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Lagunitas Brewing Co. to drop '420' marijuana slang from labels


Lagunitas Brewing is dropping any future use of the term "420," a well-known code phrase for marijuana, on its labels after an Atlanta brewery claimed a federal trademark on the number.

Lagunitas Founder Tony Magee announced the change via his colorful, stream-of-consciousness Twitter feed earlier this week.

"Good news is, I'll let ya have the 420 thing," he wrote, addressing Freddy Bensch, founder of Sweetwater Brewing Company. "Is that a win?"

Magee said he received a letter demanding the change on Monday and expressed irritation, going so far as to call Bensch "a dweeb" for not having called in person to discuss the issue.

Bensch declined to comment on the dispute Wednesday, saying in a written statement, "It's not our style to discuss these issues publicly."

Magee is out of the country and was unavailable for further comment on Wednesday. Chief Operating Officer Todd Stevenson did not return a call for comment.

Sweetwater, founded in 1997, has a long-standing pale ale known as "420." Although the brewery's marketing material displays the number inside an interstate highway-style sign, suggesting it alludes to a long-planned highway segment near Atlanta, the smoking reference is made clear with the tag line "Drink 'em if you got 'em."

There are several stories about how "420" became code for marijuana, but one widely told version says it originated in Marin County's San Rafael High School in the early '70s when a group of pot aficionados, calling themselves The Waldos, set 4:20 p.m. as the time they would meet after school for a smoking session.

Whatever its origin, the phrase has become so entrenched in popular culture that there is now a marijuana-related magazine called 420 and April 20, 4/20, has become an informal holiday for marijuana users. Clinics that offer examinations for potential patients under California's medical marijuana law often advertise the service as "420 evaluations."

There are 78 active and 129 expired 420-related trademarks listed in online federal records, including Sweetwater's "420 Extra Pale Ale," requested in 2010 and awarded in January of this year.

Lagunitas has never released a beer called 420, but it has used the term several times on labels, most prominently on its seasonal beer known as "The Waldos' Special Ale," which is served every year at the brewery's events on April 20.

Magee has made no secret about his enthusiasm for marijuana and speaks frankly about his opposition to laws banning it. Lagunitas was shut down briefly by state authorities in 2006 after undercover agents observed guests smoking marijuana during the brewery's weekly open houses, held before the current restaurant and tasting room opened. The event was memorialized with the brewery's "Undercover Investigation Shut Down Ale."

The brewery also ran afoul of federal regulators when it attempted to name a beer "Kronick," another common slag term for marijuana. Authorities refused to approve the name, which led Magee to call the beer "Censored."

While Magee seemed annoyed at first by the request to drop the 420 phrase from his packaging, he seemed to warm to the idea as he posted on Twitter over the course of several days.

"No problem, I think we outgrew it anyway ... It ain't what we are anyway, but it is what I do! Hope you do too," he wrote. "Long live the Waldo's!"

Such disputes used to be relatively rare among brewers, but with the explosion in popularity of craft beer, they are becoming frequent. There are almost 3,000 breweries of all sizes operating in the U.S. and tens of thousands of individual beers available, all jockeying for distinctive names and label graphics.

"Some people are still creative, but there are only so many great names out there," said Paul Gatza, director of the craft beer industry group The Brewers Association. "It's really hard to name a beer, or a brewery for that matter."

Most such disputes are settled quietly without extensive litigation, he said.

Magee himself has been on both ends of the trademark wars before, including a dustup with Vermont's Magic Hat Brewing when Lagunitas released a beer called "9,"named after the Ninth Amendment to the Constitution, for which Magee professes a fondness. Magic Hat complained that the name trod upon its flagship beer, known as #9, so Magee renamed his creation "10."

He was on the other side of a trademark dispute last year when he accused Knee Deep Brewing, a small operation in Placer County, of co-opting the label design of his flagship beer, an India pale ale that features the letters "IPA" in block letters.

Knee Deep vehemently denied ripping off the design, but agreed to change the name and label to "Batch 138" provided that Magee paid for the change, which he agreed to do.

Other area brewers have been embroiled in similar disputes. Bear Republic has aggressively defended its Racer 5 and Red Rocket Ale names, including filing suit against a brewery in British Columbia that named a beer "Red Racer." Central City Brewing eventually agreed to rename the beer "Red Betty."

Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa took a different approach when it discovered that Avery Brewing of Boulder, Colorado had a beer with the same name as one of its signature products: "Salvation." Owners Vinnie Cilurzo and Adam Avery met, over beers naturally, and worked out an agreement that allowed both to keep using the name.

To celebrate, they released a joint brew in 2006 called "Collaboration not Litigation."

(You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com.)