Mt. Shasta Brewing comes out on top (again)

Charlie Unkefer
Mt. Shasta Brewing owner Vaune Dillmann framed some of the publicity his business and the town of Weed received during a recent first amendment fight over his “Legal Weed” labels.

Mt. Shasta Brewing made a strong showing at the California Brewers Festival, winning first place in the India Pale Ale category with its “Mountain High” IPA and third place in  the fruit beer category with “Brewer Kriek,” a cherry ale.  The victories add two more medals to a growing collection housed in the craft brewery’s tasting room, located in Weed. 

The California Brewers Festival, held on September 20th in Sacramento, attracted 63 breweries from around the US and saw a total of 155 beers. Edging out the highly regarded “Racer 5” IPA by Bear Republic Brewing of Hopland, Mt. Shasta Brewing continues to establish itself as a forerunner in the competitive world of craft beer. Coming in third was Blue Frog Brewing of Fairfield, CA.

The festival, which attracts over 3,000 beer enthusiasts from all over the US and abroad, gives participants the chance to sample a huge array of craft beers, enjoy local cuisine, and hear live music.

The beer competition is an integral part of the festival and allows breweries to enter their beers in 13 different categories. 

India Pale Ale, a strong ale with roots tracing back to the British Empire, was originally developed to withstand long ocean voyages from the breweries in England to distant colonial outposts. A style of ale rich in flavor, IPAs derive their character from a heavy infusion of hops and a higher alcohol content. In today’s world of beer, IPAs stand as a favorite among consumers, with competitors flooding the market with quality ales.  Given all this, a first place showing in this category is especially noteworthy. 

The kriek beer, which took 3rd place in the fruit beer category, was also a point of pride for brewer Josh Riggs, who  collaborated with co-brewer Marco Noriega, who has since moved to Costa Rica, to develop the winning recipe.  “Marco and I worked together on this one and are pretty happy with how it turned out,” Riggs stated. Kriek beer is a style of ale that originated in Belgium and draws its character from sour cherries added during the brewing process. 

For owner Vaune Dillmann, the awards continue to help put his small brewery on the map. With current capacity at under 1,000 barrels annually, Mt. Shasta Brewing Company is a small brewery, even within the craft beer world.

A brewery can be considered a “micro” brewery if its production is less than 60,000 barrels. Bear Republic Brewing, which came in second place, produces 20,000 barrels annually and claims it is the “Home of the best IPA in the USA.” That said, trumping the long-standing favorite was not a bad showing for the local talent in Weed.

Persistence pays off

With his self-proclaimed  “persistent German heritage,” Dillmann worked hard to make his dream brewery come true, beginning in 1992 when he purchased the 60-year-old Bel-Medo Creamery. Though the building and location on College Avenue seemed ideal, there were numerous surprises in store for the aspiring entrepreneur. 

His first hurdle was to clean up the newly purchased lot, which, as it turned out, had been contaminated by leaky gas tanks from the dairy. After a seven-year process that included a $995,000 grant from the California Clean-Up Fund, the brewery finally got the green light from the CA Regional Water Quality Control Board. 

With this obstacle under his belt, the tenacious Dillmann proceeded to outfit the dilapidated creamery. Securing used brewing equipment from the Summit Brewing Company of St. Paul, Minn., the operation was poised to begin production. However, other barriers held off the opening until 2003, among them were zoning issues that had to be resolved with the city of Weed and a lawsuit over the right to use the “Mt. Shasta Brewing” name, filed by Butte Creek Brewing of Chico. In the end, Dillmann persevered and the brewery was finally able to begin production. In 2004, they began bottling their beer and broadened distribution.   

First Amendment fight

The latest brew-ha-ha was over the company’s logo “Try Legal Weed,” which is displayed  on  bottle caps. Seven months ago, the brewery came under scrutiny from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau  (TTB), the federal agency entrusted to regulate the alcohol industry. The TTB claimed that the slogan was an implied endorsement of marijuana and could confuse consumers as to the contents of the beverage. The agency ordered the brewery to cease production of the bottle caps that contained the questionable slogan and threatened “sanctions” if the brewery failed to comply.  

Wasting no time, Dillmann jumped to the defense of his First Amendment rights and, in the end, won out over the federal agency. Along the way, he garnished local, national, and international support.  Among those on his side were the ACLU, Congressman Wally Herger, the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors, and the City of Weed.

Dillmann adamantly defended his logo, asserting that “Try Legal Weed” is in reference to the town of Weed and not an endorsement of marijuana. In particular, he noted the TTB’s hypocrisy and questioned their approval of Budweiser’s logo that cites “This bud’s for you” (with “bud” being a slang term for marijuana).

“They let the big boys run amuck,” Dillmann stated emphatically, “and go out of their way to harass a small, locally owned businesses.”  

He characterized the TTB’s approach as “rude, aggressive, and unwarranted,” and speculated out loud as to whether there might be a better way for the federal government to spend taxpayer dollars.

On July 31, Dillmann received a letter from the TTB stating that the slogan was not a drug reference and that it did not mislead consumers. After a seven-month fight, Mt. Shasta Brewing prevailed. “Weed fought the law and Weed won!” 

Lemonade out of lemons

Though the whole incident proved stressful, it also brought the fledgling brewery into the limelight. “We received over 1400 e-mails,” stated an enthusiastic Dillmann.

The story made the AP news network and traveled around the world. Sifting through the pile of newspapers and magazines that threatened to take over his desk, the methodical Dillmann presented articles from Zimbabwe, Japan, and Australia. On the wall adjacent to his desk hangs a mounted copy of the front-page LA Times story on the controversy. The Times ran another story shortly after, this time on the third page. “I guess we were beginning to lose popularity,” chuckled Dillmann.

All said, that’s not bad advertising for the hometown brew, which has seen a 30% increase in sales since the brewery first entered the limelight. “People really love our caps. They’re great souvenirs of the town of Weed.”

Big things to come

With this latest victory under his belt, the brewery can now focus on the business at hand: Beer. Though current production is still small compared to many, the optimistic Dillmann hopes to up capacity to 10,000 barrels annually and expand his on-site operations to include a 5,000-square foot tasting room, complete with a restaurant and outdoor beer garden. 

Until then, visitors can drop by the tasting room from Thursday-Sunday 12-8 p.m. and sample their ales, which are now available in pint glasses. The brewery is located at 360 College Avenue, Weed. 1-800-WEED-ALE.