FINAL THOUGHTS ON BELLGATE

I’m sure these won’t actually be the last words written on these pages about the Bell’s/Northern Brewer situation, but I thought I would at least make a valiant effort to “wrap it up”, so to speak. I’m sure many of you are tired of reading about this tempest in a teacup and since I’m the one that sparked the firestorm, I’ll also attempt to be the one to snuff it out.

For those that haven’t bothered reading our recent posts, let me summarize the situation for you without any commentary or emotional language:

Bell’s Brewery, a large and well-respected craft brewery in Michigan, sent a Cease & Desist (C&D) letter with no prior warning to Northern Brewer, a large and well-respected craft beer forum and homebrew supplier. The letter in question pertained to a homebrewing kit that attempted to replicate a popular Bell’s IPA called the Two Hearted Ale. This “clone” kit was called the Three Hearted Ale which is in line with Northern Brewer’s usual approach of giving their cloned beers satirical versions of the original beer’s name (eg: the clone for New Glarus’s Spotted Cow is called Speckled Heifer). Northern Brewer was surprised by the lack of warning and noted this in an on-line forum where they asked supporters to help them come up with a new name for the clone. They had no legal standing to challenge Bell’s request and, more importantly, they tremendously respect Bell’s as a brewery and as a company. As such, they quickly agreed to change the name and deemed the matter closed.

The problem, of course, is that these days, such minor legal squabbles are no longer solely matters for a few administrative folks sitting behind desks. Thanks to the rise of the internet, even an issue as seemingly miniscule as this is ripe for public 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 that first entreaty to Bell’s. Let me review where I stand on the issue for those that aren’t up to date:

I fervently believe that Bell’s has every right to defend their trademarks. A C&D letter is not a lawsuit by any means and as far as legal documents are concerned, it’s fairly tame. Bell’s rightfully argued that if a company doesn’t defend its trademarks, then they’re essentially worthless. You must prove, with a paper trail, that you are defending your marks, otherwise they serve no purpose. Furthermore, Bell’s was defending their mark against a company that makes a similar product (a beer and a brewing kit are “close enough” form a legal perspective). Compare that to Monster Energy Drink’s ridiculous C&D order against RockArt’s Vermonster beer (an over-caffeinated energy drink could hardly be confused for a craft beer) and it’s clear that Bell’s obviously has a very legitimate case.

At no point did I argue that Bell’s was in the wrong or that they did not have a right to do what they did. What bothered me about the situation…what bothered MANY people about the situation…was the way Bell’s chose to conduct their legal affairs. In my opinion, even if Bell’s felt the C&D letter was necessary, they should have contacted Northern Brewer first and asked them to change the name. At best, Northern Brewer would have agreed to do so immediately and would not have been surprised to see the C&D appear on their desk. They wouldn’t have publicized the issue and we never would have known about it. At worst, Northern Brewer would have refused Bell’s request and when the C&D letter was made public, Bell’s would have appeared to be a reasonable plaintiff and Northern Brewer would have come off as irrational. But because Bell’s issued the C&D with no warning, many craft beer enthusiasts, including myself, believed that the brewery was acting like a bully.

Many commenters don’t understand my perspective. They find fault with my argument by claiming that this is simply the way the business world operates and to believe otherwise is pollyannaish to the nth degree. And yes, that’s probably true. But the thing is…I honestly think the craft beer industry really IS “different” than other industries. I believe it’s built on a foundation of camaraderie, brotherhood, and collaboration and that those in the industry should live by those watchwords. Naive or not, I can assure you that I’m not alone in thinking this way…

The craft beer “movement” was founded in the 80s by a handful of iconoclasts who were tired of the same old pale adjunct lagers that made up 99.9% of the beer world at the time. It has grown tremendously fast over the decades, but craft beer is still firmly in the shadow of “Big Beer”. Because craft brewers have been, and ALWAYS will be, the underdog, it behooved those early brewers to stick together in order to best combat the overwhelming forces of the powers-that-be. You rarely heard about much in-fighting or legal wrangling between craft brewers. More common were stories about collaborative beers (like Allagash and New Belgium’s Vrienden…the Dutch word for “friends”) and contract brewing (like Flying Dog making all of Terrapin’s beers for the first 5 years of the latter’s existence). The ultimate example of this approach occurred when Avery and Russian River realized they both had beers in their line-up called Salvation. Rather than fight each other for the trademark, they simply mixed the two beers together and sold it as “Collaboration Not Litigation Ale”. This kind of common decency may be unusual in other industries, but in the craft beer world it was par for the course.

That kind of thoughtfulness is one of the reasons craft beer enthusiasts are so passionate about their hobby. It’s not just that we love good beer…it’s that we love the camaraderie and friendliness that permeates the entire industry. Craft brewers are famous for welcoming visitors to their breweries with open arms, giving tours, free samples, and just being generally decent folks. They rarely say an unkind word about others in the industry and even more rarely bash someone else’s product (that’s strictly the realm of insensitive bloggers like us). And many (like me) would argue that it was precisely BECAUSE of the industry’s camaraderie that it was able to thrive in a world dominated by a handful of macrobrewers who have virtually unlimited resources and infinitely more marketing savvy. The collaborative approach functioned like the proverbial “rising tide” and all the boats were being lifted at once.

As such, many craft beer fans become frustrated when a brewery breaks from tradition and acts like…well…Big Beer. And because we make up such a large percentage of said brewery’s market, it’s in their best interest to at least make a token effort to be decent citizens in the industry. They certainly don’t HAVE to. No one is arguing otherwise. But when they don’t, the internet tends to buzz a little, and that brewery tends to lose a little luster in the public eye. Witness the flap between Oskar Blues and Gordon Biersch for another example of a brewery making a reasonable legal claim that, nevertheless, made them look bad.

Breweries might argue that they shouldn’t be held to a different standard than players in other industries. But I would counter that claim by bringing it back to what I mentioned earlier…the collaborative, communal approach is precisely what allowed craft beer to thrive over the past few decades. If it wasn’t for that fraternal approach, many of the breweries we take for granted today (including Bell’s) wouldn’t be as successful as they are. I believe craft beer is in a golden age right now BECAUSE of the altruistic nature of those in the industry. That’s why I get so riled up when someone bucks the trend and acts like craft beer is “just another business”.

If I was the only one that felt that way, that belief would be laughable. But the truth is, when I scoured the web to see how the Bell’s/Northern Brewer flap was being received, I would say 9 out of 10 commenters felt the same way. Craft beer really IS perceived as being a unique industry…an industry built on “doing the right thing” rather than “doing what’s best for the bottom line”. And you can call it a utopian worldview if you want, but when the vast majority of your best customers feel a certain way, it’s probably wise not to piss them off.

And that last point gets to the heart of the whole situation. However you feel about Bell’s hasty C&D letter or Northern Brewer airing their dirty laundry in public, there’s one thing you can’t deny: Bell’s Brewery kind of sucks at social media. Even if they felt they were 100% in the right (and, again, from a legal perspective they are) the fact that they didn’t think their approach would kick off such a debate strikes me as incredibly short-sighted. Nothing escapes the rabbit-ears and eagle-eyes of the craft beer community. If a Deschutes employee accidentally drops a bottle of Hop in the Dark in Bend, Oregon, a blogger in Bar Harbor, Maine will write about it before it hits the ground. That’s the world we live in and craft brewers have to be aware of that. Bell’s may have felt no reason to call Northern Brewer before issuing their C&D, but they should have done so anyway if, for no other reason, than to prevent the massive negative publicity it caused. To make matters worse, they picked on Northern Brewer…a craft beer community mostly made up of the kind of idealistic folks that absolutely HATE these kinds of legal machinations. Whether fair or not, it felt like Bell’s, a fairly large player in the industry, was picking on the “little guy”. In a business where underdogs are worshipped and the bigger fish are often seen as “sell-outs”, Bell’s should have known what the result was going to be. The fact that they didn’t leads me to believe that Bell’s needs to put a little more thought into the way their business decisions will be perceived by the greater craft beer community.

As I said in one of my many comments about this story, we’re not asking craft brewers to be saints. Just be decent! Be thoughtful! Try the amicable approach first and if that doesn’t work, by all means, get nasty! Even the most naive of us understands that it’s a business and that interests must be protected. We know that brewers have families to support and employees to pay. Legal tussles and C&D letters will always be part of the craft beer landscape and they SHOULD be. But at least “try” to be a good neighbor and ask the guy next door to trim his hedges before you pour weed-killer on them. You win a lot more friends with honey than with vinegar and Bell’s left a lot a people with a very sour taste in their mouths.

Let me wrap this up by saying that I thoroughly understand how ridiculous this all is. I honestly wasn’t actually angry at Bell’s for their actions. I know what they did has utterly no bearing on anything of importance in this world. I wrote up the initial post because I saw the story on BeerNews.org, thought it was another case of a brewery doing something a bit rash, and decided to write about it. The only reason the post was entitled “Bell’s Boycott” is because I’m far too obsessed with alliteration. I NEVER asked people to boycott Bell’s with me. I simply said that I found their actions distasteful and that I would eschew their products for awhile. Sure I used some inflammatory language, but it’s a blog…that’s what we do.

As I told commenter Mike when he disagreed with my perspective, I don’t want Bell’s to fail and I don’t want people to stop buying their beer if they like it (and let me be clear…Bell’s is a phenomenal brewery and I love their products). In the end, after all the debate and the thousands of words we’ve written about this issue, I really only want one thing to come out of this whole kerfuffle…

Call your fellow brewer BEFORE you call your lawyer!

Seems pretty simple to me.

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7 comments

  1. This horse has been dead for a few days.
    I agree with your last statement…call your fellow brewer….before you cross the line. Who was the bully here???? Northern Brewer pushed the limit and expected Bells to back down. In business or the playground that is aggressive behavior.

  2. UFO John E · · Reply

    Oh the humanity! The shame! Not a bottle of Hop in the Dark! Wait…was that hypothetical?

  3. […] it was produced by owners with souls. As Brother Barley pointed out so many times during the recent Northern Brewer debacle, there are around 1,700 breweries in America, now, and there are so many independent ones. We are […]

  4. In the interest of letting this thread die a peaceful death I would only add the axiom: “Thou shalt not air thy dirty laundry and thy fellow craft beer/homebrewing concern’s laundry on Facebook”.

  5. […] is investing in a brewery expansion. Ditto Brooklyn, Oskar Blues, Founders…even recent Aleheads’ whipping-boy Bell’s. If demand is THAT high for your product, it shouldn’t be so hard to find investors […]

  6. P.S. Bell’s, I take back at least one-third of the bad things I said about you, now that I know you’ll be canning beer next year.

  7. […] the Aleheads generally love getting our hackles up over breweries suing one another, but this one just doesn’t fire up the self-righteous posturing as much as other stories. […]

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