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Friday, January 10, 2014

They Grow Tetchy

Is the honeymoon over?  Every few days we get stories of breweries butting heads:
Last month, Tony Magee, owner of California's Lagunitas Brewing Company, sent out a series of Tweets that took exception to the release and marketing of a new brew that directly encroaches on its turf. The brew in question is Samuel Adams' Rebel IPA, a “West Coast Style” beer that’s not unlike Lagunitas’s most popular beverage. What’s more, Magee said that Koch and the Boston Beer Company was crossing the unspoken craft brew line by putting Lagunitas and other brands in the crosshairs.
“Learned that SamAdams’ Rebel IPA marketing plans incl specifically targeting our biz as well as other craft IPA. Flattering & sad, it is,” Magee wrote in one Tweet. “BB specifically told our distribs in common that they were going t TAKE r tap handles everywhere they could,” he explained in another. “That’s a directed attack … Imagine someone threatening your children…”
Today it's two Oregon breweries, and they're battling over the Apocalypse: 
The news that Apocalypse Brewing Co. has renamed itself “Opposition Brewing Company” is making the rounds now that it has become official. The change stems from a lengthy trademark dispute with fellow Oregon brewery, 10 Barrel Brewing Company, which has a beer named “Apocalypse.”
There follows a long and aggrieved statement by Opposition about the dastardly behavior of 10 Barrel.  "Indeed, at least in the short run," they write, "David does not always defeat Goliath and your small local brewery could stand up no longer to a corporate giant."

I bring this up as a kind of echo to my earlier post about Goose Island.   What we're seeing is the maturation of the craft beer segment of the market, one that has a peculiar and particular self-image.  For decades now, craft breweries have been largely collaborative and craft brewing has seemed like a wonderful little collectivist world--everyone helping one another.  It wasn't faked, either--outside the job, brewers hang out together, take vacations together, and do genuinely like each other.  The market has been in a long, durable period of growth, and breweries didn't experience competition as one of their significant challenges.  It was more like a footrace, where companies had their own personal records they were trying to beat.  But that is a kind of peculiar thing in the business world--ultimately, breweries are not collaborators, they're competitors.

I don't know that we're exiting the collaborative phase yet, but these skirmishes are only the beginning.  The craft breweries with national ambitions are going to begin to encounter the same issues Miller, Coors, and Anheuser-Busch have faced for decades.  National markets are difficult to attain, and even more difficult to maintain.  It's pretty clear Stone, Samuel Adams, Sierra Nevada, Lagunitas, and New Belgium aren't all going to be able to sell IPAs in every market--where they'll be competing against local IPAs, too.  There will be winners and losers. 

The battle over names is likely to be a really big deal, too.  That's one of the problems when you have 2500 breweries and each of them is making twenty beers.  It is literally a rule of trademark law that breweries must protect their marks or lose them, so lawsuits (or cease-and-desist letters) over common names like Apocalypse are going to be the norm.  It does create strange situations where the language of craft brewing--the little guy taking on the giant--gets recast so that even relatively little guys like 10 Barrel play the role of overlord.  Probably not good PR for anyone.

Can craft brewing retain its collaborative bonhomie in a market that gets tighter and more crowded?  Probably the better question is, how long can it retain its collaborative bonhomie? 


  1. We've just had the first real trademark dispute between UK craft brewers, too. A bit sad, but probably, in the long run, good for consumers if brewers get past the 'cosy' phase.

  2. Maybe small breweries should do a little research before naming themselves or their beers? I realize that's an unpopular opinion, but I just did a simple Google search for 'Apocalypse Beer' and found a couple breweries already named that plus 10 Barrel's beer.

  3. Rich, agreed. There's just no way 10 Barrel could overlook the name of a local brewery when their flagship carried the same name. It would have been like naming an Oregon brewery "Black Butte Brewing." I don't know anything about the issue, but the fact that 10 Barrel did not challenge the names of Apocalypse breweries outside Oregon suggests they are actually not jerks about protecting names.

  4. Absolutely agree with Rich there about breweries doing basic research before naming their beers. However, from what I know of craft breweries, their marketing 'departments' are woefully underfunded and marketing people chronically underpaid when compared to similar positions in other industries. Apparently the old adage that paying peanuts gets you monkeys applies to monkeys incapable of using Google.

  5. My favorite story of brewery trademark conflicts:

  6. Beer naming is obviously a huge issue now that we have more than 2,500 breweries. Andy Crouch talked about this in a recent column. But I like the solution suggested in Morgan's link. It's not that big a deal if two or more breweries make a beer of the same name as long as the brewery name is in there. Bart's Ironman IPA and Black Betty's Ironman IPA. I can easily identify who brews those beers. Would it be so hard for beer consumers to figure that out? Will people really not be able to distinguish Lagunitas IPA from a Sam Adams IPA?

    The thing is, we're going to run out of unique names if we stay on our present growth trajectory. Perhaps breweries will have to be a little less uptight about sharing beer names. Perhaps egos will have to take a backseat. Is it possible?

  7. Just over a year ago Lagunitas served a cease and desist to a small new brewery because its company name shared a single word with the name of one of Lagunitas' beer which contains a total of 4 words, one of which is "ale." In Magee's tweet response to that incident, he said that the brewery named itself after one of their beers, which is a stretch for sure. However, this comes from the imagination that can come up with those rambling label adornments and think that Boston Beer threatens him personally by issuing their own take on the most popular style of craft beer.

    The English language is quite expansive, but eventually some words will have to be re-used when it comes to brewery and beer names. Agree with Pete above, egos need to sit in the back, but more importantly trademarks need to be issued and enforced with a bit more thought.