I’m a beer geek, but I’m also an attorney. Because, for whatever ridiculous reason, beer doesn’t pay the bills. Since craft beer is big business, it’s becoming more common that my professional and personal life mix. Introducing: Yeast and Desist, a recurring look at beer and law.
Taking a page out of the playbook of multinational macro brewers, Stone Brewing recently filed suit against MillerCoors over the latter’s rebranding of its yellow fizzy water brand, Keystone. Stone claims that MillerCoors’ separation of syllables on its new Keystone cans is designed to make Keystone beers look like Stone beers. Greg Koch, co-founder and executive chairman of Stone Brewing, warned MillerCoors in a YouTube video to “stop using Stone as a standalone word because when it comes as a standalone word in the world of beer, it’s ours.”
While usually it’s the big boys seeking to protect their brands, Stone’s lawsuit shows that intellectual property rights are for all producers. Koch portrays the battle as “good versus evil,” even though Stone is by no means a small brewery — most recently it was No. 9 in the nation according to the Brewers Association — but perception is important.
Similar brand protection has even had an impact on Madison’s craft beer scene. One Barrel Brewing Company, fresh off their prestigious bronze medal at the Great American Beer Fest, was the recent recipient of a cease and desist letter for its medal-winning Behemoth, an imperial IPA. 3 Floyds Brewing Company, the popular brewery out of Munster, Indiana (with significant Madison distribution and in line for its own expansion to nearly triple its capacity with additional distillery) has been brewing a barleywine by the same name since at least 2005.
Peter Gentry, proprietor of One Barrel, understands that craft beer is a business. But it is a significant challenge to create a unique moniker with 5,000 breweries in America each having anywhere from 20 to over 100 beer names. “At some point or another, we will start running out of names,” says Gentry in an email interview. It’s unlikely that Behemoth would have been on 3 Floyds’ radar had it not taken home the bronze at the GABF. As so happens, the thrill of the win was quickly replaced with shock and disappointment.
Gentry doesn’t fault 3 Floyds for taking action but did express exhaustion with how it all played out. “You win a big award and the only people that seemed to care were big city lawyers from a brewery that I loved,” he says. Ultimately, One Barrel was forced to rebrand its award winner as “Intentionally Left Blank.” However, this is a temporary name as Gentry has promised a “new (and hilarious) name” for the beer’s upcoming release in June or July.
AB InBev, the beer (ahem) behemoth, earned some social media cred with their cease and desist response to Modist Brewing, a Minneapolis-based brewery that was selling Dilly Dilly Mosaic Double IPA. They sent an actor in medieval garb to recite a scroll in olde English requesting that Modist keep the brew to a limited one-time run, lest they suffer “additional scrolls.” AB InBev included two tickets to the Super Bowl in Minnesota as an extra gesture of goodwill.
Of course, not every cease and desist claim is so convivial. “I love Bud’s Dilly Dilly approach,” says Gentry. “I would have much rather gotten some Super Bowl tickets than go through all the trouble I did. Or even tickets to Dark Lord Days (I asked)! But I don’t think the fun approach is sustainable.” That’s not stopping Gentry from trying to keep things light, though. “Even with greater responsibility, you can still have fun. So now I wear the GABF medal around my neck on Fridays to remind myself how awesome winning it was, and to embarrass my wife.”