State investigation leads Lagunitas to create new ale

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In another time, he might have stood in the town square passing out handbills or perhaps picketed a busy intersection with a hand-lettered sign outlining his complaints.

But when Lagunitas Brewing Co. founder Tony Magee decided to go public with his protest against state alcohol regulators, he naturally chose the medium he knows best.

The result is Undercover Investigation Shut-Down Ale, a new "especially bitter ale" brewed to commemorate a bust at a brewery party last year and a subsequent 20-day suspension of its state brewing license.

The label doesn't quite say it all - it omits details of a two-month undercover investigation into smoking pot at weekly tasting parties and how said gatherings violated a city of Petaluma use permit -- but it says enough to convey Magee's resulting defiance and disgust.

A 149-word, libertarian-leaning polemic, written in tiny type at the edge of the label, declares: "From the first day of the first congress at the moment of the passage of the first law, we became weaker.

"The extra-large B. Franklin said it well that you can tell the strength of a society by the paucity of the pages in its' (sic) book of laws - Tax law, civil law, criminal law, Statues and Bills. Laws that make large and small criminals of us all."

Elsewhere, the label warns the drinker: "Alc. 10.1% by Vol."

"This beer," the ever-colorful Magee said, "I wanted to be a knuckle sandwich. It's big, it's bitter and it's angry. It's unrepentant, and it's unforgiven."

Available for barely two weeks now, it's unclear what kind of reaction the powerful ale will provoke among those in the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control who were behind the events that launched it.

The agency's public information officer, John Carr, said the suspension served Jan. 12 to Jan. 31 allowed the brewery back to business as usual - though a stayed revocation of its license means any more pot use on the premises before Nov. 18 could cost its license.

The 12-year-old brewery on North McDowell Boulevard in an industrial area of Petaluma has 26 employees and produces more than 36,000 barrels of beer a year. Though perhaps best known for its IPA (India Pale Ale), Dogtown Pale Ale and Censored Rich Copper Ale, its products include a variety of seasonal beers, including Shut-Down Ale.

Carr said it may have been a routine licensing visit that alerted ABC officers to potential problems at the brewery, whose Thursday afternoon open-house tastings were billed on the brewery Web site under "420" - code among pot smokers for "time to light up."

Magee, Lagunitas' brewmaster and chief executive officer, said he believes authorities saw an ad in the Bohemian alternative weekly that listed food and live music.

What he knows for sure - and Carr confirmed - is that undercover officers attended the parties for about eight weeks from January to March of last year to determine whether partygoers or employees were dealing dope at the gatherings.

It was during a heavily attended St. Patrick's Day affair that they whipped out their badges, arresting one employee and a patron, Carr said.

Magee, who once played in a reggae band before he made a career out of beer, acknowledged an awareness that some workers and guests smoked marijuana during tastings in the brewery's smoking area, but said there were cigars and cigarettes, too, and the situation wasn't closely monitored.

"We sell to people who by definition are counterculture: They're not drinking Budweiser. We never eschewed it (pot) as if it was somehow an evil thing. If it was part of the world, we let it in.

But investigators, Magee said, were sure they were going to uncover "major dealing going on here." They later told him "no one was willing to sell it to them, but everyone was willing to give it to them for free," he said.

Still, the pot-smoking on the premises was a problem, along with the parties themselves, which violated a rider on the ABC's license addressing city prohibitions on retail sales or patron gatherings at the site.

Though the city later said tastings as part of tours or sales events were OK, it was not aware of live music or large parties at the site until the ABC bust, Community Development Director Mike Moore said.

City planning, fire and police officials are now working with Magee to try to work out a compromise allowing for resumption of some sort of gatherings.

Magee said the 20-day suspension didn't hurt business because the brewery used the time to install a new bottling line.

The company was precluded from shipping beer but all the other activities needed to make beer continued. Distributing more beer than usual in December covered January sales.

Magee, who writes all his own beer labels, also used the shutdown to work on one for the new ale. "I kept the whole thing as quiet as I could until we paid the price so we could manage the fallout as best I could and then I could say anything I wanted to," he said.

What the label says mainly, under the beer's title, is: "We Brewed This Especially Bitter Ale In Remembrance of the 2005 St. Patrick's Day Massacre And in Celebration of Our 20-Day Suspension Back in January of This Year!"

"Whatever. We're Still Here."

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