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Shutdown means no new beer from craft brewers

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — ablueThe federal government shutdown could leave America’s craft brewers with a serious hangover — including some in New Mexico.

Stores still will offer plenty of suds. But the shutdown has closed an obscure agency that quietly approves new breweries, recipes and labels, which could create huge delays throughout the rapidly growing craft industry, whose customers expect a constant supply of inventive and seasonal beers.

“We’re stuck in limbo at this point,” said Min Lee, partner in a new restaurant and brewery on Albuquerque’s West Side.

The Stumbling Steer — a roughly $2 million project under construction at the former Quarters on Ellison NW — is set to open at the end of November, but Lee said it possibly could debut without its own beer.

That’s because The Stumbling Steer’s brewery license is still awaiting federal approval.

“With the shutdown, we don’t even know what happens to our process. … Do they have to start all over again? Do they continue from where they left off? There are just a lot of questions to be answered,” he said Wednesday.

“There’s nothing we can do. It’s out of our hands. We’re at the mercy of the federal government at this point.”

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, or TTB, is a little-known arm of the Treasury Department. The agency will continue to process taxes from existing permit holders, but applications for anything new are in limbo.

“One could think of this shutdown as basically stopping business indefinitely for anyone who didn’t have certain paperwork in place back in mid-August,” said Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association, which represents more than 1,900 U.S. breweries.

A woman who answered the phone Oct. 2 at TTB’s headquarters in Washington abruptly hung up after explaining that the government was shut down. Assistant Administrator Cheri Mitchell did not respond to telephone or email messages.

The closing isn’t expected to have much effect on industry giants such as MillerCoors or Anheuser-Busch. They can continue to produce existing products as usual.

But the shutdown poses a huge problem for craft brewers, who build their businesses by producing quirky, offbeat flavors and introducing new seasonal beers, sometimes as often as every quarter.

Craft brewers around the country say TTB was taking as long as 75 days to approve applications before the shutdown. Now they’re bracing for even longer waits.

Still, Lee remains hopeful that the shutdown will end soon, and The Stumbling Steer will have seven of its own beers flowing when it welcomes its first customers.

“But that’s us being optimistic,” he said. “But you know when you open a business, you have to have an optimistic mind.”

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