the preponderance of the evidence,” the lawsuit states.

Doe names his former roommate in the lawsuit, but that name is being not being reported at this time given that both men are alledging to be sexual assault victims.

Doe claims in his lawsuit, prepared by attorneys with Shaheen & Gordon, that he and his roommate started spending more time together during the 2020 COVID lockdowns on campus. This invariably led to heavy drinking, according to the lawsuit, and awkward encounters.

On the night of July 11, 2020, the pair were in their apartment drinking. 

“After approximately six or seven beers, (the roommate) challenged Doe to wrestle. (The roommate) pinned Doe and said something like, ‘See, I’m the alpha. You’re the beta,’” the lawsuit states.

Later that night, the two were watching movies and Doe passed out from drinking, according to the lawsuit. He awoke to find the roommate was assaulting him, according to the lawsuit. The sexual activity ended with Doe vomiting and the roommate claiming that Doe started it while he was asleep. 

Doe said in the filing he reacted that night by contemplating suicide. He eventually went home to his family in another state and took a break from school. In early 2021, Doe was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and has received treatment.

Doe made plans to go back to Dartmouth to finish his studies and told one school friend he was considering bringing a complaint against his former roommate. When the roommate found out Doe was returning to school he filed a complaint about the sexual assault, according to the lawsuit. 

Dartmouth’s Associate Vice President for Communications Diana Lawrence declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Legislative and Policy Director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education Joe Cohn said schools can have a difficult path when dealing with sexual assault accusations that include some level of intoxication. 

Where alcohol or drugs are involved, reaching sound determinations about credibility is particularly difficult,” Cohn said. “It’s improper for institutions to have a categorical rule or practice of accepting a party’s account as truth without considering the possibility that their intoxication or incapacitation compromises the accuracy of their testimony. However, it is similarly improper to have a categorical rule or practice of disregarding the testimony of intoxicated parties or witnesses.”

A recent change to New Hampshire state law requires that all students and employees on college campuses be trained to the role drugs and alcohol play in an individual’s ability to consent to sex. 

Cohn said that because many sex assault cases involve disputes over credibility, colleges must afford the ability for people to cross-examine witnesses.

“Courts, including the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, are increasingly recognizing that campus procedures must offer the parties meaningful opportunities to engage in cross-examination. Federal Title IX regulations require the same,” Cohn said.