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May 15, 2009

Albany Times-Union

Before bellying up, a hiccup
Uncertainty over provisions in state bottle bill cause confusion for brewers

TROY — The beer is brewing. The bottles are set. But the labels are waiting on New York state government.

The beer makers at Brown's Brewing Co., based here at a River Street brew pub, have three new offerings on deck for the summer.

But because of continuing uncertainty about which parts of the expanded bottle bill approved last month will take effect June 1, Brown's has put the brakes on ordering some 10,000 inaugural labels for its Cherry Raspberry Ale and Whiskey Barrel Aged Porter, as well as 80,000 to 200,000 cans for the Tomhannock Pilsner.

Until the labels are on, beer won't flow to retailers.

The problem is that the new bottle law requires New York-specific scanner bar codes on returnable cans and bottles sold in the state.

"We are ready to roll," said Gregg Stacy, Brown's director of marketing and sales. "But if we have to do a new label, where do we put the UPC? If we need to do this with a separate UPC, what goes into that?"

Even the experts don't know.

"We have not known about this long enough to develop any recommendations for UPC users on how they could possibly comply," said Jon Mellor, spokesman for GS1 US, a nonprofit group in New Jersey that serves as administrator of UPC bar codes in the United States.

"The UPC is not designed to carry that specific level of information, so how such a request could be met — I don't think anyone has been able to answer that yet," he said.

Lobbyists say talks aimed at postponing the law's implementation and removing the New York-specific bar code are ongoing with the Assembly, Senate and Gov. David Paterson's office.

Many are optimistic that both issues will be addressed with amendments — but Stacy and retail representatives say they're reluctant to risk too much based on that hope.

The key feature of the so-called "bigger better bottle bill" was the addition of bottled water to the state's list of returnable containers with nickel deposits.

But even water-sale plans have been complicated by the uncertainty, especially since some water bottles packaged in bulk carry no individual bar codes at all, let alone New York-specific codes.

"Let's assume the law takes effect as scheduled on June 1. What we've been told is we can't sell noncompliant product. That means that all bottled water comes off the shelf, just in time for — oh — summer," said Ted Potrikus, manager of government relations for the Retail Council of New York State, an Albany-based trade group.

"The irony here is that, under those circumstances, the state would lose not just the nickel deposit, but if we have to take products off the shelf, there goes the sales tax, too. In the summertime, people buy a lot of water," he added.

The release of the new Brown's products — including the first to come in a can — also was supposed to coincide with prime quaffing season, when folks are most inclined to reach for a cold one.

"The window of maximum sales for this is between Memorial Day and Labor Day," Stacy said of the pilsner. "The more they're hemming and hawing — maybe we might as well wait until next year."

Representatives for the governor and the Legislature all say they want to agree on a package of amendments within the next two weeks, but details of the proposals being discussed vary.

"Like the product that would go inside these cans and bottles, this issue is so fluid right now that I have no idea where it's going to land," Potrikus said.


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