Tapping Into The Mystique of 420

SweetWater Brewery’s regional manager discusses the growing appeal of its cannabis-related beer culture

Even if you have just the slightest knowledge of cannabis culture, you probably are aware of the significance the number 420 holds within that community.

How exactly the meaning of “420” came into existence is another tale in itself—a quirky true story that dates back to a High Times article in the ‘70s about a group of high-school students in San Rafael, California, who called themselves “The Waldos.”

As the story goes, one the Waldos somehow came into possession of a map supposedly made by a local marijuana grower. For a period of several weeks after the discovery, the group agreed to meet at 4:20 p.m. each day in front of their school to discuss searching for the lost crop of cannabis—the “X” on the mysterious map.

A mix of The Goonies and Pineapple Express, the story of the Waldos alone is probably enough to create mild hallucinations. But suffice it to say, over the decades 420 took on a life of its own and has come to represent the time of day (4:20 p.m.) in which cannabis fans worldwide partake in their drug of choice.

Call it Kind Bud Happy Hour, if you like.

Similarly, the date April 20 (4/20) has become the de facto holiday for this culture, and its popularity has grown over the decades as well.

For SweetWater Brewery, of Atlanta, 420 has become more than just a time of day or a date. It has evolved into a major factor in its marketing formula, helping the brewery multiply its fans and grow the inner area of a Venn diagram connecting beer drinkers, marijuana users, outdoor enthusiasts and music lovers.

This April, SweetWater will celebrate the 22nd anniversary of brewing its popular 420 Pale Ale with a giant music festival that the brewery has hosted in Atlanta for the past 15 years.

Meanwhile, 420 Pale Ale continues to grow in prominence in other parts of the U.S. including the East Coast, where it’s now available in every seaboard state except Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Maine.

“We just opened up in Massachusetts about two weeks ago,” says Brian Rightnour, SweetWater’s market development manager for the Delmarva territory.

Working out of Annapolis, Maryland, Rightnour has been in the beer industry for a total of 14 years, the last four with SweetWater. He recently discussed SweetWater with O&A, touching on what attracted him to the southern beer legend and the fact that, while 420 might be Sweetwater’s magic number, the brewery’s success has hardly taken place overnight.

Brian Rightnour feels at home with SweetWater’s conservation initiatives. Photo courtesy of Brian Rightnour

O&A: What attracted you to working at SweetWater?

Rightnour: What attracted me to SweetWater was my love of craft beer, but also—I guess you would say—the outdoor initiative.

SweetWater has a huge summer campaign called “Save Our Water,” where we give proceeds to [outdoor conservation organizations] like the Chattahoochee Riverkeepers and the CCA, which is the Coastal Conservation Association. We’ve worked with the Surfrider Foundation and Trout Unlimited in the past.

The fact that I could work with a company that would allow me to give back, and work with charities and get into the outdoors—because I like fishing, whitewater rafting and stuff like that—was really appealing.

SweetWater was the first brewery east of the Mississippi to win “Best Small Brewery” at the Great American Beer Festival. I think it was 2002. So they’ve been brewing great beer for years and they broke that ceiling to be the first East Coast brewery to win that award.

So when you combine that with everything else, it just made a lot of sense for me.

O&A: SweetWater has really embraced the cannabis culture in its marketing. As someone in marketing development, how is that a benefit or how does that present a challenge to you?

Rightnour: I would say it’s more of a benefit, especially in today’s climate. Our No. 1 selling beer is our 420 Pale Ale. And 420 came off the line April 20, 1997. So, yes, Freddie Bensch, our owner, could have brought it out on 4/19 or 4/21, but I’m sure he saw the marketing opportunity with the number 420. Although it was kind of tongue-in-cheek at the time—almost 22 years ago.

In today’s climate, with more and more states making marijuana legal, I would definitely say that while we may have started tongue-in-cheek, with our 420 Strain G13 IPA, we’ve firmly planted a flag in the ground. We’re saying, “Hey, here we are: This is a great tasting IPA and it’s got the great flavors of the G13 cannabis.”

The G13 cannabis is an older strain, and it was around in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. It’s well-known among some of our older fans.

We’re also coming out with a new one called “Mango Kush,” which is going to be a wheat ale and is going to have aromas of the Mango Kush cannabis in it.

O&A: The 420 Strain G13 imparts that cannabis aroma because you use certain terpenes. Can you elaborate on that process?

Rightnour: We use proprietary terpenes, which bring out the aroma of the cannabis. So our brewers down in Atlanta actually work with different labs to develop different terpenes. They work to get different aromas into the beer.

They’re all naturally derived terpenes, and they try to dial it in. They’ll bring in different terpenes, and if it doesn’t work, they’ll go back to the lab and say, “That’s not quite what we wanted. Can we try to mix up the concoction and bring in a little more here and a little less there?” All to derive that aroma that they want in the beer, so that it would smell just like the G13 they were going after. And that’s basically the same thing they did with the Mango Kush.

In terms of volume, SweetWater’s 420 Pale Ale is the second most-popular pale ale in the U.S. despite being available in just 25 states. Photo courtesy of SweetWater Brewery

O&A: That’s something that you most likely couldn’t have done 22 years ago.

Rightnour: Yeah, I don’t think so, either. I also don’t think 22 years ago it would have been as readily accepted as it is today with everybody going for CBDs now and different hemp products. That’s the unique thing about those beers: There’s not CBD in it, there’s no actual hemp in it. It’s just the aroma that gives you the perception of it.

O&A: How do those cannabis-related beers do in relation to other beers in the SweetWater portfolio?

Rightnour: Our 420 Pale Ale is our No. 1 seller. It’s the No. 2 pale ale in the country in terms of volume, and we’re only in 25 states right now. Sierra Nevada is No. 1. [Ed: Sierra Nevada distributes in all 50 states.]

The G13 has only been available since September/October and it’s already moved up to our No. 2 seller. It’s about half to two-thirds of what we sell with the 420.

O&A: The 420 Festival has become a three-day music festival in Atlanta. How does that fit into how you brand yourselves in Georgia?

Rightnour: You’re right: It’s a three-day festival, and I think it gets 70,000 to 100,000 over those three days. We bring in tons of bands like Widespread Panic and other jam bands that fit into that 420 lifestyle.

It started off small at the SweetWater brewery and it’s grown and grown every single year. Now we actually have it at the Centennial Park, which is where the ’96 Olympics were, right in downtown Atlanta.

Our distributor in Georgia helps us sell over a million cases a year in Georgia alone. So SweetWater is definitely, firmly well-known in the Atlanta area. And it expands out. Anywhere where there’s an SEC school, you are going to hear about SweetWater. And we are slowly bringing that name up here.

In Maryland and Delaware, there are a lot of great local brewers, so there is a lot for people to choose from. But we’re also becoming known up here for making a consistently great beer.

One of our founding principles is to have some of the freshest liquid available. We have a 90-day code life. And the reason we’ve started slowly and are only available in 25 states is that we want to be within shipping distance to have the freshest beer possible. So you won’t see us opening up out west unless we build a brewery out west.

So, what do you think? Please comment below.