BELL’S BOYCOTT

Just minutes after I posted a feel-good story about the growth of craft beer, BeerNews.org posted another ugly legal story revealing the dark side of the industry. This time, the transgressor is none other than Aleheads favorite, Bell’s Brewery.

It seems that Northern Brewer, a huge internet beer community and one of the best homebrewing sources in the country, sells a clone (a homebrewing kit) of Bell’s classic Two Hearted Ale called “Three Hearted Ale”. And Bell’s Brewery, in all their wisdom, has decided to issue a Cease and Desist letter to force Northern Brewer to change the clone’s name.*

*And no, they did not call and respectfully ask Northern Brewer to change the name before sending the letter. The C&D letter was the first time Northern Brewer had any idea that Bell’s had a problem with the clone. Nothing classier than lawyering up as your opening move.

In the homebrewing world, a “clone” is a beer kit that allows you to brew a reasonable approximation of a commercially available beer. For an outsider, maybe that sounds a little insidious. Maybe it sounds like you’re giving away Coke’s secret recipe or the ingredients that make up Taco Bell’s meat slurry. The reality is that homebrewing simply doesn’t cut into the profits of craft beer. Witness Bell’s Brewery’s recent $52 million expansion to get a sense of how badly the Three Hearted Ale has affected their bottom line. But beyond that, homebrewed beer is almost never sold commercially. So even if you produce a near-perfect clone of Bell’s Two Hearted, all you can really do with your tiny, 5-gallon batch (about 50 bottles worth) is share it with your friends and neighbors. Simply put, even the most ambulance-chasingest lawyer in the world would have a hard time proving that Northern Brewer’s homebrew kit has even the faintest possibility of affecting Bell’s sales. Plus, anyone buying the Northern Brewer kit would be doing so because they ALREADY KNOW about Bell’s Two Hearted Ale and want to try to make a version themselves. In other words, it’s completely unreasonable to suggest that the people buying the kit are somehow getting it confused with Bell’s existing product. And if for some reason somebody actually DID buy the Northern Brewer kit expecting a case of tasty IPAs to arrive at their doorstep, just imagine their disappointment when all they got was a can of malt extract and a bag of dried hops.

This is just infuriating. The Gordon-Biersch/Oskar Blues story was bad enough, but at least Gordon-Biersch had the good sense to sell out to a chain restaurant group. I’d at least EXPECT that kind of legal wrangling from them. But Bell’s? We love Bell’s! The Two Hearted, HopSlam, Expedition, Kalamazoo, Third Coast, Oracle…hell, our next Aleheads trip was supposed to be to Kalamazoo/Grand Rapids to visit Bell’s and Founders! Why do our beer heroes have to be such dicks? This is like finding out that the Trappist monks at Rochefort use their earnings to purchase prostitutes and crystal meth instead of using them for charitable works.*

*Which, to be fair, would not impact my continued patronage of their products…mmm, Rochefort.

Northern Brewer is dealing with the C&D letter very respectfully. They deemed Bell’s one of their “favorite craft breweries” and they are asking their community for suggestions on what to change the name of the kit to. As you might suspect, the blogosphere has come up with some great options including “Triple Middle Fingers IPA” and “Cold Hearted Ale”.

Fortunately, we here at Aleheads don’t have to be quite so magnanimous as Northern Brewer. I can assure you that the trip to Kalamazoo has been cancelled (though we still plan on visiting Grand Rapids…hooray Founders!) and, at least for the short-term, I’ll be ignoring those bottles of Bell’s on my package store shelves. There are over 1,700 other breweries I can purchase beer from…no need to give money to one that attacks a perfectly harmless craft brewing community website for daring to honor one of their beers with a homebrew kit.

And lest you think this is an isolated incident, check out this little tidbit from BeerNews.org (an excellent website, by the way, from which the Aleheads learned about this story as well as many others):

A USPTO search also shows that Bell’s requested an extension last week to oppose a trademark application for “Third Street,” an unreleased beer from Cold Spring Brewing in Minnesota. One of Bell’s longtime staples is a beer called, “Third Coast.” Perhaps the thought is that the word, “third,” as well as a location of some kind could cause confusion among consumers.

So apparently Bell’s Brewery would prefer no other beers have any numbers in their name at all. I presume they will also begin sending C&D letters to anyone who dares put a “B” in the name of their beer or uses proprietary terms like “Brown”, “Porter”, or “Pale Ale”.

Fuck you, Bell’s. Seriously.

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45 comments

  1. Seriously?

    I am pretty sure that if I sell my stocks of Bell’s beer all at once, it would be like China flooding the market with U.S. Treasury bonds.

  2. Kid Carboy Jr. · · Reply

    This is even more ridiculous if you are aware of the fact that Northern Brewer actually works with other breweries, like Surly, to actually offer the ENTIRE REAL LINE OF YEAR-ROUND BEERS as kits. Not “whimsical tributes” or clones, no, the actual beers. You can buy a Surly Furious kit from them, or a Surly Bender kit, or a Surly CynicAle kit.

    Talk about one brewery that understands why its better to work together and one brewery that is totally oblivious. Time to go piss some people off on the Bell’s facebook page, methinks.

  3. Come on guys, I thought half of The Aleheads were lawyers. Shed some legal light on this situation that paints Bells in better light. Please? Those HopSlams I’ve been saving in the back of the fridge just won’t taste the same (I’m kidding, they’ll taste delicious even through my tears).

  4. I’d argue that such clone brew kits only increase the visibility of a brewery, not to mention the home brewer’s fondness for their offerings. I mean, at the least I’d bet any home brewer using the kit would buy a sixer of Two Hearted to compare it to what he cooked up. And if he was satisfied, he’d be more likely to take a stab at another Bell’s offering.

    This could have been a win (Sure home brewers, have fun with our beer!). Instead they look jealous and bitter and grumpy and litigious (No, those are my toys! Don’t touch!).

    Stupids.

  5. Jimmy Seven · · Reply

    Hey! You should boycott Molson too. Remember when Bell’s had to change the name of Solsun to Oberon because Molson thought it was an infringement and sued Bell’s?

    I didn’t think so. Selling beer is a business, jackwagon.

    I would never boycott Bell’s. The beer is too good.

  6. This is tough- I actually like HopSlam more than I like Brother Barley, and all things being equal I’d rather boycott him. But I guess in cases like this we have to stick together.

    Bad Bell’s! Boycott!

  7. Also, picked a bad week to change my avatar.

  8. And Jimmy, we already boycott Molson… that goes without saying.

  9. Yes, selling beer is certainly a business. Bell’s has every right to send a Cease and Desist letter to Northern Brewer.

    And as a consumer, I have every right to stop purchasing their products.

    Bell’s is an excellent brewery, but I have access to plenty that are equal to or better than they are. In an increasingly crowded industry like craft beer, any little thing (like coming across as humorless or overly litigious) can mean the difference between a loyal customer and a former customer. Right now, I consider myself the latter.

    If you don’t care (and I’m sure many people do not) then keep buying their beer. I certainly don’t want Bell’s to fail! I just want them to know that these kinds of decisions rub some of their fans the wrong way and make us see them in a different light. It doesn’t make their beer any worse. But I have a choice in which beers I choose to buy and I’d rather take my business to a more thoughtful brewery.

  10. Jimmy Seven: We expect that kind of behavior from a big brewer like Molson’s. We hope to God we don’t see it from a brewery we LIKE, like Bells.

  11. Well said Kid, well said.

    I’ll give Bell’s the benefit of the doubt and just assume that they asked nicely before going the legal route. I’ll also assume Northern Brewer responded with a quick “Suck it”, in as nice a way as possible. Can’t we just blame this mess on the lawyers? That always makes me feel better (Sorry Sudsy).

    I will not be boycotting Bell’s over this issue, but that’s more due to the fact that I can’t get their beer out my way anyway. Man I wish I could get their beer. Maybe someone should start selling a clone of some of their beers so I can try my hand at brewing a comparable substitute in the comfort of my own home. Man that would be cool…

  12. Sudsy Von Brue · · Reply

    Not to worry, Doc. We are, after all, professional lightening rods. In all seriousness, there may well be more of a back story here, but it’s nevertheless a shame to see “ignorant armies clash by night” … especially those that brew outstanding suds.

  13. I’m cool with it. Bell’s is one of two Michigan businesses that turned a profit last year. The other one was Founders.

  14. For what it’s worth, Northern Brewer has said that Bell’s NEVER contacted them before sending the Cease & Desist letter. The C&D was the first they heard about the issue. That’s why they publicized it…they were amazed Bell’s thought it was a necessary action.

    Northern Brewer had been selling the Three Hearted Ale for many years without a word. If Bell’s had called Northern Brewer and respectfully asked them to change the name of the clone, I have NO doubt they would have done so and we never would have heard a thing about this. It’s the fact that Bell’s lawyered up against a respected craft brewing community site without having the decency to just “ask” that is so frustrating. Why piss on a community of people that most likely buy your products? It’s just bad form.

    I know breweries are run as businesses and that you have to protect your interests. But it seems like there are MANY craft breweries that are remarkably successful and manage to treat their peers with dignity and respect. Then there are some others that don’t necessarily believe in the “camaraderie of craft beer”. That is entirely within their right, of course. Bell’s did NOTHING legally wrong here. But again, as a consumer, if I have a choice between a company that operates in a way I respect versus one that does not, I will tend to choose the former as long as their product is comparable to the latter. Since there are a number of breweries I like as much or more than Bell’s, eschewing their products takes no effort from me.

  15. Exactly, Barley. To me, the end effect is just scratching my head, wondering how whoever makes decisions like these at Bell’s could be so dense. There’s basically two possible scenarios:

    a. The person who decides these things is literally so dense that they have no conception that a cease and desist letter MIGHT come off as sort of dickish and unncecessary, when they could have just asked and had the name changed without any fuss, or

    b. They just don’t care whatsoever what the NB fans and homebrewers out there think.

    So your two choices are either naievely dumb or just willfully antagonistic. Unfortunately, neither of those are good choices.

  16. The problem with companies that start to get big, is they feel like they are being attacked or robbed. The truth of the matter is that they are being honored. If no one liked their beer they wouldn’t make a clone of it in the first place. I would bet you that most home brewers would be drinking the Two Hearted while brewing the clone.

  17. As Beerford may enjoy, I’m going to bring this back to food.

    Don’t most restaurants that get press share there recipes in magazines, newspapers, the internet, etc?

    Imitation is the sincerest form of ass-kissing. Or something like that.

  18. Shit, I used the wrong “their” again

  19. As HUGE fan of Northern Brewer (as well as Bells, formerly…), I can’t help but be angry at this. As Kid mentioned earlier, I think it’s really fantastic that they work with other brewers to offer the *actual* beers from some breweries, not just clones. Anyone with any knowledge of the homebrewing community knows that this type of behavior is harmful to Bells’ bottom line. I sure as hell go out and buy a few bottles of the original every single time I brew a clone, if only to see how much worse I am at brewing than the pros. More than once, I’ve been turned on to a new brewery this way and become a regular customer. And i’d been thinking of buying the three hearted clone soon to give it a shot… Oh well. Later Bells.

  20. And at the risk of being flamed, I think Two-hearted is a bit over-rated.

  21. high5apparatus · · Reply

    I once heard a Heineken executive in the early 2000’s comment about the rise of the craft brewing industry in the U.S. He said, “What is good for beer is good for us.” I think home brewing, and especially home brew clone kits, are good for beer. They feed the home brewing industry, they feed the craft beer industry, and they do nothing but flatter through imitation and convert more and more light american lager drinkers. I think it is sad that Bell’s doesn’t feel that what is good for beer is good for them. Such a narrow view of beer’s resurgence in our country, as if great craft beer is a zero sum game.

  22. Exactly, high5. Go to any craft brewery and ask where they got their start… tons of guys got into the field due to interest homebrewing.

  23. Dear Bell’s:

    Ernest Hemingway called. He wants his literary reference back.

    Signed,
    The Commander

  24. CZAR VLADIBEER S. BOOTIN' · · Reply

    I’m suggests their champions meet on field of battle (or cement basement) to settle legal disputations. Maybe getting Bells rung cure this guy of thinking he wears big pants.

  25. […] Facebook post was extremely kind, others comments haven’t been so kind, with some even suggesting a boycott of Bell’s beer. I understand Bell’s position, but not without a dose of skepticism. On […]

  26. JohnnyCobraKai · · Reply

    Interesting – good ol’ Larry apparently doesn’t mind ‘stealing’ someone else’s names for his beer.

    http://beernews.org/2009/07/bells-the-oracle-double-ipa-approved/

  27. Boycott huh? Please feel free to send all of your discarded Bell’s to us midwest ex-pats here in Portland OR, we’ll be happy to take it off your hands.

  28. A Bell’s for Deschutes trade sounds like a fair swap, if that’s what you’re proposing. The Czar can send you his Fedex # because he’s supposedly a “respectable individual” who “participates in commerce.”

  29. Kid Carboy Jr. · · Reply

    It’s not like the response changes anything, of course. It’s just pointless skullduggery.

  30. Interesting story, JohnnyCobraKai. After perusing around the interwebs a bit, it seems that there are a number of anecdotes like this surrounding Larry Bell.

    Apparently Bell’s has always functioned a bit like the Scientologists of the beer world. When in doubt, channel your inner bastard and sue everybody!

    Perhaps my personal boycott of Bell’s will be a bit longer than anticipated. I have one bottle of HopSlam and one bottle of Hell Hath No Fury in my beer fridge. I will be donating them to the crazy homeless guy that poops in the flowerbed behind my office.

  31. […] Brother Barley created a bit of a stir regarding the cease-and-desist letter from Bell’s Brewery to Northern Brewer, calling for a boycott. Today Bell’s finally awoke to the shit-storm of animosity the event […]

  32. Andrew S · · Reply

    So my friend and I were pretty disgusted by this story, like 7 years ago we bought the Three hearted ale pack from Northern Brewer and it turned us on to there beer, being Bells. He wrote larry bell an email and the response was, lets just say assholeish…here was his letter:

    I just sent this to the president of Bell’s.

    “Title: You just lost a long time customer

    I was very disappointed and disgusted to hear that your Brewery sent a cease and desist letter to Northern Brewer concerning their Home-Brew Kit titled “Three Hearted Ale.”

    The only good thing about your despicable move is that it brought attention to a similar low-class tactic that you employed with Cold Spring Brewing.

    I have been a long time consumer of your finer products (specifically Two Hearted Ale, Hopslam & Oracle), but the six-packs of Hopslam that I just recently purchased will most likely be the last of your product I consume. No more Bell’s on tap, in bottles or at the several beer tastings I attend on a yearly basis.

    The absurdity of your position related to Three-Hearted Ale makes it such that I can’t even think about consuming your product without visualizing Bell’s as a horrid bully. Nice marketing, eh?

    You have lost my business, as well as that of any of my many beer drinking friends that I can convince to give their business any of the quality, and less predatory, brewers around.

    Perhaps I could forgive your brewery’s stupid move if you withdraw your C&D, and issue an unequivical apology to both Cold Spring Brewery and Northern Brewer.

    Better be quick about it though.

  33. Shampanya · · Reply

    Larry’s response is well written and provides some arguments to think about, but they ultimately are flimsy at their core, especially the argument that a “Three Hearted” homebrewing kit would cause any confusion with their products. If Bells had instead taken issue with a homebrewing shop selling the recipe to Two Hearted, not just the name, it would be more understandable. And quite frankly I think that’s what they’re really concerned about. But, because homebrewing clones are so prevalant with some breweries even providing their recipes to homebrewing shops, they know they would have been ostracized for that. Get rid of the name and you essentially get rid of any association to the beer and then you don’t need to get them to stop selling the recipe. Larry’s Third Street argument is even more flimsy and ultimately reveals the same nefarious spirit with which they approached the Three Hearted issue. This is an example of a mid-sized brewer taking itself too seriously and going Anheuser Busch on the little guy. I completely agree with companies protecting their brands, but Bells is on the attack where there is no threat.

  34. […] Northern Brewer was as gracious as possible in responding — and expressly threw cold water on Brother Barley’s call for a boycott — the Internet has been less […]

  35. Kyle Riffel · · Reply

    Dude, you need to relax. Do you realize how many times Bell’s or Founders has received C&D letters for some of their products? Does Solsun ring a bell? Or Nemesis?

    They have the right to protect the names of their products that they worked their whole lives to build.
    Founders is actually in the process of sending out one of their own C&D letters as well. Its an unattractive, but necessary part of business and it’s really not as big a deal as you are making it to be. So put down your torches and pitchforks and just go drink a quality brew.

  36. Calmer than you are.

  37. C. Rushing · · Reply

    “We do not any any way support a boycott of Bell’s products.” -Northern Brewer

    I will be following the high road example that Northern Brewer has set. I will continue to enjoy Bell’s Two Hearted and keep my appointment with a local pub’s Oberon release party next Thursday. Like the folks at Northern Brewer, I will continue to enjoy the offerings from Bell’s and as Northern Brewer said on their Facebook page “Now, I for one am going to RNWHAHS (relax, not worry, have a HopSlam)”.

  38. As is your right, C.

    Cheers!

  39. […] dissection. We at Aleheads first heard about the news on the excellent website, BeerNews.org. My initial post about the matter led to a number of other posts debating the merits of the position I laid out in […]

  40. […] Note. I’ve been so wrapped up in self-righteous ranting against Bell’s for their trivial legal machinations against Northern Brewer and Goose Island for serving as the sacrificial lamb on the altar of Big […]

  41. […] (Tie). Bell’s Two Hearted: We’ve bashed Larry Bell a few times on these here pages, but there’s no arguing that this IPA stands in a class of […]

  42. David Agee · · Reply

    Brother Barley get a life. There are certainly far more important things to get your habit in a wad about: child abuse, health care, crime, nuclear power…. whatever. Hope you are over it by now.

  43. Kid Carboy Jr. · · Reply

    I have to say I hate that kind of argument, David. By that kind of reasoning, nothing in the world can ever be criticized, because shouldn’t we be worrying about famine and genocide instead?

    This is a site that hosts beer opinions. That’s what you’ll find here. If you’re looking for discussion of the ethics of nuclear power, as you apparently are, I feel confident you should be able to track it down somewhere out there on the great big World Wide Web. Somebody out there probably wants to discuss that. We’ll be here in the meantime, talking about beer.

    …on account of it’s a beer blog.

  44. Ah yes…my favorite Internet argument: “How can you possibly be upset about X when the world is so horrible?”

    You’re right. I’ll never get angry about anything again until we are rid of all crime, war, poverty and famine. In fact, I’m abandoning my family right now to go protest against nuclear power (or to support nuclear power…whichever one you’re in favor of).

    But to answer your question, yes I’m over it. Blog post grudges aren’t like pregnancies…we don’t carry them around for 9 months. I didn’t even remember writing this article until you commented on it. As far as I’m concerned, I made our readers aware of Bell’s dickishness, I skipped purchasing their beers for a month or two, and now I’m happy to support them again. I’ve got a sixer of Kalamazoo in my fridge as we speak.

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