subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

When is a beer a “craft” beer, and when is it not?

12 comments

 

I realize that there are at least two sides to every issue, especially in a courtroom, which is where the case of Parent v MillerCoors LLC has ended up.

At question: Should MillerCoors be allowed to call their Blue Moon beer “artfully crafted”?

The plaintiff in the case is Evan Parent, described on the California Superior Court brief as representing “himself, a class of persons similarly situated, and the general public.”

The defendant is, of course, MillerCoors, one of the world’s biggest beer companies.

Of Mr. Parent, we know little from the brief, except for a few facts: he lives in San Diego, where he “purchased Blue Moon beer”, which he “believed…was a microbrew or ‘craft’ beer.” Upon learning that Blue Moon was made by the same company that produces Coors Light and Miller High Life, Mr. Parent apparently was shocked enough to sue MillerCoors for misleading him.

A Google search reveals a little more about Plaintiff Parent. According to the New York Daily News, Parent says that, as “a craft brew fan,” he found it “upsetting” that MillerCoors would “deceiv[e] me into giving them my money for the wrong reasons.” The Daily News article added, “It’s unclear how much cash Parent is seeking with the legal action.”

Meanwhile, Men’s Journal reports on MillerCoors’ reaction to the lawsuit. The company issued a boilerplate statement affirming they are “tremendously proud of Blue Moon” and calling Parent’s lawsuit “without merit.”

Pretend we’re the jury; what are we to think? First, there is no legal definition of “craft beer.” Although a trade group, the Brewer’s Association, states that according to its vision a craft beer must be produced in quantities of less than six million barrels, which MillerCoors obviously exceeds, still Men’s Journal observes that the “federal government doesn’t technically have a definition for craft breweries…”. We therefore are in a murky, ill-defined legal space here, but it would not appear that MillerCoors has done anything technically in violation of any law.

Was there, then, an intent to deceive? Clearly yes. MillerCoors is taking advantage of the huge, positive image of “craft beer” in the U.S. by use of the term “artfully crafted.” But if MillerCoors is guilty of intent to deceive, then so are almost all of the products and services that advertise themselves on broadcast and in print media. That’s what advertising and its phrases and images are carefully designed to do: make consumers think, usually through association, of the product in the most appealing way possible. (Just to use a typical example, if you wear a Playtex brassiere, does this really help you achieve a more “active lifestyle”?)

The answer, I think, is not for consumers to file lawsuits alleging deception, nor is it for the courts to become involved in such frivolity. It comes down to the most fundamental consumer advice: caveat emptor. “Let the buyer beware.” This has been a linchpin of American jurisprudence since 1817, when the U.S. Supreme Court, in the Laidlaw v. Organ case, unanimously ruled that an individual possessing information that may cause another person to misapprehend something “[is] not bound to communicate it.” That opinion, by the way, was written by Chief Justice John Marshall, one of the architects of our legal system.

Look, there’s no substitute for being an intelligent consumer. If I’m buying a box of cereal in the supermarket and the cover is full of colorful slogans touting the product’s “natural” ingredients, I don’t believe it automatically: I check out the nutritional labeling. If I see the word “artisanal” or “handmade” on a wine label, it means utterly nothing to me, because there’s no legal definition for either term. Nor do I think the government should micro-manage every conceivable word and phrase that could possibly be used in marketing. We don’t want to go down that road because the only ones who would benefit are the lawyers. As for consumers who are “upset” to learn something about a product, I say Life sometimes contains upsetting things. As long as the product or service you’re buying isn’t actually harming you through some intentional sin of commission or omission—such as poisoning your body or giving you bad advice–it’s your obligation to understand what you’re buying, not theirs to make sure you do.

  1. Mike DeLoach says:

    Any entity that can afford to advertise on national television is not a craft brewery, and both parties in this case are, at a minimum, being disingenuous.

  2. Bill Stephenson says:

    If the plaintiff, Mr. Parent, were more than the most casual of “Craft Beer Fans” then he would have known Blue Moon is a “Big 3” product – and not a bad one at that.

    Does anyone here still believe that the Mirassous make Mirassou wines anymore?

    In 2006 Anheuser-Busch introduced two organic brews to test market. The Bay Area got Wild Hop from Green Valley Brewing Co., and entity created solely to distance the product from its source, the giant Budweiser plant in Fairfield, CA.
    The labeling was technically and legally correct. Despite this Craft Beer advocates quickly sniffed it out and sales were disappointing for ABV.

    I tried a sixer and despite my trying soooo hard to be objective I couldn’t get past the “House” flavor of rice typical to all ABV products.
    To the best of my knowledge there were no lawsuits filed despite the packaging and presentation being far more misleading than Blue Moon’s. I put the loss of $6 down to education and curiosity.

    Blue Moon is a legitimate product that some Craft Beer aficionados will drink because it is well made. Just because it comes from a Big 3 three doesn’t negate its quality.

    Back to Mr. Parent.
    I hope the case is dismissed as quickly as possible. Mr. Parent seems like a litigious twat whose inability to do a 15-second search on Google led him to buy a product that CAN claim to be “Artfully Crafted” the same way I can claim to be “Brutally Handsome”
    The terms mean little, its all about selling.

  3. Bob Henry says:

    “At question: Should MillerCoors be allowed to call their Blue Moon beer ‘artfully crafted’?”

    An example of what’s known in advertising as “puffery.”

    “Advertising Professor Huffs On Puffs in Quixotic Contest” – Wall Street Journal (2003)

    Link: http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB1043358781662353424

    (Excerpts: “What occupies University of Wisconsin [advertising] Prof. [Ivan] Preston’s mind is ‘puffery.’ He has been wondering about it since 1970 when he read in a law book that a puff is legal even if it’s a lie. … Prosser & Keeton, the classic torts text, calls the puffery rule ‘a seller’s privilege to lie his head off.’ Why? Because the law assumes that nobody with any sense would ever mistake a puff for the truth.”)

    Something that the Federal Trade Commission acknowledges but does not regulate.

    A corollary question to “When is a beer a ‘craft’ beer, and when is it not?” is:

    “What makes a wine a ‘reserve’ wine, and when is it not”?

    Recall the uproar back in the late 1980s/early 1990s over Benzinger-owned Glen Ellen winery releasing a “Proprietor’s Reserve” Cabernet Sauvignon for the princely sum of 4 bucks. (That era’s Two Buck Chuck.)

    Bibliography:

    “Winery Carves a Profitable Niche” – The New York Times (1988)

    Link: http://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/27/business/winery-carves-a-profitable-niche.html?pagewanted=print

    “Wine Talk” Column – The New York Times (1990)

    Link: http://www.nytimes.com/1990/04/18/garden/wine-talk-715490.html?pagewanted=print

    “Passing the Jug” – The New York Times (1992)

    Link: http://www.nytimes.com/1992/11/15/magazine/wine-passing-the-jug.html?pagewanted=print

    “Glen Ellen Wines Sold To Heublein” – The New York Times (1993)

    Link: http://www.nytimes.com/1993/09/29/business/company-news-glen-ellen-wines-sold-to-heublein.html?pagewanted=print

  4. Bob Henry says:

    From On Reserve: A Wine Law Blog
    (May 4, 2015):

    “Blue Moon Lawsuit: [Not] All About That Label”

    Link: http://www.winelawonreserve.com/

    By LINDSEY A. ZAHN

  5. Bob Henry says:

    From http://www.manick.com/Wine/Labels.html

    Excerpt: “Since the term “reserve” has no legal meaning in the U.S., wineries may use this term to designate a special bottling (i.e. “Show Reserve”) or limited production. In some cases a winery will use the term as a marketing tool and has no other meaning”

  6. Bob Henry says:

    “TTB [Tax and Trade Bureau]: time to clear up vague, misleading label terms” – Steve Heimoff (2011)

    Link: http://www.steveheimoff.com/index.php/2011/01/18/ttb-time-to-clear-up-some-of-these-vague-misleading-label-terms/

    Excerpt: “‘Reserve’ and ‘Private Reserve.’ These are routinely and wantonly abused because they have no meaning whatsoever. A wine cannot be a ‘reserve’ unless there’s a ‘regular’ but in case after case, you find there is no regular. So change the law. Make it mandatory that ‘reserve’ is a small percentage of the winery’s regular bottling of that wine.”

  7. What’s the point of this blog post? Life is tough. Too bad if you get fooled by misleading information.

    I can imagine Steve’s feelings changing if the example involved Dick Cheney and Iraq. After all, Cheney just promoted war by making some stuff up and leaving some stuff out. We call some of that stuff LIES when we get all worked up about it. We find a line that shouldn’t be crossed.

    Ultimately, it’s about trust. Many of the blog posts here are about trusting those making wine i.e. alcohol level and so-called manipulations. People can get quite upset if their trust is abused.

    The Blue Moon example is the same thing.

    We live in a world of too much information. Most of it is useless BS. Ultimately, I’m fine with someone trying to lower the level of deceptive BS. That said, I do believe there are more important battles in that war than Blue Moon.

  8. Bill Haydon says:

    Ironic column for you to have dug up, Bill. One can’t help but wonder how Steve’s position may have “evolved” on that particular issue.

  9. Bob Henry says:

    Brad.

    Quoting from your website:

    “As a small family operation inspired by the magic of wine to bring people together and a sense of discovery, we are dedicated to craft wines that reflect their unique place of origin.”

    Link: http://kitsonwines.com/about.html

    (Let me preface by stating the following is not a “gotcha” question.)

    From your perspective, what is a “craft” wine?

    Bob

    (Aside: I am unaware of the Stang Pinot Noir clone, sourced from the Donnelly Creek Vineyard in Anderson Valley for your award-winning [and microscopically small production — 63 cases] 2010 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir.

    Tell me more . . .)

  10. Bob,
    I don’t know the origin of the Stang clone. Mary Elke (mary@elkevineyards.com) likely could tell you more. My experience is that it offers more forest floor type aromas and flavors. I think it marries well with the much more well know Pommard Clone.

    I think craft is a matter of scale and attitude. I’m trying to make authentic wines to the very best of my ability. I stay involved in every aspect of the production of the wine. I strive to get better. I don’t do anything that I would need to hide from you. The wine comes before profit. I do think there’s a scale where the unique nature of a place will be lost in a larger blend.

  11. Bob Henry says:

    A postscript on “puffery” . . .

    Excerpt from The Wall Street Journal “Opinion” Section
    (May 2-3, 2015, Page A13):

    “Chipotle vs. Science”

    Link: http://www.wsj.com/articles/chipotle-vs-science-1430521665

    By Holman W. Jenkins, Jr.
    “Business World” Column

    “. . . Over the years the courts, in enforcing the Lanham Act, a federal law banning false advertising, have carved out a considerable zone for ‘puffery.’ Puffery, as one case puts it, is ‘an exaggeration or overstatement expressed in broad, vague, and commendatory language. Such sales talk is considered to be offered and understood as an expression of the seller’s opinion only, which is to be discounted as such by the buyer.'”

  12. Bob Henry says:

    A postscript to the Stang Pinot Noir clone mystery . . .

    I asked Dr. William “Rusty” Gaffney of The Prince of Pinot a.k.a. PinotFile (www.princeofpinot.com/about_the_prince/) to explore the origin of the Stang clone. Reproduced below is a note he received from Mary Elke of the Donnelly Creek Vineyard in Anderson Valley:

    “Thanks for asking about the two clones we grow that I don’t believe anyone else in Anderson Valley has. In 1990, we started Donnelly Creek Vineyard on a site of abandoned pear and apple orchards. The way we got a planting/development loan from American AgCredit was by having a long-term contract with Mumm Napa for the grapes we would produce beginning in year 4. So, initially, we were looking for Pinot Noir (and Chardonnay) clones that were known to be higher yielding and suitable for sparkling wine.

    “My husband and I had been growing grapes since 1978 in what is now known as Coombsville appellation of Napa Valley, and in our vineyard we had c. 4 acres of Pinot Noir “Elliott” clone for still wine that we had sold to Mondavi Winery. We were told that this was the old “Berringer clone” from the 1960’s. We called it “Elliott” because we got the budwood from a vineyard on Big Ranch Road in Napa owned by the Elliott family. We took budwood from our Napa vineyard to Anderson Valley and field-budded about 6 acres. The “Stang” clone is most likely a Davis 104 Pinot clone. Again we took budwood from an Alexander Valley vineyard owned by Mr. Stang – hence the name.

    “By 1995, we were experiementing with small lots of these two clones for still wine under my “Elke” label. As you and I have heard repeated over and over, site trumps clone, and we found that while we had selected the clones for sparkling wine, grown in Anderson Valley, they produced beautiful still wines. Then in 1998, we added some Pommard 5 that we planted in 1995.

    “The Elliott clone usually ripens early, is slightly lighter in color, but has great cedar-spice notes. The Stang clone provides a lot of structure to the wine and notes of blueberry and raspberry. Fel (formerly Breggo), Saintsbury and Elke all use the Stang clone in their Donnelly vineyard designate wines. My Elke pinots are 25% Elliott, 25% Stang and 50% Pommard 5.”

Leave a Reply

*

Recent Comments

Recent Posts

Categories

Archives