What the (brief) Lagunitas/Sierra Nevada spat means for craft beer

Photographer: Mike McMonagle

In the waning hours of Monday evening (Eastern time, that is), Lagunitas owner Tony Magee once again took to Twitter to offer commentary on the trademark infringement suit he had filed earlier in the day against fellow West Coast craft beer behemoth Sierra Nevada. (In July 2013, Magee used Twitter as a megaphone following the lawsuit Atlanta, GA-based SweetWater Brewing Company had lodged against Lagunitas for its use of the stoner code “420” on its labels.)

In a series of tweets, Magee categorized the day as the “worst day ever in 23 years of growing my brewery” before going on to explain his agenda for filing the suit in the first place: “Growing a biz involves defending a biz…”

At the end of his multi-tweet address, Magee concluded that he would be dropping the infringement suit, noting that:

While this marks the end of The Lagunitas Brewing Co. vs. Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., it may very well be the first of many legal battles in the craft beer world in 2015. As NPR noted last week, the naming of upstart breweries and new beers has become increasingly difficult, forcing entrepreneurs and marketing departments alike to tip-toe through the process and even enlist the services of trademark lawyers. (There are only so many hop-based puns, after all.)

Locally, the soon-to-open Zero Day Brewing in Harrisburg was forced to shift gears once it learned its previous moniker – Alter Ego – was already trademarked. In 2011, Hershey’s Tröegs Brewing Co. and Bethlehem’s Fegley’s Brew Works went bell-tipped toe to bell-tipped toe over the trademarks for Tröegs’ Mad Elf and Fegley’s Rude Elf. The “battle of the elves” was settled privately; Mad Elf remained and Fegley’s rebranded its Belgian strong dark ale as Rude Elf Reserve.

The takeaway here, I think, is that now more than ever, craft breweries must be willing to protect their brands at all costs. And that’s a good thing. The craft beer industry is, at present, the biggest it’s ever been, with further growth expected this year. Within any crowded field, the ability to stand out is enough to make or break a business (in any industry, really). In that respect, the brand advocate in me applauds Magee’s sticking up for his intellectual property, even if – in my opinion – the suit’s basis was somewhat of a stretch. (There are only so many ways to type “IPA,” after all.)

Will we see more lawsuits rooted in label design, typography, beer titles and brewery names in the coming months? Probably. Do these litigious actions mean that brewery owners are greedy, cold-hearted people? Absolutely not. Will these sorts of disputes – and, ideally, settlements – leave the industry even stronger as it continues to expand? Let’s hope so.


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Posted in Craft Corner, Drink, Drink – Harrisburg, Drink – Lancaster, Drink – York

Mike McMonagle is a late-to-bed guy who tries daily to be an early riser. He drinks coffee, beer, whiskey and water regularly. He moonlights as a singer/songwriter by the name of Mike McMonagle. He makes photos sometimes, usually of his cat, or of puddles. Mike is the former digital editor for Fly; he left in 2015.

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Comments (2)

  1. MIke McMonagle – I think you missed the whole point. The takeaway for other craft breweries is that they need to tread very carefully when pursuing such lawsuits. There is a hardcore community of fans devoted to the entire industry that sets the trends for who wins in this business. Upset them and pay the price. If anything, events like this should make such suits more rare as the blow back from the community can cost brands dearly. Case in point – Lawsuitnitas

    • Mike McMonagle

      Wouldn’t say I missed the point, Greg. Just focused on a different one – one that explores a realistic look at the future of an industry that could very well be growing faster than it knows how to…

      No, Magee’s experience within the Court of Public Opinion is by no means unique, and Lagunitas is certainly not the first company to change its course of action in light of customer response. That said, allowing the community at large to dictate your business strategy is just plain stupid. (This is exponentially so in the craft beer world, where every beer fest attendee, BeerAdvocate forum member and Untappd user seems to fancy his/herself an expert.) Given Magee’s response to SweetWater’s lawsuit just a year and a half ago, I cannot imagine his choosing to file suit was done in haste; he mentions he called Ken Grossman prior to filing the lawsuit, and I’m inclined to believe him given how pissed he was when the folks at SweetWater filed suit without attempting any personal outreach.

      Protecting a brand requires a backbone, even if that results in the ruffling of a few feathers along the way. And compromising your brand identity in an effort to appease the masses is no recipe for success, either. Of course, I’m not advocating that breweries draw up a lawsuit for every grievance (like I mentioned above, I don’t think Magee’s typography argument held much weight). But the spectrum of craft beer producers is the biggest it’s ever been, and while, at the local level, brewery owners are often times supportive of each other’s operations, never before has the upper end of spectrum been so cutthroat. There is some serious money being both invested and made these days, so, moving forward, tip-toeing around ultimatums and boycott threats lodged on social media channels is not likely to resonate with brewery owners when there are bottom lines to be met. Craft beer is getting closer and closer to Big Beer every year, which is why the A-Bs and MillerCoorses of the world are acquiring craft breweries and releasing domestics-in-craft’s-clothing more and more in an effort to get in on the action (read: money).

      I think it’s awesome that Magee can tip his digital hat to the folks who vocalized their dissatisfaction with him as he withdrew his lawsuit. That engagement is important. But I cannot hold much hope that this will be the case too often moving forward for the bigger players in the craft beer game.

      In any case, thanks for reading and commenting. –– mike

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