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West Michigan brewers impacted by government shutdown

Cans of Hopslam shuffle along the assembly line at Bell's Brewery in Comstock. (WWMT/Jorge Rodas)

Larry Bell said his anxiety level rises with each passing day of the federal government shutdown.

"I can't remember anything on this level that's given me the kind of anxiety that it's giving me right now," Bell said Wednesday, on Day 19 of the shutdown.

Bell is president of Bell's Brewery.

As a craft brewer, Bell has spent years creating, packaging and selling new beers. He said the shutdown is shuttering his business and that of other West Michigan breweries.

"Nothing is being processed - no label approvals," Bell said, "... nothing else that we need to do to operate our business and grow and thrive."

Bell can't sell beer bottled or canned without federally approved labels.

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau - TTB for short - approves beer labels.

The bureau is part of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, which is closed as a result of the government shutdown.

"If you've got an application in for a new brewery, winery or distillery right now, you're just burning money waiting for the government to reopen," Bell said.

No approval, no label, no new beers.

Bell said that could prove troublesome for the summer craft beer season.

"Windows are starting to close as far as our ability to introduce new packages for the summer just because of the timeline with our suppliers," he said.

The real concern, Bell said, is for beers that are canned.

It takes the bureau usually two weeks to approve a new can or bottle label when the agency is running at full speed, Bell said. But the aluminium can manufacturer he works with requires label approvals six months in advance of when the cans are needed by Bell's.

"We're looking at the possibility of some of our summer plans are now going by the wayside if things don't change soon," Bell said, explaining that the shutdown might keep the brewery from releasing new summer seasonal beers this year.

"If you're looking at a package for a couple months of the summertime, we've lost 25 percent of that already," Bell said. "So we're going to have to make some business decisions depending on when the government reopens."

Bell said a spending bill that allows the U.S. Treasury to reopen will also reopen the TTB. That would allow federal regulators to start approving beer and alcohol labels again, though he expects there will still be delays caused by an application backlog.

"The government moves pretty slow as it is, and now it's going to move really slow," he said.

Bell said he has one hope.

"Everybody come together, figure it out, and let's get the government back open again," he said.

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