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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.

NH Stands Pat as New England Declares War on Gas Stoves

Granite Staters can continue to cook free or fry as the state stays out of the New England anti-gas stove push.

This Monday the attorneys general of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont and New York signed on to a letter demanding that the federal government crack down on gas stoves.

The letter to the Consumer Product Safety Commission from 11 AGs was led by D.C. Attorney General Brian L. Schwalb, who claims that gas stoves put lives at risk and need strict government regulation.

“Gas stoves emit air pollutants that put people – particularly children – at risk of asthma and other respiratory illnesses,” Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) said in his letter. “Along with other State AGs, I urge the CPSC to develop uniform performance and ventilation standards for gas stoves and to increase consumer awareness about the health risks these appliances pose.”

Unlike New York Democrat Gov. Kathy Hochul, the AGs aren’t calling for an entire ban on gas stoves or new natural gas hook-ups — yet. Last week the Empire State became the first in the country to ban natural gas and other fossil fuels in most new buildings. The Hochul-backed law bans gas-powered stoves, furnaces and propane heating. All-electric heating and cooking in new buildings shorter than seven stories is mandated by 2026, and 2029 for the rest.

Instead, the AGs want the CPSC to start regulating gas stove ventilation and emissions by creating mandatory standards for these home appliances. The standards for gas stoves are currently voluntary.

“Mandatory performance standards could include, among others, standards for gas stoves to address methane leakage, including automatic shut-off valves, and standards that address the elevated levels of hazardous pollution emissions, including sensors,” Schwalb wrote.

The available data show that the attacks on gas stove use are based on evidence that is dubious at best. As Kimberley Strassel notes at the Wall Street Journal:

One frequently cited study from the Rocky Mountain Institute—claiming to find a link between gas stoves and childhood asthma—was co-authored by two RMI staffers, neither of whom has a science degree. Another favorite study by New York University’s Institute for Policy Integrity claims gas stoves cause “dangerous levels of indoor air pollution.” It was written by two lawyers, and it cites . . . the RMI study. Ah, science.

When CPSC commissioner Richard Trumka told Bloomberg that banning gas stoves was an option to deal with the home pollution they cause, there was an immediate backlash. CPSC chairman Alexander Hoehn-Saric tried walking that statement back, saying there are no plans to ban gas stoves in the works. Hoehn-Saric did say the CPSC is investigating gas stoves.

“CPSC is researching gas emissions in stoves and exploring new ways to address any health risks,” Hoehn-Saric said.

Opponents of a ban were dismissed as rumor-mongering kooks at the time. “You have to laugh at the ‘gas stove ban’ narrative being cooked up by the MAGA GOP,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in February. Around that same time, NHPR broadcast a program claiming “there is no ban in the works… Banning things is about top-down control. It fits nicely into readymade stories about government control or tyranny.”

New York is the first state to pass an outright ban, but activists say it won’t be the last. Massachusetts’ lawmakers are already making the push, in addition to the efforts of their Attorney General Andrea Joy Campbell.

Not every state is playing along, however. New Hampshire’s Attorney General John Formella’s signature is absent from the letter. And the Granite State signaled its position on gas stoves when Gov. Chris Sununu signed a law banning local municipalities from restricting gas hookups in new construction.

The 2021 law prohibits all counties, cities, towns, village districts and local land use boards from adopting any rule that prohibits or restricts anyone from “installing a safe and commercially available heating or other energy system of their choice.” 

Sununu has long supported more natural gas in New Hampshire as a way to cut down on high energy prices in the state, telling InDepth NH in December that New Hampshire needs access to natural gas pipelines. 

“What hurts us the most is because we are essentially at the end of the line and farthest away from the source so prices here are higher than the national average,” Sununu said. “At the end of the day, we have to say ‘yes’ to the natural gas.”