Craft beer drinkers in the U.S. may see fewer new bottled beers coming out in the next few months.

That's because the federal agency that approves brewery labels is closed, a result of the government shutdown.

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau is part of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. One of the TTB's jobs is to review beverage alcohol labels for things like alcohol content or fluid ounces in a bottle.

As of Dec. 21, the TTB had received 192,279 label applications since the start of 2018. That breaks down to over 3,000 applications coming in every week.

But since the government shut down, labels aren't getting approved right now. That's a problem for beermakers like Joe Katchever, owner and brewmaster of Pearl Street Brewery in La Crosse, Wis.

Pearl Street is celebrating its 20th anniversary in February, and Katchever's team brewed something special for the big anniversary party. Called Deux Decadence (a nod to two decades), the stout has been aging in bourbon barrels from Kentucky for a year.

But Katchever can't bottle the more than 500 cases of beer until his label gets approved by the bureau.

"We can still roll out the beer in draft form," Katchever said. "We're all hoping they figure out what they need to figure out and open the government back up."

Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association, estimates half of the craft breweries in the U.S. are in a similar position. "Any products that need those government approvals are just kind of frozen on hold," Gatza said. "I think about all the spring releases that are going to be coming out soon. Well, a lot of them won't be coming out."

Gatza said the TTB can generally approve a beer label within five to seven days. But after nearly three weeks of being shut down, the bureau is likely to have a huge backlog of applications waiting when the government reopens.

"Brewers know that they're going to start at the beginning of the stack and get through them," Gatza said. "So for beers that brewers want to release in February or March, a lot of them are trying to rush their paperwork in now, just so they don't get stuck having to wait months."

Industry leaders say this backlog of applications is also a concern for large beermakers in the U.S.

Craig Purser, president of the National Beer Wholesalers Association, said large alcohol companies and their distributors rely on the same services from TTB that craft producers use. "[It] doesn't matter what the size of the company is; when nobody's answering the phone, the work stops and it really puts the beer industry at a disadvantage," Purser said.

Purser said breweries big and small worry that disadvantage could start to affect their bottom line if the government shutdown continues to keep them from bottling and selling their beers.

Copyright 2019 Wisconsin Public Radio. To see more, visit Wisconsin Public Radio.

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