Beer ho ho ho is a no no no

2006-12-02 13:02
Portland, Maine - A beer distributor says the American state of Maine is being a Scrooge by barring it from selling a beer with a label depicting Santa Claus enjoying a pint of brew.

In a complaint filed in federal court, Shelton Brothers accuses the Maine Bureau of Liquor Enforcement of censorship for denying its applications for labels for Santa's Butt Winter Porter and two other beers.

The dispute recalls a similar squabble last year, when Connecticut told Shelton Brothers that it had problems with its Seriously Bad Elf ale.

"Last year it was elves. This year it's Santa. Maybe next year it'll be reindeer," said Daniel Shelton, owner of the company in Belchertown, Massachusetts.

The lawsuit, filed on Thursday, contends that the state's action violates the United States constitution's guarantee of free speech by censoring artistic expression.

But the state says it's within its rights.

'Art in a beer label'

The label with Santa might appeal to children, said Maine state police lieutenant Patrick Fleming. The other two labels are considered inappropriate because they show bare-breasted women.

"We stand by our decision and, at some point, it'll go through the court system and somebody will make the decision on whether we are right or wrong," he said.

The lawsuit was brought by the Maine Civil Liberties Union, which says the beer labels are entitled to constitutional protection.

"There is no good reason for the state to censor art, even art found on a beer label," said Zachary Heiden, attorney for the MCLU.

The label for the English-made Santa's Butt Winter Porter features a rear view of a beer-drinking Santa Claus sitting atop a barrel.

The beer's name refers not only to Santa's ample backside, but also to the barrel. In England, brewers once used a large barrel called a "butt" to store beer.

Maine also denied label applications for Les Sans Culottes, a French ale, and Rose de Gambrinus, a Belgian fruit beer.

'This is what people see in a store'

Les Sans Culottes' label is illustrated with a detail from Eugene Delacroix's 1830 painting "Liberty Leading the People", which hangs in the Louvre.

Rose de Gambrinus shows a bare-breasted woman in a watercolour painting commissioned by the brewery.

In a letter to Shelton Brothers, the state denied the applications for the labels because they contained "undignified or improper illustration".

The state reviews between 10 000 and 12 000 applications a year for beer and wine labels. It denies about a dozen a year, said Fleming.

"Basically, the standard we use is what are people going to see walking up and down a store aisle," he said.

Shelton said his company filed a lawsuit against the New York State Liquor Authority last month after it denied his applications for six holiday-themed beer labels, including Santa's Butt Winter Porter. The state changed its mind but the lawsuit is going forward.

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