Wednesday, December 6, 2006

State: One Santa okay; another no way

Published in the Portland Phoenix and the Boston Phoenix

Maine regulators have refused to approve an English beer’s label featuring Santa Claus holding a beer, saying it makes the product attractive to children. But they didn’t balk at approving the label for Gritty’s Christmas Ale, which shows a man dressed up as Santa Claus, also holding a beer.

In October, the state agency that approves beer-bottle labels (yes, we have one; it’s the Liquor Licensing and Compliance division of the Department of Public Safety) wrote to Shelton Brothers, importer of Santa’s Butt (a winter porter), saying the beer’s label (which shows a rear view of a fat-assed Santa sitting on a type of barrel that’s called a “butt”), and two other beer-bottle labels featuring bare-breasted women, are “undignified or improper.”

Last week, Shelton Brothers filed suit in federal court, saying the state’s ban and the rule it is based on violate the First Amendment’s protection of artistic expression.

New York and Connecticut have recently expressed similar concerns over artwork on bottles imported by Shelton Brothers, a Massachusetts-based beer importer (headquartered, of all places, in Belchertown), but anti-censorship lawsuits in those states led to the bans being reversed.

In remarks to the press before he began declining to comment on the case, Maine State Police Lieutenant Patrick Fleming, who heads the state’s liquor-licensing agency, elaborated, saying the depiction of Santa might appeal to children.

That doesn’t wash with Gritty’s owner Richard Pfeffer. “Children aren’t really in the beer aisle all that much, unless they’re accompanied by adults,” he says. The Gritty’s Christmas Ale label has met with no problems from regulators, and was re-approved in April.

Shelton Brothers imports nearly 150 beers from around the world, and has run into trouble with a few of them, mostly relating to holiday designs brewed by the Ridgeway Brewery in England, whose brewer — a friend of the Sheltons — collaborates with them on beer and label ideas.

Maine officials have also declined to say whether this ruling means long-approved labels on other beers might also now be determined to appeal to children. (In addition to the Gritty’s Christmas Ale with Santa, several breweries have beers whose labels include drawings of dogs, for example.) Approval by the state does not force a store to display or sell a particular beer; stores can choose for themselves.

Daniel Shelton, one of the brothers who owns the import company, says even if Maine reverses its decision — which state liquor-licensing supervisor Jeff Austin said had not happened as of Tuesday — the lawsuit will continue, to get a court to strike down the state’s rule, which Shelton says is “way too vague.”

In addition to Santa’s Butt porter, Maine regulators have banned sales of Les Sans Culottes (a French blonde ale), whose label features a detail from the 1830 Eugene Delacroix painting Liberty Leading the People. The symbolic figure of Liberty is a bare-breasted woman carrying a French flag and a rifle and bayonet. The painting hangs in the Louvre.

A third label to be rejected by the state, Rosé de Gambrinus (a raspberry-flavored Belgian lambic), features a painting specially commissioned by the brewery depicting Gambrinus, an unofficial patron of beers and brewing and legendary king of Flanders, with a naked woman on his lap (symbolizing beer, according to the lawsuit).

The state has yet to file a reply in court.

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