ANCHOR VS. SAM: THE ALEHEADS (DON’T) TAKE A STAND

If you follow the legal machinations of the craft beer world (and really, why wouldn’t you?), you’ve no doubt come across the recent tiff between two craft beer titans, the Boston Beer Company and Anchor Brewing. In a nutshell, the BBC is suing Anchor for poaching a former employee who had signed an industry-specific, non-compete clause. We’ve let this story slide for awhile now for a simple reason…it’s not particularly interesting.

Admittedly, 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. First, it’s a battle between two of the biggest and oldest craft brewers in the nation. Anchor is essentially the granddaddy of American craft brewing and the BBC is far and away the largest craft brewer on Earth. We prefer at least one “little guy” in our posts about corporate maneuvering in the beer world. Second, we like stories that actually involve beer and brewing…or at the very least naming rights for beers and breweries. This lawsuit is about the most prosaic of corporate battles…a former employee potentially sharing “trade secrets”. That collective yawn you hear is why we ignored this one.

BUT! The rest of the craft world has been weighing in on on this tale for weeks now and it doesn’t seem to be going away. Most other breweries like  Lagunitas and BrewDog are firmly on Team Anchor. This should come as no surprise since A) Sam Adams is the aggressor here and B) As the largest craft brewer in the world, Sam will always have a giant bullseye on its back when it starts throwing its weight around.

So where do the Aleheads stand? On first blush, you’d probably assume we’re on Team Anchor as well. If Aleheads had a mission (which we most certainly do not), it would be to promote the Brotherhood of Craft Beer. Lawsuits between craft brewers are usually anathema to our sensibilities. Plus, they may be a pretty large operation in their own right, but relative to the BBC, Anchor is definitely the “little guy” in this scenario. Add that to the fact that Sam Adams has been fairly litigious of late AND that it’s fairly unlikely that the employee in question really holds any “secret” knowledge that could hurt the BBC and there you go…the Aleheads are on Anchor’s side.

On the other hand, many of the Aleheads are unabashed Massachusetts homers. The three site founders (including myself) were all born and raised in the Bay State and we’ve all had a soft spot for our hometown brewers like Sam Adams for decades. While the BBC is a corporate behemoth, they’ve also been excellent stewards of craft beer and have been tremendously supportive of other breweries over the years. Anchor may have been “first”, but no brewery has done more to make craft beer a financially viable industry than Sam. Anchor is also no stranger to frivolous lawsuits themselves as they once sued Sleeman’s for using the phrase “Steam Beer” on their labels. And while we have our doubts as to how damaging Sam’s former employee’s knowledge could possibly be, he DID sign a non-compete clause and then jumped over to a direct competitor. It may or may not be enforceable, but the lawsuit is still understandable. So I guess the Aleheads are on Team Sam then?

Actually, in a completely unprecedented move…I’m not registering an opinion on this one. I see both sides of the coin, to be honest. I HATE intra-industry lawsuits when it comes to craft beer, but this one is fairly tame. Sam Adams is most likely posturing a bit…showing the rest of the craft beer world that they should think twice before trying to poach one of their execs. And Anchor is posturing right back…tugging at the heart strings of Aleheads everywhere by reminding them how magnanimous Fritz Maytag was with his fellow brewers over the years (even though he recently sold the company to the former marketing gurus behind Skyy Vodka). In the end, it’s much ado about nothing. As the Commander (who, like a number of Aleheads, is a lawyer himself) pointed out, this kind of thing happens in every industry every day. The BBC did their due diligence by enforcing their non-compete clause and Anchor has every right to call bullshit on it. Ultimately, it looks like it will come down to which state tries the case. If Massachusetts, Sam may end up winning this thing and forcing their former employee to sit on his hands until the non-compete clause runs out. If California, the non-compete clause essentially becomes null and void and Sam won’t have a case.

And when lawsuits boil down to which state they’re tried in, THAT’S when you can hear that collective Aleheads yawn again. Yes, it’s a big story because of the players involved. But it’s really just not that interesting. Or perhaps I’m reading this one all wrong. What say you, Alehead Nation? Does this lawsuit deserve the attention it’s been receiving? Where do you stand on the issue?

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13 comments

  1. Kid Carboy Jr. · · Reply

    This is why you have the trial in neutral territory. Topeka, Kansas seems like a good half-way meeting point.

  2. I really don’t understand why these things aren’t just settled with a drink-off like they are in the financial world.

    Although, from what I’ve heard about Jim Koch’s drinking habits, he’d never lose a lawsuit.

  3. I learned something here… that BBC is still considered craft. Interesting.

  4. What a considered and well-reasoned take… but fuck that.

    I’m squarely on Team Anchor. Unlike the heralded three founders, I’m not from MA and have no rose-colored shades when it comes to the beers or business practices of BBC; I’m impressed with neither. What I see here is a soulless “craft” (how they meet the Brewers Association description of “small and independent(I just used parentheses between quotations with parentheses adjacent to quotations)” is beyond me) corporate entity going after after a junior sales executive who would have signed away his soul if they put it in front of him to land a job at Sam Adams coming out of college.

    Non-compete clauses have no place in the craft beer industry, but are a regrettable part of an overall shift towards mainstream business practices in this country. Just make the best beer you can and enough with the litigation and bullshit. It helps no one.

  5. Tiff, the term “craft” is defined by the Brewers Association as one that is:

    A) Traditional. This term is fairly vague, but I’ve always taken it to mean, “a brewery that predominantly sells all-malt beverages”. In that sense, BBC is certainly traditional.

    B) Independent. Again…kind of vague, since many breweries have outside investors that steer the direction of the company. My take is that as long as the brewery isn’t directly connected to a company that produces a mass-produced adjunct lager (ie: InBev or MillerCoors), then you can argue that it’s independent. Sam is a tricky case since it’s publicly traded, but I would still consider them independent.

    C) Small. As Slouch pointed out, this one is ludicrous since Sam produced over 2 million barrels last year. BUT, the Brewers Association recently changed their definition of “small” to mean any brewery that produces under 6 million barrels annually. Granted, they changed the definition so they wouldn’t lose the BBC as a part of their industry figures, but that’s their prerogative.

    Of course, that’s just the definition of an industry association. You may have a completely different personal distinction…and if YOU don’t consider Sam Adams to be a craft brewery, I can’t really fault you. It certainly “feels” like a different type of company in terms of reach, influence, and strategy than most other craft breweries. That said, I personally believe that they’ve returned to their roots at least a bit recently (after a long while in the wilderness cranking out Twisted Tea, Hardcore Cider, and Sam Adams Light). They’re hardly a darling of the craft beer world, but I think most Aleheads would indeed call them “craft”.

    As for Slouch’s point, I think Sam represents that tricky gray area between the small breweries we champion and the evil behemoths we despise. Sometimes the BBC legitimately acts in the best interest of the industry…and sometimes they don’t. When a company gets to the size that Sam Adams currently inhabits, that’s when corporate interests begin taking precedence over “the greater good”. Yes, all breweries are focused on the bottom line, but Sam Adams has probably crossed that fine line where profits begin to overshadow everything else.

    I hope the negative PR hit they’ve received will remind Jim Koch that he can have his cake and eat it too. He can be the biggest fish in the craft beer pond while still engaging in practices that support and nourish the industry. Again, I really don’t have much of an issue with this particular lawsuit…it doesn’t strike me as anything more than corporate brinksmanship. I think the bigger issue, as far as Aleheads are concerned, is the idea that this kind of thing will become all too common as the larger regional powerhouses grow into “Boston Beer Company territory”.

    It’s a sad truth of corporatization that when a company grows past a certain point, it becomes virtually impossible for it to live by its earlier ideals. Even if the BBC truly WANTED to be a beacon of craft beer collaboration, I think they’re simply too big to play that role.

  6. Kid Carboy Jr. · · Reply

    That was some of the weirdest grammar I’ve ever seen on this site, Slouch. Air quotes inside parentheses inside parentheses. Kudos.

  7. It’s a little-known secret that Mr. Sixpack generally has Mondays off. If he wasn’t drunk typing that comment, he was at least supremely hungover.

    But seriously, he was drunk.

  8. At the very least, drunk in spirit.

  9. I’m no lawyer but shouldn’t this case be filed in California? I know why BBC didn’t file it there, but both Anchor and Hausner are based in CA.

    “The Boston-based firm alleges that immediately before leaving the brewery, Hausner attended high-level informational meetings where he was privy to information about Boston Beer’s internal strategies.”

    It seems really silly. What kind of top secret high-level information could this guy possibly have been privy to? We’re talking about beer, not nuclear warheads.

    I wrote about my own feelings towards this case several weeks ago @ http://thatsalehewrote.wordpress.com/2011/09/27/now-be-nice-samuel-adams/

  10. beer-miester · · Reply

    Not that I have an opinion but I think that since the turn-coat, Mass. term i.e. Benedict Arnold, from the BBC went to another “craft beer” shop… well good for him. As long as it wasn’t Miller or what not! I think it’s like sharing craft recipes… shop the goodness around!

    Bye the way…I graduated for Ayer Mass, next to Fort Devens…. still not sure where that is but damn proud of it! see ya. Got to go park my caaar in the yaaad! Wicked….nice.

  11. Kid Carboy Jr. · · Reply

    Perhaps he’s bringing along the secret of why Jim Koch hates American hops so much.

    Or hops in general, really.

  12. […] Anchor Vs. Sam: the Aleheads (don’t) Take a Stand (aleheads.com) […]

  13. […] Anchor Vs. Sam: the Aleheads (don’t) Take a Stand (aleheads.com) […]

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