420: The Intersection of Beer and Cannabis

Today is 4/20. That date--and the number 420 used in whatever context it could be wedged--has been for a certain segment of the population a time for clandestine celebration. 420 you say? Wikipedia serves us well here, delivering us a stilted, hilariously clinical account:

420, 4:20, or 4/20 (pronounced four-twenty) is a code-term that refers to the consumption of cannabis, especially smoking cannabis around the time 4:20 p.m./a.m. (or 16:20 in some European nations) and smoking and celebrating cannabis on the date April 20 (which is 4/20 in U.S. form).
— "420 (Cannabis Culture) entry on Wikipedia

That definition is no longer strictly accurate anymore, either. As cannabis has gone legal (and medically-legal), 420 has begun its shift from secret code to marketing opportunity. Google it and you find an endless list of local news stories with titles like "Where to Celebrate 420 in Las Vegas" (KTNV Action News), plus mainstream news stories (non-scolding) from Time, Forbes, USA Today, the Washington Post, and on and on.

On this 4/20, I thought it might be worth looking at the history of the way beer has borrowed from cannabis in imagery and cultural signaling. (Also note that "cannabis" is actually the neutral, clinical term, not "marijuana," which was a slang term adopted by early anti-weed crusaders to help demonize it.) It has a long history, but one that, like "420" itself, is changing.

Evidence of the connection abounds. Stone's most recent in their date-based "Drink By" series is 4/20 ("This devastatingly dank stash," "our own celebration of resinous green buds"). SweetWater gets special commendation for sneaking their 420 Pale ("drink 'em if you got 'em") past the feds so long ago (20 years?) that they didn't catch the reference. They're probably the first to use it in official material.

But the most stoney by far is Lagunitas, whose whole company ethos is (or at least was, pre-Heineken) based on cannabis in-jokes and references. From a beer called "Kronik" (which the feds disallowed, leading to the beer "Censored") to Hop Stoopid to their current release, Waldos' Special Ale, the references have been covert and overt. (Waldos' the four guys who claim to have invented "420" in 1971 and comes out around 4/20 every year and is a really superb beer--tons of stone fruits that hit the palate way too gently for a 12% beer.)

Then there's the very close botanical connection between Cannabis sativa and Humulus lupulus. The two are both rich in oils containing similar flavor and aroma compounds. I've actually seen this comparison made more from the cannabis side than from beery folks, who are usually just amused to learn of the connection. Modern cannabis strains are identified by their terpene profile, and connoisseurs prize favored strains' aromatics and tastes no less than hopheads swoon to Mosaic and Citra. But even beery people recognize the way some hops smell like cannabis and have assigned it the word "dank." 

As cannabis sidles ever more toward licit markets and becomes ever less taboo, these worlds are colliding more frequently. You'd think they'd have a lot in common, but it's not really so. In the last couple years, I've had a chance to look in over the shoulder of the cannabis industry here in Oregon, and it is populated by entirely different beings than beer folk.

Culture Clash
Cannabis is only now coming out into the daylight, but it has for decades been a heavily criminalized plant. Federal and state law enforcement have locked up millions, taken their property through forfeiture laws, and used the government as a tool of anti-weed propaganda. (The long history of demonizing cannabis goes back to a truly reprehensible racist named Harry Anslinger who headed the precursor of the DEA and was responsible for the word "marijuana.") Anyone who was involved in growing or selling cannabis therefore had a very good reason to be a little paranoid and anti-government. That's very different from beer, which is extremely mainstream--even more so since craft beer transformed things. Beer may have a tiny bit of counter-culture in its DNA, but the vast majority is mainstream enough for it to appear at NASCAR and NFL games.

This is the root of the cultural disconnect. Even when beer companies borrow cannabis as an inspiration, they grab onto that transgressive element; it's both a little illicit and a little dangerous. I think everyone knows that cannabis is one of the more harmless drugs--far less dangerous than alcohol--so the transgression is partly a mocking one. I mean, Barack Obama was in the Choom Gang; try to hype the dangers of ganja and you're most likely to get an eyeroll. One of the most valuable currencies in craft beer is "authenticity," and a wink to cannabis is a way to demonstrate you're not corporate.

But it also comes out in the people who are attracted to these different drugs. Beer is a blue-collar drink, one long associated with hard work. (Making it is brutally hard labor, and it's also great after a hard day, whether that was at a brewery or different work site.) It travels pretty well between urban and rural, north and south--one of the few cultural fixtures claimed by groups across these cultural boundaries. The only place it hasn't really moved is up the social ladder. The image of the bearded, burly brewer is a perfect icon for this culture.

Cannabis, conversely, has roots in different culture--the laid-back hippy scene in California, with a soundtrack of the Grateful Dead or Bob Marley. Stoners are famously not hard workers--the point of getting stoned is to relax. (I've seen first-hand that people in the cannabis industry work like crazy--starting a business, whether making beer or working with weed, means very long days.) Beer is used to relax, too, but it laces together with hard work in a way cannabis doesn't; from Up in Smoke to Pineapple Express, the image of of the stoner is someone looking to avoid hard work.

"Craft" Cannabis
Interestingly, craft beer may be having a bigger influence on cannabis than vice versa. As industries develop legally in the eight states that have fully legalized cannabis (fully 25% of the population), small companies are trying to figure out how to position themselves. They are both concerned with very large, out-of-state companies entering the market, and also with branding themselves as somehow local, high-quality, and independent. Guess where they're looking?

“When you go into a dispensary, you’re kind of overwhelmed by how many products there are,” says Nurit Raphael, a medical marijuana patient in San Francisco. “When you go to a mom-and-pop shop, they listen to you and they really help you. It feels like there’s just more care in it. I just hope that the little shops are the ones that get more recognized and not left behind when the big players come in.”

Will there be a Budweiser of marijuana post-federal legalization? Probably. “There are some people who prefer their Bud Light, and they’re getting the same thing every time,” Adam Steinberg says. “And there are some people who like to try different types of craft beer.”

In the cannabis world, there's a lot of talk of "Cannabis 2.0"--those people who entered the market after it became legal. They're entrepreneurs who don't hold the same anti-government mindset of those from the old, black-market days. They are savvy branders who are taking cues from successful "craft" products that came before--and beer is the most successful example.

There are certainly areas of overlap, and it's not like people who enjoy a bowl never crack a beer or vice versa. It's just that both culturally and in terms of the kinds of markets they inhabit, they really are two different beasts. Legalization and a few decades of cultural acceptance will transform cannabis and the culture of the people who use it. That may bring these two groups together--especially if Cannabis 2.0 becomes the norm and moves in beer's direction. But dank hops and wink-and-nod labels aside, it hasn't happened yet. Let's give it another ten or twenty 4/20s and see where we are.

Happy 4/20, everyone--celebrate safely!