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Jan. 9, 2014 | Beer is going to pot
SO, THAT'S what they mean by Miller High Life.
With this month's ballyhooed legalization of marijuana in Colorado, some beer makers are adding playful drug references to their brand names and labels, and regulators can do little to censor them.
Label oversight, a quirky if contentious area of federal alcohol law, has confounded breweries for years with often capricious standards that bear little on consumer protection.
Federal law, for example, oddly prohibits the use of coats of arms or wording that promises "pre-war strength," whatever that means.
Likewise, labels with drug references and slang have been a no-no. In recent years, one California brewer, for example, was forced to change the name of its Kronik Ale, and another was told to rename its Orange Kush wheat beer.
However, drug terminology is not explicitly banned by any federal alcohol law. Instead, the prohibition stems from a broad interpretation of regulations that prohibit "obscene or indecent" statements or designs on labels.
Now, no one had to tell the old-school industrialists from St. Louis and Milwaukee not to use drug references on their labels. Marijuana wasn't just illegal, it was the competition.
Today? Well, let's just say that the new generation of craft brewers - and many of their customers - have a more liberal appreciation for pot.
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms understood the changing attitude back in 1994, when it issued an industry circular that advised that "as a law enforcement agency, [we] cannot condone alcoholic beverage labels that contain any names of drugs, drug terms or slang associated with drugs or any depiction of drug paraphernalia. We do not believe that responsible industry members should want or would want to portray their products in any socially unacceptable manner."
But that was before state after state endorsed marijuana for medical use, and, more specifically, before Colorado and Washington state legalized grass for recreational purposes.
Today, as a majority of voters supports legal weed, the only thing "socially unacceptable" about pot is Bogarting a joint.
"It's always been very subjective," said Robert C. Lehrman, a Washington, D.C., lawyer specializing in beverage law. "These are not bright lines, they're constantly shifting."
We're already seeing some brewers test the (bong) waters.
Two Washington state breweries, Redhook and Hilliard, celebrated legalization with a hemp ale called Joint Effort, served with an imaginative bong-shaped tap handle.
In Boulder, Colo., West Flanders Brewing last weekend released Recreational Smoke, "a homegrown, fully legal" porter made with "baked and toasted" malts and described as "mellow" and "heady."
Neither beer is distributed beyond state lines, so their breweries didn't require label approval from the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. But there's a pretty good chance that they would've gotten the OK.
First, there's that whole First Amendment free-speech thing, in which even the "F-word" is no longer particularly shocking. (Don't believe me? Check your local beer shelves for Danish-brewed F--k Art Let's Dance Belgian-style tripel.)
Secondly, the TTB isn't exactly the DEA.
Not long ago, the alcohol agency gave the go-ahead to an imported vodka from Holland-made Bong Spirit. Its bottle is shaped suspiciously like something the U.S. attorney prosecuted Tommy Chong for selling a few years ago.
Whether through ignorance of drug slang or changing attitudes, the TTB has given thumbs-up to dozens of beers with sly marijuana references, including 420, Dank Tank, Mary Jane, HempEweizen, AK-47, Baked, Maui Waui, Hazed and Infused, Contact High and more. (Visit my website, where I've posted a bunch of others.)
Yes, there are limits. Dark Horse Brewing, in Michigan, lost its bid for Smells Like Weed IPA, though its hops, in fact, smell like pot. The name was later changed to Smells Like A Safety Meeting IPA. (A "safety meeting" is slang for taking a break on the job to light up a doober.)
But expect to see fewer of those objections as more states move toward legalization.
"I would say the current policy is, if you put a big, fat joint on the label, it's probably too aggressive," Lehrman said. "But if you work with them, say, maybe use a small joint that looks like something else . . . you might get approved."
In other words, this Bud's for you.