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As shutdown drags, craft brewers anxious over backlog in label approval

Tampa Bay's Big Storm brewing can't sell its new Fat Point beers until the feds approve its cans.

Fat Point Brewing has some beer in a tank without a home inside a can.

The Punta Gorda brewers have had their share of hiccups. They almost shuttered in 2017, before Tampa Bay's Big Storm Brewing swooped in and acquired the microbrewery. Now, just as some of its tap-only beers were finally en route to make their canned debut, another snag.

This time, the federal government.

The government has to sign off every time a brewer comes up with a new variety and label. Three Fat Point beers — including a "malty" 80 Degrees Winter Warmer — are awaiting approval. But Fat Point's Tampa Bay parent company might not hear back for a while. More than 192,000 labels are sitting in an ever-growing queue creating a worrisome backlog for alcohol makers across the country.

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau website stopped updating its application count on Dec. 21, the day before federal funding expired, prompting all unessential workers to stop reporting to their jobs.

"Usually as long as you have your stuff together, getting approval is not a big burden," said Leo "LJ" Govoni, a co-owner of Seaboard Craft Brewing, Big Storm's parent company. "But now, you're frozen with what you already had."

It's unclear how many more thousands of applications have been sent in since the shutdown started. Local brewers suspect a lot, especially as panic among alcohol manufacturers grows with the record-breaking shutdown. The immediate effects, however, aren't on all beers.

"This only relates to brands that are new and haven't hit the marketplace yet," said Tampa attorney Richard Blau, who specializes in the alcohol industry. "When you think about the impact of the shutdown relative to the whole beer industry … it's a really small percentage."

For craft brewers regularly creating new beers, including those around Tampa Bay, it's a big deal. Brewers here are known to concoct seasonal specialties, only meant to be available for a few months at time. And it's those small batches — like Cigar City Brewing's exclusive aged-barrel brew — and new launches like the Fat Point beers, that can't move from the tank or barrel to a can or bottle.

At the very least, the halt on labels for new canned or bottled beers is another reminder of how many ways the federal government touches everyday life. At its worst, the shutdown could stomp out new brewers who are paying rent on spaces while still waiting for a federal brewer's permit.

When a brewer wants to sell its beer (or any alcohol) across state lines, it has to get the labeling of that can or bottle approved by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Federal workers make sure the artwork and name are appropriate, that the alcohol content is clearly labeled, the legal description is correct and nothing is misleading.

Big Storm Brewing founder Mike Bishop says the process typically takes five to seven days, or a couple weeks at most.

Brewers can register their beer cans or bottles with the state to sell only in Florida. But Govoni said doing so limits the bottom line. It also means fewer fun, innovative beers that have made local craft scenes shine in recent years.

The Fat Point beer in the tank won't expire until the summer. And if Big Storm had to, workers could put those beers in kegs and distribute them for tap use. For the most part, pubs and bars are unaffected.

But if Govoni's team wanted to step in to save another struggling brewery while the shutdown continues, it would be impossible. Usually that involves creating a new limited liability corporation for the acquisition. That means a new brewer's permit — and for now, the federal government's not doling those out either.

Justin Clark, the chief operations officer with Cigar City, said the brewery is in a good spot: It's not in the middle of any new launches or expanding taprooms. All but one of its planned beers for 2019 has its labels approved.

Clark said the only direct impact is Cigar City's El Catador Club's special brew, which he could have to remove from the barrels before the bottle's labels are approved. He hopes it doesn't come to that.

"Right now," he said, "we're more worried about unpaid federal workers than we are beer labels."

Contact Sara DiNatale at . Follow @sara_dinatale.