The bottle-top slogan of a brewer with a head for business in Weed,
Calif., draws a warning from U.S. drug watchdogs. All he's pushing is
a respectable local enterprise, backers say.
By Eric Bailey, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
May 29, 2008
WEED, CALIF. -- -- This town is in a tempest over a bottle top.
The federal government is telling the owner of a small brewery here
that the pun he's placed on caps of his Weed Ales crosses a line.
"Try Legal Weed," the caps joke.
The U.S. Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade
Bureau says those three little words allude to marijuana use.
Vaune Dillmann, owner of Mt. Shasta Brewing Co., says he was just
trying to grab attention for his beers and this tough-luck place in
the morning shadow of Mt. Shasta.
But in the two months since he received a warning, the 61-year-old
brewer has found himself in a David-vs.-Goliath struggle, cast as the
The bureau's bureaucrats have told Dillmann he needs to stop using
the "Try Legal Weed" bottle caps. If he doesn't, he could risk fines
or sanctions. His worst fear: being forced out of business.
A balding former cop turned saloon owner and then master brewer,
Dillmann isn't one to back down.
"This is ludicrous, bizarre, like meeting Big Brother face-to-face,"
he grumbled recently. "Forget freedom of speech and the 1st
Amendment. They are the regulatory gods, a judge and jury all rolled
into one. This is a life-or-death issue for my business."
Besides, he said, the town itself was named for a man, not a plant.
Abner Weed was a lumber baron who served as a state senator from
these parts a century ago.
Officials at the tax and trade bureau say they have no desire to run
Dillmann out of the brewing business, insult the residents of Weed or
sully the memory of its founding father.
But the agency does intend to keep an eye out for alcoholic beverage
labels violating the regulatory rules, said Art Resnick, a federal spokesman.
Dillmann's label faux pas, Resnick said, was twofold: "We consider it
to be a drug reference, and find it to be false and misleading to the
consumer in terms of what may or may not be the properties contained
within that product," Resnick said.
Folks in Weed -- population 3,000 -- know whom they're rooting for.
"It's just plain goofy to me the federal government is making so much
of a fuss over this," said Mayor Chuck Sutton. "I can sort of
understand their point, but it all seems a little overboard."
"Government is keeping us safe from bottle caps," mocked the headline
above an editorial in the Record Searchlight newspaper of Redding, an
hour's drive south down Interstate 5.
"Let's get real," the editorial concluded, "anyone old enough to
legally buy a six-pack . . . is mature enough not to be dragged into
a life of drug-addled debauchery by a message on the bottle cap."
Siskiyou County Supervisor Michael Kobseff also came to Dillmann's
defense, saying the town was proud of the brewer and his
accomplishments, including the economic stimulus his business had
brought to an area still recovering from the timber industry's decline.
On the bottle caps in question, "Try Legal Weed" is surrounded by the
slogan "A Friend in Weed Is a Friend Indeed." To Dillmann's
supporters, that spells civic boosterism, not drug pushing.
Not that weed isn't being pushed inside the city limits.
Weed has a tradition of exploiting the double-entendre of its name. A
pithy placard on the way out of town announces "Temporarily Out of
Weed." Gas stations sell "High on Weed" T-shirts. (The town, after
all, is at an elevation of 3,500 feet.)
Though the town is no counterculture haven, the metal entry arch
downtown is something of a stoner stopover. Summer days find
traveling pot aficionados playfully posing for snapshots under the
archway's sign, "WEED."
Dillmann, whose family has deep roots in the community, helped erect
that sign in 1988 and is quick to note he has never inhaled the
illegal stuff. His wife is a longtime grade-school teacher whose
forebears homesteaded in the 1880s. His grown son is a firefighter.
Still, he's happy to tap into cheeky reefer references to win a
sliver of market share in a bruising business. His bottled brews
include Shastafarian Porter (a wink and a nod to Rastafarians) and
Mountain High IPA.
Since he began brewing five years ago in an abandoned former
creamery, Dillmann has built a business with half a dozen employees,
a tasting room with carved-wood bar, a growing distribution reach all
over the Golden State and a blossoming reputation for tasty microbrews.
So far, more than 400,000 beer bottles have proudly worn the "Try
Legal Weed" caps.
Regulators caught up with the caps in February, as Dillmann was
seeking label approval for his Lemurian Golden Lager. They issued a
rejection sheet citing several typeface technicalities and one deal
breaker: the words "Try Legal Weed."
So far, no one has ordered Dillmann to recall any previously capped
bottles. But he recently took delivery of another 400,000 caps. If
they can't be used, he'll be out $10,000. That's no small change for
a small business like his.
The controversy has, via the Internet, raised the ire of beer lovers
all over. Dillmann has received more than 1,000 letters, e-mails and
phone calls, almost all in support. He's also tapped his local
congressman, Rep. Wally Herger (R-Chico), and U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer
(D-Calif.), who pressed regulators.
Dillmann has appealed, with a decision expected by Sunday. He vows
not to cave, and expects a long, expensive legal battle if need be.
He says he just wants to keep his caps and not lose his shirt.
What irks him most, he says -- even more than the feds' lack of a
funny bone -- is what he considers a double standard.
While stomping on him, Dillmann says, the government treats Budweiser
with kid gloves, despite the fact that "This Bud's for You" also
could be mistaken for marijuana slang.
"They sell Bud. We sell Weed," he said. "What's the difference?"