Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Are you Loathsome Tonight?

Because I think Bell's Brewery might be.

Some back story: Northern Brewer sells homebrewing equipment and supplies. They have a beer kit (the raw ingredients to make beer) called Three Hearted Ale. It's based on Bell's extremely popular beer Two Hearted Ale. Earlier this week the lawyers from Bell's sent Northern Brewer a cease and desist letter explaining that their Three Hearted beer kit is infringing on the beer's trademark. There may be some sort of justification for a craft brewery doing something like this to protect its trademark, but frankly, even if there is, I don't really care about it. As far as I'm concerned, this is completely outside the spirit of craft brewing. Squabbling over trademarks? With other people in the industry? It's downright ridiculous. I don't think I'm alone in that thought either. Hours after mentioning the trouble on their facebook page, Northern Brewer was inundated with comments of support for them, anger with Bell's, and even some calling for a boycott of Bell's beer (unfortunately, I don't think I could participate in a boycott of Bell's beer even if I wanted to, as they brew some of my favorite beer on planet Earth, but that doesn't really excuse the behavior). Is this sort of action really necessary in a world that has built itself on producing a "craft" product? It's a move you'd expect to see from one of the big brewers, but hardly from Bell's.

And this is all assuming that somehow a beer kit could possibly violate a trademark for a commercial beer. In Bell's reaction to the backlash they ludicrously base their claim, in part, on this statement

"Bell's Brewery are of the opinion that there is a likelihood of confusion between [Northern Brewer's] mark and the trademarks for TWO HEARTED owned by Bell's Brewery. The marks create the same overall commercial impression. Furthermore, the goods associated with your mark and the trademark for Two Hearted are identical." (my emphasis added)

So even if this sort of litigiousness and paranoia was somehow justified in the communal world of craft beer, the idea that a consumer would mistake a pile of hops and malt that you can make into beer, with bottles of packaged beer is absolutely absurd. There's also the small fact that the Three Hearted Ale kit has existed for 9 years without Bell's either realizing or caring about it, which certainly doesn't point to it endangering or getting confused with their brand. Finally, there's the small matter that there are probably half a dozen homebrew supply companies that have similar beer kits based on real beers. Austin Homebrew has hundreds. Even Northern Brewer has a dozen or so similar kits that are based on everything from New Belgium's Fat Tire to Timothy Taylor's Landlord without a single peep or complaint from any of the breweries in ownership of those brands. Surly even came right out and gave away the recipes for 5 of their extremely sought after and well loved beers for use in Northern Brewer's Pro Series beer kits. The names are even right on the kits, verbatim. There was certainly no harm done there.

Well by now, it's been over a day (which is a month in internet time) since the letter was revealed on facebook and the backlash began, so Northern Brewer and Bell's are friends again. No one actually got sued and no brands were harmed in the forming of this controversy, but I'm still left with a sour taste in my mouth. All this touches on something I may expand upon in another post: is this where craft beer is headed? Small brewers viciously clinging to trademarks and brands? Suing homebrewers and fans of beer for trademark infringements? It seems the exact sort of thing that craft beer drinkers claim to dislike about AB InBev and Coors. Let's hope it doesn't become the norm.

*In the interest of full disclosure, I should reveal that I work for the homebrew supply in question and hence am not impartial. My thoughts do not reflect those of Northern Brewer.


  1. I can kind of see where you are coming from.

    However, I have never been convinced by the whole perceived chumminess of craft brewing - business is business and when push comes to shove management will always protect their business and to hell with the rest of the world.

  2. You're right, it is a business at the end of the day, but what are they supposed to be protecting themselves from? I don't believe there is any danger to their trademark here, which is why this looks more like bullying than business as usual to me.

  3. I guess they are protecting themselves from any eventuality. Like good Boy Scouts the are living up to the slogan "Be Prepared".