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.