We keep talking about how our beloved craft beer is growing up, and here’s another good example of the industry’s rapid evolution.
Bell’s Brewery (one of my favorite brewers) has sent a cease and desist letter to Northern Brewer (my favorite home brew supplier). Bell’s is trying to protect their trademark for Two Hearted Ale (one of my favorite beers) by making Northern Brewer rename a home brew clone they offer called Three Hearted Ale (which I happened to have purchased the other day).
So basically, this is all about me. 🙂 Okay, maybe it’s not, but some craft beer fans and home brewers seem to be taking it personally.
I came across this story by way of the always delightful Sarah Huska’s Facebook page, and a few of the comments there are telling. Basically, some folks are saying, “Why send a legal letter? why didn’t Bell’s just call ’em up and say knock it off?”
Having been in the brand world for more than a couple of years, the answer is simple – because Bell’s needs a paper trail showing that they are defending their trademark. This way Bell’s has evidence that they have been actively defending it if an issue (with anyone, not just Northern Brewer) comes up in the future. It gives them strong legal footing. It’s pretty standard, and as Larry Bell points out on his blog, the move was all business and nothing personal.
While Northern Brewer’s Facebook page shows they seem to understand this, the calculated nature of this business-before-buddies move seems to have some people put off. I think many of us see the craft beer industry as a handshake-deal kind of community, where brewers collaborate and most everyone gets along. Fa-la-la-la-la. In such a world, a cease and desist letter instead of a friendly phone call might seem harsh.
But the craft beer industry is growing so fast, it might no longer be that kind of world. Breweries are investing time, money and creativity into developing intellectual property, and the stakes continue to rise as the industry continues to expand. Following legal best practices is a logical next step as brands become more valuable.
Last year such matters might have been handled with a friendly phone call (I have one example in mind that I can’t share), but the recent legal action taken by Bell’s doesn’t show they’re mean old coots – it shows they have enough foresight to see where this whole thing is headed. While this might not sit well with some craft beer fans, I expect this to become the norm as breweries grow and their trademarks build equity.
Brewers will continue to be friendly with one another and produce products we love, but as the game changes, the ones who don’t protect what’s theirs (exactly like Mr. Bell is doing) might wind up paying dearly. Expect the breweries that have not been aggressively protecting their assets to begin doing so.
In other words, the lawyers have arrived and won’t be leaving any time soon. Welcome to craft beer 2.0.