(CN) — In a feisty lawsuit fitting for the maker of Arrogant Bastard Ale, Stone Brewing Company claims MillerCoors is piggybacking on its Stone trademark to sell “watered-down … fizzy yellow offerings.”
Stone Brewing was founded in 1996 in San Marcos, California, in northern San Diego County. Now based in Escondido, it is Southern California’s largest independent brewery, and the ninth-largest in the nation.
Its lengthy lawsuit in San Diego Federal Court is written in the spirit of the label of Stone’s Arrogant Bastard Ale, which begins: “This is an aggressive beer. You probably won’t like it. It is quite doubtful that you have the taste or sophistication to be able to appreciate an ale of this quality and depth. We would suggest that you stick to safer and more familiar territory — maybe something with a multimillion-dollar ad campaign.”
That in effect is what Molson Coors/MillerCoors is doing by rebranding its Keystone beer as Stone, in a “misguided campaign to steal the consumer loyalty and awesome reputation of Stone’s craft brews and iconic Stone trademark,” Stone claims. Its attorney J. Noah Hagey seeks an injunction and treble damages for trademark infringement and dilution, false designation of origin and unfair competition.
The 25-page lawsuit is a masterpiece of invective. “From 2011 to 2016, Keystone Light sales dropped by more than 25 percent,” Hagey wrote. “USA Today recently dubbed Keystone one of the ‘Beers Americans No Longer Drink,’ in a December 2017 article.”
In contrast, Stone, “resolute and fearless … has always stood for a philosophy and approach that defies the watered-down orthodoxy of ‘Big Beer’ companies and their fizzy yellow offerings,” according to the complaint.
Stone claims that in 2007 the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office “forced MillerCoors to admit that using the mark ‘Stones’ to sell Keystone would infringe the Stone trademark.” But last year MillerCoors redesigned its Keystone cans, boxes and logos, which once bore the entire Keystone word and a silhouette of the Rocky Mountains, to the shorter word STONE, in large letters taking up the entire side of the can.
“Nothing about such activity is benign,” Stone says in the complaint. “In doing so, it aims to undermine independent craft brewers’ ability to compete while deceptively continuing to advertise its mass-produced brands a ‘craft’ beers.”
Finally, in high dudgeon, Stone invokes its mascot, a gargoyle.
“Like all Gargoyles, it is slow to anger and seeks a respectful, live-and-let live relationship with peers and colleagues — even those purveying beers akin to watered-down mineral spirits. But Stone and the Gargoyle cannot abide MillerCoors’s efforts to mislead beer drinkers and sully (or steal) what Stone stands for.”
Neither Stone nor MillerCoors could be reached for comment before business hours Wednesday. Stone’s attorney Hagey is with Braunhagey & Borden in San Francisco.
Craft breweries have grown tremendously in the past decade, as Americans’ tastes have changed. More than 5,300 small breweries accounted for 12.3 percent of the nation’s beer market in 2016, The Brewers Association for Small and Independent Craft Brewers reported in 2017. But because craft brews cost more, their $23.5 billion in retail sales accounted for 21.9 percent market share — a 10 percent gain over the previous year, the Brewers Association said. Craft breweries employed 129,000 people that year.
A small brewery is defined as one that produces less than 6 million barrels a year.
An independent brewer is less than 25 percent owned by a company that is not itself a craft brewer.
Stone produced 10.6 million gallons of beer in 2016.