In honor of Independence Day, this week’s Word on Beer features one of the most fiercely independent, iconoclastic, and idiosyncratic breweries to be found in this great country. Lagunitas Brewing Company, in Petaluma, California, has made a name for itself by pushing boundaries and making no apologies. They have already run afoul of the California Alcohol Control Board and the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), but as their label says, “Whatever. We’re still here.”
It is ironic that one of the most heavily regulated industries in the United States, the production of alcoholic beverages--specifically in this case, beer--attracts so many free-spirited personalities. Craft brewers tend to have artistic temperaments and enjoy the freedom of being able to create a product for love and passion, not an eye toward emerging markets and increased margins.
Tony Magee, the self-proclaimed Imperial Warlord of Lagunitas Brewing, pretty much goes against conventional wisdom at every opportunity and refuses to play it safe. In the summer, when other breweries are turning out hefeweizens and blond ales, Magee reasons that the only cure for the heat of summer is “a raging mouthful of fresh Hops and Malt.” His Lagunitas IPA Maximus, the brewery’s summer seasonal, boasts over 72 IBUs and has a muscled up alcohol content of 7.5 percent ABV that is certainly atypical of a “summer” beer.
Perhaps Magee and his staff are just bad boys in need of some negative attention, but when Lagunitas decided to name one of their beers The Kronic, as in the street name for extra strong marijuana, the feds did not find it amusing. The TTB, which regulates alcohol labeling, rejected the name, based on its drug reference (Sweetwater 420, on the other hand, seems to have slipped under their radar). So Lagunitas submitted a new label, with a big “Censored” sign slapped over the previous name. Apparently being a smart ass is not in violation of federal statutes and the name Censored Ale was accepted.
That incident was only a preamble to bigger trouble, however. The brewery (which moved from Lagunitas, California soon after it was founded) features Thursday afternoon parties that started at 4:20 p.m. and were advertised under that headline in newspaper ads. Officials in California apparently know what 420 means because they sent in undercover investigators hoping to nab brewery employees selling marijuana. The officers came for eight weeks trying to score, but instead were only offered the herb for free. Finally, on St. Patrick’s Day 2005, they salvaged the operation by arresting two patrons and one employee for possession.
An unrepentant Magee expressed only pride in his employees for sharing their stash. “Those are my people!” he declared in a Beer Advocate forum. “I am soooo proud of 'em all. As they all learned at an early age, it is far better to give than to receive.”
The brewery was not allowed to distribute for 20 days, although most of the normal operations continued. Magee also had no choice but to enforce a no-pot-smoking policy at the brewery, which he readily admits was happening in the past (“well, this is Sonoma County,” he observed). “[W]e are all supposed to 'gracefully surrender the things of youth,’” he wrote, “so we will.” The Thursday night tasting parties are now on hold, but last year, in commemoration of the “St. Patrick’s Day Massacre,” Magee brewed up an especially bitter beer dubbed “Undercover Investigation Shut-Down Ale.” He told the Santa Rose Press Democrat, “This beer I wanted to be a knuckle sandwich. It's big, it's bitter and it's angry. It's unrepentant, and it's unforgiven.” It is available again this year as a spring release and is this week’s beer pick.
Lagunitas personifies the kind of reckless idealism that made this country great. Censored and punished by the very government that professes to protect its freedoms, it refuses to be cowed by convention or conformism. And we beer drinkers are all the better for it. God bless America!
Talking Head columnist Jeff Holland can be reached at email@example.com.
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