Beer, Wine & Spirits

Marijuana laws spark buzz among brewers

Chew and Brew: Hemp giving food and beer a new high

Colorado has consumers nationwide buzzing over the recreational marijuana law, which made the herb legal Jan. 1.

While customers may be lining up outside the pot shops, many brewers are using the legalization of marijuana to spur conversation about their product as well.

Boulder, Colo.-based West Flanders Brewing, looking to have some fun, recently changed the name of one of its products from Woodshed Smoked Porter to Recreational Smoke.

In a statement posted on West Flanders' website, head brewer Brian Lutz wrote, "Since we opened last year, many of our customers have told us they wanted to be able to enjoy recreational smoke here at our brewpub. In light of recent events, we decided the time was right for us to allow it."

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Recreational Smoke is an existing beer with a new name, but some brewers have gone a step further to mark the change in their state.

Washington brewers Redhook Brewery and Hilliard's Beer paired up on a marijuana-themed beer to acclaim the legalization of the drug.

The result, released in July, is the aptly titled Joint Effort, an ale brewed with nonpsychoactive hemp.

If the name and ingredients don't get the message across, the tap handle—a bright yellow bong—delivers it loud and clear.

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"My colleague and I went down to a local head shop and bought 250 bongs," said Karmen Olson, Redhook's brand manager. "The tap handle created a lot of excitement. ... Though it might be a little gimmicky, it got people to try the beer—which is a really great beer."

A 3-year-old start-up with just six full-time employees, Hilliard's said that Joint Effort has been one of the best-sellers in its taproom.

Hilliard's said partnering with the much larger Redhook, which launched over 30 years ago, was a major opportunity. Redhook is part of Craft Brew Alliance, in which Budweiser has a minority stake.

"It did a lot for our brand," said co-founder Ryan Hilliard. "We're still little guys and relatively unknown, and it really helped drag our name into the spotlight."

Hilliard's co-founder Adam Merkl added, "Now we have the Budweiser reps and folks out there taking a Redhook beer around that has a Hilliard's logo on it."

For Redhook, the project is also an opportunity to honor its past by partnering with a brewery striving to make its mark the way did Redhook did.

While Joint Effort is Redhook's first collaboration with another brewer, partnerships have become a major part of its marketing strategy. Those alliances include Game Changer Ale, with Buffalo Wild Wings, and Audible Ale, with The Dan Patrick Show.

With the number of operating breweries in the U.S. topping 2,700 and hundreds planned, such partnerships are a key differentiation strategy, according to Olsen.

(Read more: How this ale became craft's most popular brew)

Two Washington state brewers released a collaboration, Joint Effort, in July.
Source: Redhook

"It helps to have other people on our side," she said.

Joint Effort has captured national attention but is distributed only in Washington, as its marijuana-themed labeling doesn't allow it to be sold across state lines.

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So consumers shouldn't expect to see Joint Effort in Colorado anytime soon.

Redhook said it has considered a Colorado-themed beer but has no current plans to mark the change in that state.

"What makes Joint Effort unique to us is that Redhook started in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood, and that's a huge part of what we're celebrating," said Olsen. "In Colorado there's not as rich a connection for us. ... It's just not a priority right now."

—By CNBC's Tom Rotunno