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?