Last we heard, Lagunitas was rethinking their decision to give in to Atlanta brewer Sweetwater, which demanded that the Petaluma brewery drop any use of the term “420” on their labels. But I talked to owner Tony Magee this morning and he says he will follow his first instinct and not contest Sweetwater’s trademark claim, based on their flagship “420 Pale Ale.”
“It would be like arm-wrestling for the name ‘Jesus,’ ” he said this morning from Chicago, where he is in the final months of finishing a huge new brewery that will more than double the company’s capacity.
Magee got a cease-and-desist letter from Sweetwater earlier this month, provoking a bitter blast on his extremely amusing Twitter feed. He says the term “420,” a barely concealed code phrase for smoking marijuana, is part of counter-culture culture and shouldn’t belong to anyone.
“It’s more like a secret handshake than a trademark,” he said this morning.
Lagunitas has never called a beer 420 – and never will, Magee said, calling such a name “in bad taste” – but it has sprinkled it on labels and marketing materials over the years. There are several stories about how “420” took its current meaning, but the best sounding one – and the one that Magee endorses – is that it was the time of day that a group of Marin County teenagers in the 1970s, who called themselves the Waldos, would gather for a smoke. Lagunitas makes an annual “Waldo” ale which is served on April 20 (4/20, you see) at parties around the country.
This isn’t the first time, however, that someone has challenged Magee’s use of the 420 term. Way back in the ’90s, during craft beer’s first boom, he tells me, a brewery in New Hampshire called Stone Post tried to assert a trademark on the name, but that fight came to nothing and the brewery is long-defunct.
Sweetwater has declined to comment on the dispute, but the fight has clearly caused some bemusement in both the beer and pot worlds.
“Great, so a stoner term coined and popularized in the Bay Area and now a global part of the counter–culture belongs to some brewer in the Deep South – the heart of prohibition country,” writes pot-oriented news blog Smell the Truth. “We got to ask ourselves: What would The Waldos do? Probably just go burn one and come up with some new lingo.”
Meanwhile, Magee is more focused on scrambling to get his new Chicago facility up. He says most of the essential equipment is arriving this week and he hopes to fire up the kettles in December. That’s about two months behind schedule because the city ended up requiring him to install a sprinkler system throughout the facility. He said he needs to get going as quickly as possible because the Petaluma brewery is running flat out and still can’t meet all its orders, despite recent upgrades that raised the capacity to something like 580,000 barrels per year.