The craft beer industry has something of an obsession with online media. The DIY attitude and face-first branding craft breweries employ fits perfectly with platforms like Twitter, Facebook, blogs and online forums. Want to know what beer Stone’s Greg Koch likes to drink when he’s riding the rails in Southern California? Just check out his Twitter feed. What about an inside look at Cigar City staffers packaging Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout? Swing by the company’s Facebook wall. But, sometimes, this personal window into the brands we love can be a first-row seat to drama. Whether personable, cringe-worthy or funny, does the behind-the-brand drama that unfolds online affect the beers you buy? A look at the good, the bad and the funny stuff that occurs when craft breweries pull back the curtain on brand-to-brand battles.
Trademark disputes are the sparks that launch a flurry of poor tweets in the beer industry, but not all tweets leave drinkers cringing over their favorite breweries. Case-in-point: Wisconsin’s Stillmank Beer Co. vs. New York’s Sixpoint Brewery. Last fall, a trademark concern was brought by Stillmank over Sixpoint’s distribution of its Lil’ Wisco beer in Wisconsin. Stillmank believed the beer was too similar to its Wisco Disco brand. Instead of a very public battle, the two amicably came to an agreement—beginning in 2014, Sixpoint would change the name of its beer to Lil’ Wisconsin—and the Brooklyn-based brewery posted a very transparent account of the event on its blog, allowing fans an insider’s look into what they dubbed The Lil’ Wisconsin Accord of 2013.
From the blog post:
“When approached with the collaborative spirit of craft brewing and respect for those who are rightful owner of trademarks, these branding issues can be resolved amicably and positively. Brad expressed his concerns without trying to force a collaboration or drum up a firestorm,” Welch said. ”The victim in these situations is the party who had their registered trademark infringed upon – not the party who is infringing upon someone else’s mark. I’m inspired by this resolution, as together Brad and I have created a positive outcome for each brewery, and for the beer lovers of the state of Wisconsin. Now let’s get back to making great beer!” tweet
The most recent brewery vs. brewery spat occurred last December, leading up to the January launch of Samuel Adams Rebel IPA, the brewery’s first West Coast-style IPA. On Dec. 17, Lagunitas founder Tony Magee tweeted a rather startling accusation that the Boston brewery was allegedly asking distributers to remove Lagunitas IPA tap handles to make room for Rebel. It was a rather heavy accusation, which exploded online.
Learned that SamAdams' Rebel IPA marketing plans incl specifically targeting our biz as well as other craft IPA. Flattering & sad, it is. tweet
Sam Adams /Boston Beer is powerful, but what is it about power that so inevitably corrupts. Fuck them. We're ready. Drink what thrills ya… tweet
Magee—whose heart-on-his-sleeve Twitter feed is a must-follow—then launched a series of Tweets over the next week furthering the accusations. The conversation drifted over to BeerAdvocate forums, where Magee posted numerous times on the thread “Rebel IPA vs. Lagunitas?” supporting his claims. Eventually, Jim Koch—Boston Beer founder—sent a message to the site’s owner to post. In the message, Koch essentially denied the accusations, maintaining that distributors and retailers make their own decisions, not the brewery. Magee posted something of an apology on the thread, but by then the online war had already proved divisive—after watching and participating in the public airing, some readers declared they’d never drink Lagunitas again, others said the same about Sam Adams. Even people within the industry, like Boulevard’s Jeremy Danner, chimed in:
Since then, the war has died down, but for about a month on a small corner of the internet, both brands brand were being defined by what was happening outside the bottle, not what was in it.
Probably the funniest dispute between two breweries happened in January 2012, when San Antonio-based Freetail Brewing posted a copy of owner Scott Metzger’s letter addressing a trademark dispute. The offended brewery was redacted, and the original blog post since taken down, but the hilarious letter is still floating around on the internet for everyone to read.
While trademark disputes are serious business, this tongue-in-cheek reaction was entirely unexpected and refreshing.
Does the public airing of grievances change the way you feel about a brewery, or is the stuff inside the bottle all that matters?