By Loryn Stone
There’s no better way to show someone that your money-dick is bigger than theirs than by whipping it out in a lawsuit. By suing someone, you’re not only showing them that you have the time to make their lives the purest form of miserable hell, but that you’ll win their money as payment for having them make you waste their time by suing them. Wait, does that even make sense anymore? I don’t even know- I just heard money and got all excited.
*Disclaimer- I’m all in favor of lawsuits when they need to happen. Sometimes there are dangers, health risks, or otherwise unfair situations that need to be addressed in a court of law. I’m just also in favor of internet jokes, too.
That said, an idea came to me one day: When discussing lawsuits, frivolous or otherwise, what sort of trouble have beer companies landed themselves in? After all, beer is one of my favorite hobbies and I watch more Law and Order: SVU than what’s considered healthy. And I discovered that boozy lawsuits can be broken up into three categories: Deception, Trademark Infringement, and Health Risks. Seriously, I knew that I had to deliver my results to you, my fellow beer elitist. So, hold on to your red nose, because Booze Hound the Clown is coming to town!
Tales of Deception: My Beer is Mass-Produced Sludge
If you recall from the first time I wrote about beer, I’d wormed in a statistic about the rising popularity of craft beer in the United States. According to my findings, 200 new breweries opened in the US between 2013 and 2014, all creating their own craft beer recipes. Now, of course you have these ridiculous articles about how Millennials are destroying the beer industry. But a popular argument, and one I agree with, isn’t that we’re killing it, but we’re making it better by insisting on drinking better tasting libations. The high number of breweries easily proves this point.
Which funny enough, is no surprise that some of the retail giants are paying attention. Just this year, Walmart found themselves in hot water when they commissioned a brewery in Costa Rica to produce faux-craft beer for them. According to the details in the lawsuit, claims are that Walmart meets anything but the small, traditional, and independent criteria for craft brewing.
The people sued Walmart for selling a deceptive product. However, another article points out that yes, Walmart’s “craft beers” are produced by Genesee and poses the question Should we care?
Now, I’m personally a believer that good beer is good beer, and bad beer is bad beer. I know, very complex. I’m ready for the big time of flavor note dissecting. But it’s a fair question to ask. Here, I’ll share an anecdote before I continue on with our boozy lawsuits.
I threw a party once and bought all the food for it at Costco. While I was there, I decided to save time and money by purchasing one of their Kirkland Signature 24-beer variety packs. I believe it retailed for $19.99 or so, and contained about four different brews. My friend and I, while drinking it at our party, agreed it was perfectly average beer.
It was cold, tasty, and allowed the buzzes to commence. But here’s the thing- none of our beer-snob friends would drink it. Literally zero, the stuff was left untouched. Why did that happen? According to this report, Costco beer is commissioned and brewed by two, small US based breweries. Likely micro-brews really, if you think about it. But because the beers did not have any identifying factors, my friends would not drink them.
Spoiler: I promptly dumped all my friends and took the remaining bottles of beer to bed with me. Take that¸ you elitist jerks.
And on the counter-flip-side of this scenario, let’s examine what happened with Golden Road Brewery, a small craft beer microbrewery located in Glendale, California. They had been brewing for years, selling their beers to local bars and pubs before opening their own tap room and restaurant in 2011. They were in business just a few short years when they sold the business to In-Bev. However, their business model remains the same, and unless you knew they sold to the big boys, you’d never know. Therefore, it goes back to the question: Should we care?
The fact of the matter is this: we do care. There’s an association between the beers we drink and where we think they came from. Let’s look at some of these lawsuits as an example:
Anheuser-Busch gets in trouble because of Kirin Ichiban, Beck’s, and Leffe Abbey
Since Anheuser-Busch owns as much as 29% of the world’s beer labels, it’s truthfully no surprise they have a “Japanese beer” under their belt. Of course, because the world is an evil and unfair place, it had to be my favorite one, Kirin Ichiban. I love this beer. It’s light, but flavorful. Malty, but smooth. And hasn’t been Japanese since it was bought out in 1996.
Although Kirin Ichiban has been made in the US since its purchase, in 2015, the people got angry. Consumers of Kirin felt deceived, that Anheuser-Busch was tricking them into thinking they were drinking an imported beer from Japan. More specifically, the lawsuit documents state that consumers felt specifically deceived by the beer’s packaging. The people won, and those involved may be eligible to $12-$15 reimbursement from the company.
Although I’d just personally prefer a few 6-packs of Kirin Ichiban because I love it so much
Similarly, Anheuser-Busch found themselves in the same flavor of hot water when the public discovered that Beck’s, a beloved German-style beer, was actually brewed in St. Louis, Missouri. Another class-action lawsuit ensued, and those involved were awarded with up to $50 reimbursement with proof-of-purchase.
Then comes the Leffe lawsuit. According to the packaging of the product, Leffe beer claims that it’s an Abbey. This isn’t a term taken lightly by beer enthusiasts. Abbeys are brewed in small quantities under the supervision of Monks. It’s like the beer world’s equivalent of Kosher cooking. So, when the company was sued in April 2016 it was really no surprise this time.
AB even took the packaging of this beer to a crazy place, with a made-up story of the abbey of Leffe, complete with illustrations about the history of the brew originating in the 1200s, etc.
The Verdict: This case was filed in April 2016 and I wasn’t able to find evidence that they’ve come to a conclusion.
And just for the laughs, I’ll mention the time Anheuser-Busch was sued in 1993 by a man who drank a 6-pack of Bud Light and was disappointed when the beer failed to produce images of beautiful women on a balmy beach. He sought $10,000 in damages, but the case was thrown out.
Blue Moon Beer isn’t Craft Enough for Consumers
Before Anheuser-Busch showed up to the party with Shock Top, MillerCoors provided our bars and parties with Blue Moon. If you’ve never had a Blue Moon, it’s incredibly delicious. It’s a refreshing and crisp orange wheat beer, lighter than some of its Hefeweizen counterparts at the time (like Pyramid Hef) yet more bold and better tasting than some of the whites popping into bars (like Hoegaarden).
And if you found yourself in a bar where the only other wheat beer available was Widmer’s Hefeweizen (seriously, that stuff is vomit. I yelled at a waitress once when she snuck me one, pretending it was a Pyramid, true story), you’d count yourself lucky that the glorious majesty of Blue Moon was in your presence.
I’m not exaggerating when I say this mysterious orange beer was a conversation starter around the table- where had this delicious beer come from? Which small brewery crafted this delight? Which side of the country brewed it? Turns out, this was a conversation MillerCoors wanted us to have. And as we now see, the beer didn’t have any origins in the world of microbrews.
The company was sued twice, once in 2015 and again in 2016, as consumers felt deceived by Blue Moon. They insisted the beer was being marketed as a craft beer, when in fact approximately 76 million gallons of the stuff is brewed annually. The Verdict: The Judge throws out case twice.
Kona Brewing Company Isn’t from Hawaii
I have to admit, I fell for this one too. I totally thought Kona Brewing was from Hawaii and never questioned it. Sure, it might be one-part apathy, because their beer doesn’t blow me away and I don’t buy it on the regular. But consumers made an excellent point when they stated that because the beer is marketed as a premium brew, many people are willing to pay extra for it. But in reality, the beer is brewed in the mainland US, Oregon, Washington, Tennesee, or New Hampshire (which really, are all still pretty exotic to me.)
A quote directly from the lawsuits puts the whole thing into perspective:
The lawsuit claims these misrepresentations are not merely cosmetic — that where a beer is brewed is essential to its flavor and taste:
The significance of brewing Kona Brewing Co. beer in the mainland, as opposed to Hawaii, extends beyond consumer sentiment. Craft Brew and/or Kona Brewing Co. publicly acknowledge that, as a result of brewing Kona Brewing Co. beer in the continental United States, this beer does not contain Hawaii water. Craft Brew and/or Kona Brewing Co. further acknowledge that using mainland water materially impacts the taste and quality of the beer. Indeed, water makes up more than 90 percent of beer. It is generally accepted that the type of water used impacts the taste and quality of the beer. And even if Craft Brew could adequately replicate the taste of Hawaii water in its mainland beer (Plaintiffs allege it cannot) consumers are still being deprived of what Craft Brew has promised them and what they have paid for – namely, a Hawaiian beer.
Well, when you put it that way…
Trademark Infringement Lawsuits
Lagunitas versus Sierra Nevada
This time, we have a case of the little guy versus the little guy. As the story goes, brewing company Lagunitas flipped their lid when they decided that California based microbrew Sierra Nevada stole their IPA logo. In fact, they even went as far (and as bold) into claiming they just might have created the acronym IPA, which stands for the brew India Pale Ale, a beer that overwhelmingly often tastes like soap and lawn mower clippings (yes, go ahead and give me your hate, IPA lovers. I can take it.)
Ultimately, the case was dropped. But what’s fascinating here is the craft-beer community’s reaction over this. Fans of both beers took to social media, slamming Lagunitas’ actions, and called the entire ordeal a waste of time.
Sierra Nevada versus Narwhal Brewery
Clearly not learning from past experience, Sierra Nevada goes after small up-and-coming Narwhal Brewery. Located in Brooklyn, NY, the owners of the microbrewery hadn’t even opened their doors before Sierra Nevada sued them, forcing them to change the company’s entire name. All because Sierra Nevada had a single beer called Narwhal, named after the mysterious artic horned whale.
The owners wrote a message to local beer fans on their previous website, explaining that ultimately, they didn’t have the faculties to go to battle with Sierra Nevada, especially since they hadn’t even opened their doors yet.
“We finally just decided to bite the bullet,” said co-founder Basil Lee of the decision to toss their original name overboard. “We came to the conclusion that if we changed our name, we could put this behind us and get back to trying to open our brewery.”
Port Brewing Company versus. Molyan’s Brewing
Here’s Another case of the little guy vs the little guy, all over the design of a tap handle. What makes this case so interesting is the fact that Port Brewing has a little segment on their website called On Litigation. In this portion, they attempt to defend their position. Unfortunately, with all of their pouting and whining, and but we had to sue them stance, they were never able to articulate exactly but offer little how the second company, Molyan’s Brewing, stole their tap handle design.
The following quote comes from their own website:
Yes, it’s true. The Moylan’s silver cross handles predate both the founding and creation of The Lost Abbey and our highly stylized tap handle that we put into use in 2008. We have never once disputed this fact. This was part of our original conversations. What has never been answered in our numerous dialogues with them is when they ordered and began using the tap handle.
Non-Beer Related Copyright Infringement: The Explorer’s Club and Kafua
The Explorer’s Club, an exploration group, sues Johnnie Walker for ripping off their name and logo. Johnnie Walker’s Explorer’s Club whisky not only has zero affiliation with the group of the same name, but the whisky was only sold in duty-free shops. And as you can see, they took almost no creative liberties when ripping off the club’s logo as well.
Another fun case is when Absolut was in a lawsuit over “Kafua” counterfeit. Kafua is a coffee liquor, a kosher alternative to Kalua. Absolut sued creators Brooklyn Orthodox, stating they were intentionally trying to confuse consumers with the imitator’s similar packaging. Kafua’s creators simply snubbed that Kafua was clearly a better product. (Which makes me love them so much and wish I could find a bottle of this trash for some bitching White Russians). According to the article, Absolut declined to comment.
So, there we have it! Some of the best boozy lawsuits in existence, complete with pictures of the beautiful glory. Oh, but I promised you fire, didn’t I? Okay, here’s one more.
I know, I can see your surprised face from here.
Come juggle beer with Loryn on Twitter. And by juggle, I mean drink.
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