Joe Sixpack: Foamland Security's taxing war on tap terror

Posted: April 24, 2009

IN A POST-9/11 world, is your beer safe from terrorists?

It is at the new Creekside Brewery in San Luis Obispo, Calif., thanks to $15,000 in security measures that the owners say federal authorities ordered before the brewpub could open. In addition to surveillance equipment and alarms, the restaurant encased its brewing equipment inside a tempered-glass box and metal bars.

"They're afraid terrorists are going to poison our beer," co-owner John Moule said.

Moule said that an agent with the U.S. Tobacco, Tax, and Trade Bureau told him that it wasn't enough to simply install locks on the equipment's valves. He said that the agency ordered him to put the tanks behind secured gates to prevent enemies from slipping something into the brewery's tanks.

Sabotaged suds? As symbolic gestures go, it doesn't exactly rank up there with destroying the tallest buildings in America's biggest city. On the other hand, Islamic law forbids the consumption of alcohol, so . . .

The "threat," first reported in January by Brian Yaeger, author of the beer travelogue, "Red, White & Brew" (St. Martin's Griffin, 2008), has had beer fans chuckling for weeks.

Apparently, Yaeger guessed, "Al Qaeda is more interested in a 10-barrel brewing system in SLO, population 44,147, than a large city's municipal water supply that has a chain-link fence around it."

Blogger Jay Brooks of the Brookston Beer Bulletin mocked the feds and conjured up his own beer-soaked Homeland Security advisory. His version of the familiar color-coded warning included threat levels ranging from "Polluted" ("Low level of brewery terrorist attack"), through "Hammered," "Tanked," "Smashed" and, of course, "Bombed."

A sneak attack on a brewpub does seem preposterous.

Terrorists would have to unscrew fittings and remove clamps in full public view. "I guess it's possible," Moule said, "But it doesn't seem probable."

And even if the beer was poisoned, Moule's partner, Eric Beaton, told the San Luis Obispo New Times, "The first ones that are gonna go are John and I because we're constantly tasting throughout the [brewing] process."

With two dead brewers on the floor, I'd guess 8 to 10 more beer drinkers, tops, would succumb before patrons realized something foul was afoot.

Which makes you wonder why the TTB is so worried about keg terrorism.

Turns out, it's not.

"There's no record that we ever mentioned anything about terrorism or bioterrorism," said bureau spokesman Arthur Resnick. "There is a need for security, but what we're securing is the revenue."

It's money, not lives, that the TTB is watching. Every pint drained from brewery tanks must be accounted for - and taxed. The security equipment is to prevent someone from siphoning off that liquid gold, the spokesman said, before Uncle Sam gets his share.

Mark Edelson, director of brewing operations at Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant, says that he's run into the same kind of security enforcement at the brewpubs he's opened in the Philly suburbs. Tanks at his company's brewpubs are generally located within glass enclosures.

"I think the Homeland Security angle is just another way they can get tanks in a more secure location," Edelson said. "I have never heard them refer to it as concern with product tampering. They are mostly concerned with tax collection, and I always assumed it referred to securing the production to make sure that everything gets accounted for."

Resnick said that he's unsure how the threat of terrorism was raised at Creekside. He did say, however, that brewpubs fall under other federal anti-terror regs - notably the Bioterrorism Act of 2002, enforced by the Food and Drug Administration to protect the nation's food chain, including beer, against attack.

But what about those costly metal bars and glass enclosure?

Moule complained that, in addition to the expense, the protective enclosure spoiled the look of his restaurant and delayed its opening.

Indeed, scores of other brewpubs across the land proudly show off copper-clad kettles and polished stainless steel serving tanks without unsightly barriers. They are often the restaurants' key decorative element, a symbol of the fresh craft beer that is served on the premises.

What about all those other brewpubs where the tanks are unprotected?

"Things have changed," said Resnick. "All applicants or brewpubs will meet the same kind of scrutiny that you see at Creekside."

Maybe terrorists aren't targeting the nation's brewpubs, but the tax man surely is. *

"Joe Sixpack" by Don Russell appears weekly in Big Fat Friday. For more on the beer scene in Philly and beyond, visit www.joesixpack.net. Send e-mail to joesixpack@phillynews.com.

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