28 February 2015

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Banned Beer Labels and Santa's Butt

Santa's Butt - Banned Beer Label

Winter is an important time for micro- and craft-brewers. The colder months mean that the heavier beers sell better, and beer aficionados love their holiday-themed beverages. The heavy ales and porters — beers that warm the drinker — lead to sales spikes in the winter. For one of their special holiday beers, Ridgeway brewers had Gary Lippencourt paint them a Santa.

Lippencourt painted a warm image of Claus; the jolly man is sitting atop a large beer barrel (or "butt" in industry lingo) with his back to the viewer, a stein in one hand, and his famous list in the other. The painting wasn't meant to cause controversy. No, it was meant to be a clever visual pun, perhaps bringing a chuckle, and hopefully sell some beer. The man's face had been synonymous with Christmas and giving and holiday cheer for decades. Santa, or his visage, would be everywhere and on everything following Thanksgiving. It seemed like everything from Coca-Cola to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade would have a Santa in 2006. Well, everything except for one of the Ridgeway beers that Dan Shelton of the Shelton Brothers was trying to import into a pair of American states. The label for Ridgeway's Santa's Butt Winter Porter, which had the Lippencourt Santa, was officially banned by the state liquor authorities of New York and Maine.

For Dan Shelton, and for the Ridgeway beers he imports from England, this wasn't the first holiday beer that he'd had blocked. A year prior, Connecticut had barred him from selling two Ridgeway ales which had a mischievous elf on the label. Connecticut's reasoning, the same reason which was paraphrased by New York and Maine, was that depicting such images appealed to children, and could lead to an increase in underage drinking.

Though he had acquiesced in 2005, Shelton was not going to let two states ruin Christmas in 2006. According to his logic, the iconic images of Santa Claus, elves, and reindeer appealed to smaller children, not those likely to buy his beer. Dan stated firmly that his beer wasn't even remotely marketed at underage drinkers, nor many of those of legal age. To put it bluntly, Dan's beer is expensive, with the importer quoting in a press release that the average prices are "about five or six bucks a bottle." No, what seemed to be happening was various state liquor authorities were picking on the proverbial little guy. As Shelton himself put it, banning his beer due to Santa being on the label was "just an easy way to appear to be doing something about [underage drinking] without actually doing something about it."

While the Shelton Brothers distribution company let Connecticut slide previously, New York and Maine would not be so lucky. Dan Shelton retained Albany-based attorney George Carpinello to bring suit against New York. Carpinello was a sound choice; less than a decade ago he had championed a similar case all the way to the Federal Court of Appeals. The ruling from that case set the precedent Dan was banking on — beer labels were protected as artistic statements under the First Amendment. Though states were granted the right to regulate alcohol sales, denying a product based simply on the label was constitutional infringement.

In Maine, the Maine Civil Liberties Union (MCLU) helped the Shelton Brothers file suit against the Maine Bureau of Liquor Enforcement (MBLE) on those very same grounds. Through the course of that December, it looked like Dan Shelton and Santa would have a pair of very hot court cases on their hands. Or would have, if Carpinello's case hadn't been so sound the first time around.

New York, the first to ban the beer label that year, was also the first to fold. The state's official statement came out on the heels of a press release by the Shelton Brothers after retaining Carpinello. New York State Liquor Authority stated that the label had originally been banned at a "staff level". When it was reviewed by the New York State Liquor Authority General Counsel, it passed without issue.

Maine took a bit longer, perhaps waiting for the lawsuit to be fully filed, perhaps examining the evidence, or maybe they were just waiting for fallout from New York's reversal. Either way, on December 22, 2006, the Maine Bureau of Liquor Enforcement mailed Shelton to inform him of their decision to reverse the ruling against Santa's Butt Winter Porter. Dan was out of the country at the time, so he didn't receive the news until after the holiday season, but it did prove his point. While beer lovers consider what's in the bottle to be art, the federal government considers the art to be the outside.

Submitted by: Lawrence J. Reaves


Santa's Butt - Picture of The Banned Beer Label

About Today's Contributor
Lawrence Reaves wrote this article on behalf of MaverickLabel.com