(UN) OFFICIAL (ALEHEADS) RESPONSE TO THE NORTHERN BREWER SITUATION

The Aleheads protest outside Bell's Brewery HQ

Yesterday 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 precipitated, and issued the statement below. Everything In italics is my interpretation of what Larry Bell is really trying to say to the craft beer and home brew communities… because I’m pretty good at reading between the lines, ya know?

To All Interested:

Yesterday, Northern Brewer posted on their Facebook page about a cease and desist letter that they received from Bell’s Brewery, Inc. I apologize that Bell’s has taken so long to respond to this issue, but all members of management were travelling to the Craft Brewers Conference yesterday and could not get a response posted. (Because of course we don’t all have Blackberries, IPhones, laptops, or office staff working back at HQ; also, I couldn’t figure out how to spin this whole thing without sounding like a total D-bag. Still can’t, actually.)

On March 18, 2011, representatives of Bell’s Brewery, Inc. sent a letter to Northern Brewer regarding that company’s use of Three Hearted Ale for a homebrewing kit. This letter was sent out at a time when Bell’s is having to defend it’s trademarks including Two Hearted on several fronts (But mostly land and sea). Because we are finding ourselves in this situation, we believe that is necessary to correspond in writing to those we feel are infringing on our mark (Our attorneys have advised us that letters are preferable to text message pics of my genitals). We do not know the owners of Northern Brewer nor were we familiar with the products they offered until recently (Just because I was a homebrewer for many years before starting Bell’s, which began as the homebrew shop we still operate, are obviously a little maniacal about competition, and Northern Brewer is one of the biggest and most well-known homebrew sites in the country, how could we possibly be familiar with Northern Brewer or their products?). From a legal perspective a phone call was not going to provide the documented defense that we need as we try to defend this trademark now and in the future (Of course, a courtesy phone call with a follow-up letter would provide us with our necessary “documented defense”; but I digress).

Here is a partial extract of the letter we sent: “As a result of the extensive business investment by Bell’s Brewery, significant goodwill has inured in the TWO HEARTED trademark.” (Goodwill we are destroying by letting this matter play out publicly on the internet) “While Bell’s Brewery encourage the development of independent brewers and homebrewing, Bell’s Brewery are concerned with your use of THREE HEARTED ALE Extract kit.” “Bell’s Brewery are of the opinion that there is a likelihood of confusion between your mark and the trademarks for TWO HEARTED owned by Bell’s Brewery. The marks create the same overall commercial impression (Unlike the very different overall commercial impression created when comparing some baggies of malt extract and dried hops to actual beer, or between the numbers “2” and “3”). Furthermore, the goods associated with your mark and the trademark for Two Hearted are identical.” “Consequently, your use of THREE HEARTED is likely to create confusion, deception, or mistake among purchasers (excepting of course those that are functionally literate, and not utterly and completely moronic) as to the origin or source of the goods/services, or convey to the purchasing public that the goods/services are approved by Bell’s Brewery or that there is an affiliation or connection between you and Bell’s Brewery.”

We have no issue with Northern Brewer other than this trademark infringement. We are flattered that they want to clone our beer-we have no problem with that. In fact, our staff recently agreed to work with Zymurgy magazine on a Two Hearted clone. Clones are not the issue (here, Dude). Neither do we have a problem with homebrewers. Bell’s was founded as a homebrew shop in 1983 and has been in that business ever since. We are great supporters of the homebrew community and have underwritten many competitions, donated prizes to clubs, conducted tours with homebrew clubs, provided beer for certain AHA conventions, spoken at AHA convention, held an AHA membership rally, etc. etc. We have no problem with homebrewing or homebrewers. We love homebrewers (No, really! My mama always taught that words speak louder than actions. And she was right, if you think about it, except for really loud actions like gunshots). Bell’s has worked long and hard to develop and market Two Hearted Ale. It is a very valuable asset for our company.

As president of Bell’s it is my job to protect those types of assets (Actually, it’s to make and sell beer, but whatever). That is my responsibility to my (wild ego, and) employees and their families, and to the shareholders of the company. Never were we contacted by Northern Brewer asking permission to use Three Hearted (Because clones with similar names are commonplace in the homebrew industry and permission to use a similar tribute name is generally never sought, but how would I know that being involved in homebrewing since’83?). Upon learning of Three Hearted we moved to defend an asset that we own and have owned for many years. This is our right and duty. (Right now I’m trying to make it sound like my chickenshit cease and desist letter is akin to storming the beaches of Normandy. Is it working?) A trademark that is not defended becomes worthless. And while some of you may think that this was harmless flattery (And totally immaterial to our bottom line), by not defending against this we would be opening the door for further challenges against our mark. (Like the time we made our Oracle DIPA that sounded a hell of a lot like Buffalo Brewing’s Oracle IIPA, but again, I digress) At this time it would appear that Northern Brewer plans to respect and acknowledge our right to this trademark, as I understand that they are renaming their product (suck it, bitches). For this, we thank them. This is all we are asking for. As regards Third Street (Our absurdly reaching defense of our Third Coast Ale), we filed for an extension to oppose, not an opposition (because that makes it less absurd and reaching). The use of the extension is often used so that two companies can sit down and see what each others marks are, and if they can co-exist. Often an agreement is drawn up between the two companies for this co-existence. We are currently in that discovery phase with Third Street. (Whereas we knew with Northern Brewer they would just back down, and it’s fun to say “Fuck you” to smaller competitors, isn’t it?)

I know many of you think that Bell’s was heavy handed in our actions (Because we were). I’m sorry you feel this way (which isn’t an apology at all). Bell’s has been on both sides of trademark issues-sometimes a winner and sometimes a loser (which is of no relevance to anything).  Twice in the history of Two Hearted we have been sent cease and desist letters regarding the labels (Maybe because it shares a name with a Hemingway book from 1925 as well as a river in Michigan’s North Peninsula that has flowed since the last Ice Age). Additionally, we acquired the label by written permission of it’s former owner who gave it up many years ago. When these actions arise we try to respect others intellectual property and conduct ourselves with a modicum of decency (I would like to emphasize “try”). Trademark law is part of being in the consumer products business. I hope this letter explains our position and that you will understand that we are just trying to protect what is ours. We are sorry if some of you feel offended (which is the way someone who lacks empathy apologizes) by our action, but for us we felt it was the most professional and legally necessary means to an end (so screw you). We hold no malice towards Northern Brewer, their employees or their customers.

Sincerely, (Now go buy more of my beer, suckers)

Larry J. Bell

President (Douchebag)

Bell’s Brewery, Inc.

**************************************************

I think O’l Larry acquitted himself rather well, don’t you?


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20 comments

  1. CZAR VLADIBEER S. BOOTIN' · · Reply

    I thinks you are belicose at perfect time for Barley to turn conciliator . The balance of hate has been restort!

    (I does not marks up) https://aleheads.com/2011/03/12/the-future-of-craft-beer/

    and quote for those to lazy to clicks: “But I’d rather go a different route. I’m writing this post for a lot of reasons, but mostly to issue a challenge to myself. On these pages, I have said certain breweries “sucked” (Gordon-Biersch). I have said that some beers taste like “horsepiss” (umm…Gordon-Biersch again…that Oskar Blues thing really irked me). I have said that certain brewers were “douchebags” (hi, Sam Calagione!). No more. Even if the actual world of craft brewing will continue along a tenuous path that will, inevitably, lead to some in-fighting, lawsuits, and hostility, I want the brotherhood of craft beer enthusiasts to come back. I welcome disagreement. I welcome debate. But I want us all to recognize that we’re in this together. That we all love and want the same thing. We want beer with flavor. We want beer with character. We want beer with complexity and balance (usually). In short, we want “good” beer. We may not see eye to eye on what constitutes such beer, but there’s no reason we can’t be civil, courteous, and respectful of each other’s opinions.”

  2. Kid Carboy Jr. · · Reply

    I’m actually kind of surprised they bothered to respond at all, but if you go on their official Facebook and read how placated some people are, it’ll make you want to puke. Somehow there are people who read that and construed it as an apology.

    You really have to love the magic of saying “I’m sorry that makes you upset,” as opposed to “I’m sorry for our actions.” With those simple words, you’re actually able to gain someone’s support WHILE insulting them! Incredible. Somehow I don’t think “I’m sorry that craft beer fans are dumb enough to get upset about this” would work as well in the same situation.

  3. The Wookie · · Reply

    I just sat down to read this with a brew and about halfway in my nightly cocktail became a neti pot treatment as I was laughing so hard that beer spewed from my nose. Your interpretive commentary was hilarious and spot on.

    Bell’s seem to apologize like my wife …. she just looks at me and says, “I’m sorry, sorry that you were wrong!”. I just hope Northern Brewer renames the kit something like “Kiss Our Ass Ale”

  4. Montanaandy · · Reply

    This was handled very poorly from a PR standpoint and is coming back to bite them and ironically will lessen the goodwill that a company works to develop. I known that this will be in the back of my mind if/when I am trying to decide to pick up a six pack of 2HA.

    How about “Heartless Trout Ale” or “Trout Tort Ale”. No confusion there eh?

  5. Glad you enjoyed it Wookie… it pisses me off to no end when companies push around other members of the community just because they think they can. A little bit of internet research reveals Larry Bell has been acting like this for quite awhile. A real apology is due, but I’m not holding my breath.

    Oh well, if I get a hankering for world class beer from southwestern Michigan there’s always Founders, Dark Horse, Brewery Vivant, etc.

  6. Here’s a middle finger in the eye of Bell’s Brewery:

    SKA Brewing of Durango Colorado offers this on their website:

    “We didn’t start out buying a brewery from some ready-made ‘here’s your super awesome brewery in Durango’ kit. We started making beer in a kitchen because we were too young to buy it and we loved it. That’s what craft beer is, LOVE. And we want to start something different where we can share our love of great beer with all you other home-brewing sud-lovers out there.

    We’ll give you our recipes as long as you promise to try them, tweak them, thread about them and even send us some samples of your best batches. If you want you can ask our brewers some questions or just come out to Colorado and have a few with us.”

    http://www.skabrewing.com/main.html

    The boys at SKA are dead on- CRAFT BEER IS ABOUT LOVE. And they’ll give you their recipes BECAUSE they love the beer! Looks like Bell’s Brewery has lost its way… and gone the way of some macro-brewers I won’t mention. To all those brewers out there that think beer is about market share, copy right laws, & intellectual property- kiss our collective asses! We’ll just drink beer from other breweries!!

  7. […] Bell’s Brewery’s continuing PR nightmare […]

  8. […] the issue here?  Well, if you believe Bell’s barely apologetic explanation (which we scorned), “A trademark that is not defended becomes worthless.”  (The response also claims […]

  9. Hate the game, not the player. Bell’s is doing what successful companies pay their lawyers to do. Ask yourselves why NB chose to carry out their argument in the social networking (public) sphere.

    Here in Michigan, those of us who’ve known Larry Bell and watched his company and line of craft beer grow, while they fully supported the craft beer/homebrewing communities in this Great Beer State, know that his actions truly do speak louder than words. I see both sides of this issue as you will too, if you use some serious reflection, and put aside the “douchebags” and the “Fuck Yous”, and try a little empathy yourselves.

  10. Mike:

    Empathy for whom? Bell’s? They still haven’t (and won’t) acknowledge that their handling of this matter alienated some customers and other members of the craft beer community. They don’t deserve and won’t receive my empathy here. Bell’s is developing a reputation as a litigious brewer. With that comes some benefits (like a paper trail of their trademarks defensed) and some drawbacks (like angering fellow brewers and customers).

    I grew up in Michigan, have lots of family there, and recognize the economic realities at play in the state. I’m glad for the success and growth that Bell’s, Founders, Dark Horse, etc. have had in the past few years… but that doesn’t mean they deserve a free pass when they make a mistake.

    For a more analytical approach take a look at our latest post:

    https://aleheads.com/2011/03/26/aleheads-legal-corner-bells-cold-hearted-ale/

  11. I don’t think they have anything to apologize for and I don’t advocate for a free pass when they make a mistake. I merely advocate for reason and calm behavior to be displayed, especially when so many people’s livelihoods can be affected by talk of boycotts and product disparagement. I did appreciate your more analytical (i.e., more reasoned) post (linked to in your response).

    Bell’s hosts AHA membership rallies, homebrewing contests, gives away tons of shit to homebrewers and makes great freaking beer. I have never seen Larry Bell treat anyone with any type of disrespect and I’ve been around him (the person, not the company) at several of these events. I also have nothing against Northern Brewer. That said, they conducted themselves just as dishonorably as Bell’s in this matter (I say “dishonorably” because I think the use of lawyers to enforce such common sense ideas is sad, though I understand it to be an unfortunate necessity). Airing this disagreement in the fashion they did was childish.

    I fully acknowledge the common sense aspect of how ludicrous it seems treating NB’s clone kit as a copyright infringement but the rules of the game-and the stakes of trademark dilution-dictate behavior at least somewhat like this. Could they have made a phone call first? Yes. Could NB have called about naming their kit after Bell’s beer before doing it? An equally valid “yes”. I certainly don’t think either company’s behavior rises to the level that should cause anyone to boycott them. That is truly douchebaggery…

  12. Look, I recognize the issue that arose when I titled the original post “Bell’s Boycott”. But if you read that post in its entirety, I NEVER even insinuated that there should be a general boycott of Bell’s products. I simply said that I PERSONALLY would be eschewing Bell’s products for awhile. Admittedly the title of the post was very misleading, but I’m a sucker for alliteration. If Bell’s didn’t start with a “B”, the word “boycott” would never have been used. You take the good with the bad when you start a blog and while the story certainly drove an insane amount of traffic our way, it also got blown out of proportion. Ultimately, it shone some light on a part of the industry we at Aleheads take issue with, so I’m OK with it.

    Here’s my take…for the umpteenth time. I have NO problem with Bell’s protecting their trademarks. They have every right to do so. But if they had simply called Northern Brewer first, explained the situation, received an “OK, we’ll change the name”, and THEN sent a C&D letter to create a paper trail, the problem would have been resolved and NB would NEVER have felt the need to air this out in public.

    I recognize that some people think NB should have just kept this under wraps, but when you’ve been selling a product for years and all of a sudden a supposed “peer” in the industry sends you a cold, out-of-the-blue C&D letter, I fully understand why they did what they did. I’ve heard so many people say “get over it, this is the way business works”. But WHY does business have to work this way? The craft beer industry has always seemed to buck the trends of “business as usual”. I don’t think it’s that big a deal to ask our favorite brewers and breweries to rise above the need to use lawyers and trademarks to solve every issue. Sometimes they’re warranted, of course. Sometimes lawyers really DO need to get involved to protect businesses’ interest. In this case, I just don’t see it.

    Nevertheless, I don’t want ANYONE to stop buying Bell’s products if they like their beers and respect their business model. I love the former but take some issue with the latter. As such, I’ll choose to take my business elsewhere. It appears that a lot of other people feel that way to, but if you don’t, I fully respect your decisions. I’m sure there are hundreds of businesses that are run ruthlessly that I nevertheless purchase products from. But because there are so many GREAT craft beer options these days, it’s so much easier to pass up beers on the shelf if they’re made by a brewery you don’t entirely respect.

    As for the Aleheads being douchebags…well…yeah. Who said otherwise?

  13. Yours isn’t the only place where I’ve seen the “B” word used over this flap, so don’t take the douchebag comment too personally. Still, in the interest of comic expression, I’ll admit to implying it…
    Hey, we have Dark Horse here in Michigan as well and Shorts and Jolly Pumpkin (and I love them all!), so the anti-corporate, hippie brewing model isn’t limited to SKA Brewing.

    Slainte! Whatever you’re drinking!

  14. Absolutely. There’s room for both corporate-type breweries and more “community-minded” breweries in the craft beer world today. I guess I’m just saying that if all else is equal, I’ll generally choose beers from the latter. If Bell’s made the best beer in the world and no one else was close, I can assure you that I wouldn’t give a damn how litigious they are. But because there are some equally excellent breweries out there (including the three you mentioned), I can act like a self-righteous twit and still drink good beer. It’s a win-win for ol’ Brother Barley!

    Mike, thanks for approaching the other side of the argument in a reasoned, thoughtful manner. I much prefer commenters like you as opposed to those who just tell us we’re idiots (which, again, we are) without explaining why.

    I’ll admit that it feels a bit dispiriting to “bash” a craft brewer (particularly a good one like Bell’s) when the true evil in the beer world are still the omnipresent adjunct pale lagers that show up in seemingly every commercial, billboard, and magazine ad on Earth. But as a craft beer enthusiast, I’d like to do my part to “shape” the future of the industry, no matter how tiny and insignificant my voice may be. If our little corner of the interwebs can convince a brewery to dial a fellow brewmaster instead of a lawyer the next time something like this happens, then we’ve done our part.

  15. “If our little corner of the interwebs can convince a brewery to dial a fellow brewmaster instead of a lawyer the next time something like this happens, then we’ve done our part.”

    Well, I certainly can’t argue with that!

  16. Personally, I think it should have been handled differently. Yes, they, like all breweries and companies, should protect their intellectual property. But what so many people, including myself, take issue with HOW it was handled. Yes, I understand an official letter would be needed for court should this ever go that far. The letter should have been headed off with a respectable phone call, that mentioned they would be sending an official letter due to lawyers, and it can be resolved by respecting adults.
    Maybe NB shouldn’t have said anything, but I would have.
    I will go on not drinking Bells due to it not being available here (the ones I have tried are damn tasty) and I will continue to order from Northern Brewer. And if you do not, check out Brewing TV, sponsored by NB – an awesome contribution to the hombrewing community

  17. […] 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 that first entreaty to Bell’s. […]

  18. […] to the 312…so…umm…I don’t really care about that one. This makes the flap over Bell’s and Northern Brewer look like much ado about nothing (which, admittedly, it was). In that situation, I “threatened” […]

  19. […] MI   Yeah, yeah, I went to Bell’s. Yes, I was extremely antagonistic of them during the Northern Brewer cease and desist fiasco. What can I say? My own personal “not buying Bell’s” embargo is still in affect*, […]

  20. […] (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 its own.  Unique in that […]

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