Massachusetts Beverage Business



WHO KNEW that pot and beer were such a dynamic duo? Following the success that the food and fashion industries have had with marijuana marketing, a handful of the nation’s over 25OO breweries have recently incorporated pot innuendo into their branding efforts. Yet unlike other companies, which might face pushback to their edgy campaigns mainly from church pastors and the PTA, beer makers are facing off with the feds for the right to advertise as they please. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), a small office that must approve nearly all alcoholic beverage labeling, is subject to an industry guidance document from 1994 that forbids weed references on alcohol labels. So, breweries are getting creative to get around the regulations. Michigan-based Dark Horse Brewing Company wanted to distribute a brew previously sold in limited batches as “Smells Like Weed IPA.” After being rejected by the feds, the manager at that brewery said that Dark Horse renamed the beer to “Smells Like A Safety Meeting IPA.” (A “safety meeting”, in stoner speak, is a break taken while on the job to smoke marijuana.) In Seattle, Redhook Ale Brewery is bypassing the feds’ dislike of its newest beer, “Joint Effort Hemp Ale” by distributing it only within Washington State – which is allowed because the federal government only has power over interstate commerce.

Thomas Hogue, a spokesperson for the TTB, said the bureau’s authority to nix beer labels, including on “socially unacceptable” grounds, is based on well-established rights of the government to prevent consumer fraud. The TTB has approved 13,958 individual beer label applications since October of last year with one agent being responsible for every decision. Besides drug references, the government considers suggestions that a beer has positive health effects or unusual potency to be unlawful. “Representations that are obscene or indecent” are equally rejected. Since 1954, the government has also banned “any design or pictorial representation relative to the American flag” and “decorations associated with such flag” on beer packaging. Curiously, the TTB allows Budweiser to be sold in cans and bottles decorated with stars and stripes. Both the TTB and Anheuser-Busch say that the pattern depicts something other than the US flag.

Recently, Lagunitas Brewing Company was denied a federal permit to introduce an ale named “The Kronik” given “chronic” is a slang term for high-grade cannabis. The brewery ended up naming the beer “Censored” as a dig. Founder Tony Magee, said he has no ill will towards the government for nixing his branding. “When they rejected Kronik, we did push a little,” he said. “I told them ‘Let me just ask you guys a question: What do you think Bud means? What about High Life?’” One brewer who did choose to fight was Vaunne Dillman, co-owner of Mt. Shasta Brewing Co. in Weed, California. In 2OO8, the feds told Dillman he could not market his brewery’s “Weed Golden Ale” with bottle caps that read “Try Legal Weed.” With the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union, Dillman argued the word “weed” in his branding references the town where the beer is made, itself named after 19th century California lawmaker Abner Weed. The government caved in after the case received international media attention. “You’ve heard of ‘You can’t fight City Hall?’ You’ve heard of ‘I fought the law and the law won?’” Dillman said. “Well, I fought the federal government on the Weed issue. Weed fought the law and Weed won.”

Back to the top »