It’s the end of the line for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms as that agency has existed for the last 30 years. Under the terms of the homeland security bill passed by the US Senate, the ATF’s law enforcement functions—including most of its “bombs and bullets” operations—will be transferred to the US Justice Department. A division called the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will handle criminal activities ranging from arson to producing “moonshine” liquor.
Taxation of alcoholic beverages, however, will remain under the purview of the US Treasury Department, to be handled by a new agency tentatively called the Tax and Trade Bureau.
It is unclear how long it will take to shuffle personnel, assign new titles and otherwise attend to red tape. Charles Bacon, program manager in the ATF’s Boston office, said he didn’t think the restructuring would hold up routine functions like brewery licensing or label approval.
Malternatives under Fire
Flavored malt beverages “are purposefully tricking American consumers and duping sleepy regulators,” charges the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a DC-based consumer advocacy group, in a November 2002 press release.
In a survey of 500 adults, 47 percent said Smirnoff Ice is more like liquor than beer, 14 percent said it more closely resembled beer, and 29 percent were unsure. In addition, 49 percent of those questioned said Bacardi Silver was more like liquor, 9 percent answered “more like beer,” and 38 percent had no idea.
A poll of teenagers conducted last July revealed that the respondents were equally confused. The CSPI has asserted that advertising for malternatives is reaching more underage viewers than adults. “The ads press all of the adolescent hot buttons—sex, music, rebellion, independence,” stated the CSPI’s George Hacker in the November 5, 2002, Washington Post.
Noting that much of the alcohol in these products comes from flavoring agents and not fermented malt, Hacker charged, “They get to deceive adult consumers about the true nature of these products, they get to put these hard-liquor brand names in front of very young audiences, and they pay unacceptably low taxes.”
The ATF is taking a long, hard look at malternatives, a move that may lead to a redefinition of the term, “malt beverage.” Already the agency has decreed that descriptors like “vodka-flavored” or “made with rum” cannot be used on the labels. And, although it’s by no means definite, the ATF is considering another restriction: that the flavorings used in malternatives cannot boost the alcohol content by more than 0.5 percent by volume. If such a regulation were to go into effect, most manufacturers of malternatives would have to reformulate their products—or these beverages would be taxed and treated as spirits.
David Rehr, president of the National Beer Wholesalers Association, was almost singing “Happy Days Are Here Again” following the 2002 congressional elections. The NBWA, he explained, backed candidates in 303 of 468 races for US House and Senate seats, and scored a 96 percent win ratio.
The NBWA and the DC-based Beer Institute (which represents the larger brewers) are officially bipartisan, supporting any candidate who votes pro-beer. But there seemed to be a tilt towards the Republicans in this race. “It gives us an opportunity to be more aggressive on our tax rollback campaign,” commented Jeff Becker, president of the Beer Institute, in regard to the GOP-controlled Senate. The House of Representatives has already shown itself to be beer friendly, generating 223 cosponsors for a bill that would halve the federal excise tax on beer from $18 to $9 per barrel.
What’s Brewing in Iraq
As this article went to press, UN weapons inspectors were back in Iraq for the first time in four years. Among the 750 or so sites they intended to check were Iraq’s breweries, according to Modern Brewery Age. It seems that the equipment brewers use to propagate yeast could also be used to brew up some much nastier organisms.
Whatever brands Iraq brews, they’re not available in this country. Yet, fundamentalist Iran in 2001 exported 97 barrels of beer to the United States, according to a handout from industry consultant Robert Weinberg, based on raw data supplied by the Beer Institute. That’s down from 136 barrels shipped in 2000. Just who is drinking those Iranian suds?
Greg Kitsock is editor of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News, a long-time resident of Washington, DC, and a frequent contributor to beer-related publications.