Politics

08.12.14

Meet the Beer Bottle Dictator

Widely regarded as an eccentric bureaucrat, Kent ‘Battle’ Martin approves essentially every beer label in the United States, giving him awesome power over a huge industry.

For years, one man has approved virtually every beer label design in the United States. Among brewers, he’s a tyrant. A legend.

A pedantic pain in the ass.

Brewers and legal experts speak of him in hushed tones, with equal parts irritation and reverence.

“He’s the king of beer. His will is law,” said one lawyer who works with him regularly. The lawyer asked to remain anonymous, for fear of crossing the beer specialist. “There’s one dude in the government who gets to control a multibillion-dollar industry with almost no supervision.”

And he goes by the name “Battle.”

Any brewery that wants to market its wares in this country needs to get it through Kent “Battle” Martin, giving the federal official extraordinary power. With only vague regulations outlining what is and isn’t permissible, he approves beer bottles and labels for the Tax and Trade Bureau, or TTB, a section of the Treasury Department.

Those who have interacted with him describe him as brusque, eccentric, clenched. He is tensely and formally dressed on all occasions, with an encyclopedic memory of beer labels. He is bespectacled and somewhat awkward.

This year, Battle has singlehandedly approved over 29,500 beer labels, the only fact his press handler would provide. The TTB would not even provide basic biographical details about the famed regulator, much less make him available for an interview.

“We kid about it a lot, but if there’s an airstrike in Washington, he’s the guy grabbing his work to go to a bunker to keep his production up,” said a source who has worked with Battle.

Almost every brewer of a certain size has a story about Battle Martin’s unforgiving penchant for denying beer labels, even when it goes against common sense. 

“Battle Martin is really on it, and very, very thorough,” said Dan Shelton, who runs a beer importing business called Shelton Brothers, stressing that he liked Battle personally. But the system that Battle represents is a constant thorn in their side. “It gets a little perverted sometimes in that it goes too far when [he’s] looking to see if there’s any possible way for the label to [mislead]… it’s resulting in some perfectly good labels being rejected.”

Battle lives for his work. Brewers talk about receiving approvals at all hours of the day and night; notices from the federal government coming in at 5 a.m., or 1 a.m.

“We kid about it a lot, but if there’s an airstrike in Washington, he’s the guy grabbing his work to go to a bunker to keep his production up,” said a source who has worked with Battle.

He’s been spotted at a craft brewers’ conference, with several laptops going at once, processing multiple beer labels simultaneously. “I’ve never seen anyone working as hard as him,” said Scott Newman-Bale, who works with Short’s Brewing Company.

Most government departments are nebulous and anonymous. But because of the sheer volume of his interactions with brewers, Battle has become a symbol for the TTB’s nonsensical rules.

“He’s just amazingly finicky on stupid things that don’t really achieve any government purpose,” said one brewer. “He’s implementing rules that are totally antiquated. If you do something like 30,000 [label approvals], [perhaps] it makes you feel like you are the law.”

Battle has rejected a beer label for the King of Hearts, which had a playing card image on it, because the heart implied that the beer would have a health benefit.

He rejected a beer label featuring a painting called The Conversion of Paula By Saint Jerome because its name, St. Paula’s Liquid Wisdom, contained a medical claim—that the beer would grant wisdom.

He rejected a beer called Pickled Santa because Santa’s eyes were too “googly” on the label, and labels cannot advertise the physical effects of alcohol. (A less googly-eyed Santa was later approved.)

He rejected a beer called Bad Elf because it featured an “Elf Warning,” suggesting that elves not operate toy-making machinery while drinking the ale. The label was not approved on the grounds that the warning was confusing to consumers.

He rejected a Danish beer label that featured a hamburger, which was turned down because the image implied there was a meat additive in the beer.

He rejected a beer that was marketed as an “India Dark Ale,” a takeoff on the IPA, because it implied the beer was made in India (even though the label had a line with the words “Product of Denmark”).

He rejected an “Adnams Broadside” beer, which touted itself as a “heart-warming ale,” because this supposedly involved a medical claim.

Brewer Vaune Dillman, who lives in Weed, California, and served as a cop for eight years, says he bumped up against Battle for trying to market a beer after his hometown name.

“Try LEGAL Weed,” the cap of the beer bottle reads. “A friend In Weed Is a Friend Indeed.”

Reaching the federal official by phone, Dillman called him “Mr. Martin.” A big mistake: Battle’s predilection for being particular apparently extended from beer applications to his name.

“You want to be addressed as ‘Battle?’” a confused Dillman replied, recounting the story. “Can you imagine addressing a senior inspector from the Department of Treasury, and you have to call him ‘Battle?’”

Their tussle over the bottle cap’s approval eventually sucked in California’s senators, a congressman, and the ACLU before it was eventually resolved. The cap stayed only because it referenced Civil War-era California state lawmaker Abner Weed, the namesake of the town.

They may resent his decisions, but brewers and lawyers alike eventually will concede that Battle is a hard-working man who is passionate about his work—work that sometimes raises difficult regulatory questions.

“Being the nation’s beer label reviewer is probably a hard job,” said Robert Lehrman, a lawyer who specializes in legal issues concerning beverages. “Many of [the label approvals] raise difficult and inherently subjective issues about what is misleading, confusing, or obscene. He does not have the luxury of taking a pass, or saying the label is in the middle somewhere.”

Battle remains an elusive figure both respected and reviled in the beer industry. Many brewers consider themselves free-speech advocates, and their labels works of art. For them, he represents censorship. But even his worst opponents can find common ground with him on their shared dedication to details. 

And the next time a beer label catches your eye, remember—it comes Battle-approved.