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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.

Bud Light Still Losing Customers Over ‘Woke’ Marketing

New Hampshire beer drinkers are opting for a light beer that tastes great, is less filling, and isn’t combatant in the current culture wars.

That means less Bud Light.

Consistently the best-selling beer in America in recent years,  Bud Light’s sales have tanked since the company featured a promotion with transgender social media influencer Dylan Mulvaney. Sales of Bud Light have dropped a staggering 21 percent nationally since the backlash to the Mulvaney promo started.

Anheuser-Busch, a $132 billion company, saw its market value plummet by some $5 billion after the April 1 campaign kickoff.

On Sunday, former President Donald Trump kicked the beer company while it’s down, posting a message on his Truth Social site about the brouhaha.

“It’s time to beat the Radical Left at their own game,” Trump wrote. “Money does talk — Anheuser-Busch now understands that.”

The controversy is hitting beer sales in New Hampshire, too. Keith Murphy, owner of Murphy’s Taproom restaurants in Bedford and Manchester, said Bud Light sales are down 20 percent in his establishments. The Mulvaney stunt is the main reason his customers are choosing a different brew these days.

“It was an unforced error,” Murphy said.

Even his customers who support the transgender movement are skipping the beer now associated with culture war politics and looking for something to simply drink with their meals.

“Some people vehemently disagree with Bud Light endorsing transgenderism; some people don’t care. Most people just wonder why Bud jumped into such a controversial issue when there was no reason to do it,” Murphy said.

Murphy is the Republican state Senator representing District 16.

Taproom patrons aren’t the only ones putting down the Bud Light. A social media video went viral purporting to show baseball fans at Fenway Park last week ignoring the Bud Light concession stands and instead waiting in long lines at nearby vendors. 

Not every local restaurant is seeing the same results, however.

“I drove to all our stores from Concord down to Salem, and I asked all the bartenders if Bud Light sales were down,” said Tom Boucher, CEO of Great NH Restaurants, Inc., which owns popular brands like T-Bones and the Copper Door. “They said, ‘Meh, not really.’ When I told them Bud Light was down more than 20 percent, they couldn’t believe it.”

The beer crisis started when Bud Light sent personalized cans of beer to Mulvaney to celebrate what the influencer called “365 Days of Girlhood.” The cans featured Mulvaney’s likeness, and the social media personality showed them off in an Instagram post.

As the promotion drew attention from national media outlets, particularly on the right, Bud Light’s customers responded by abandoning the brand. The company has lost $5 billion in market value. 

Within weeks, the Anheuser-Busch executives behind the promotion were forced to take a leave of absence. Emma Ferrara, a marketing strategist, told Fox News Anheuser-Busch hurt itself by engaging in the culture war and alienating its core customers.

“In my career, and from what I’ve seen, this has been by far one of the most polarizing instances within the social media sphere,” Ferrara said.

Ferrara said if the company was determined to make inroads with the LGBTQ community, it should have found someone more genuine than Mulvaney. Or, the company should have first tried to understand its existing customer base first.

“When you’re looking to connect with a new community, which I think is incredibly important, I think there is a right and wrong way to approach that. And it starts with understanding who your core audience is,” she told Fox. “It starts with also understanding who is your brand and what your values are and what’s your purpose.”

Boucher put the story much more simply.

“The marketing director learned a very valuable lesson. Know your customer.”