The battle between San Diego independent breweries and Big Beer continues, and this time the fight is going to federal Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
1999 Citracado Parkway, Escondido
Escondido-based Stone Brewing, long one of the most globally recognized brands of San Diego beer, announced February 12th that it has filed a lawsuit against Molson Coors Brewing Company, aka MillerCoors, for complaints including trademark infringement.
At the center of the suit is a recent rebranding of MillerCoors’ line of Keystone beer, which was started as a canned light beer offshoot of Coors Brewing Company nearly 30 years ago. In 2017, the labels of Keystone Light cans were redesigned, graphically separating the words "key" and "stone," with marketing materials appearing to place an emphasis on the word "stone."
The lawsuit contends that, in 2007, MillerCoors was denied use of the trademark "Stones" by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, in deference to Stone Brewing's registered mark. It further alleges that MillerCoors marketing executives have since begun “plotting to rebrand 'Keystone' as 'STONE' or 'THE STONE.'"
Currently counted among the top ten largest craft breweries in the United States, the 21-year-old Stone Brewing employs a gargoyle logo and has long positioned itself as the irreverent antithesis of flavorless big beer. Some of the lawsuit's language reflects this.
Filed by San Francisco law firm Braunhagey & Borden, the suit appeals to the United States District Court, Southern District of California, "to halt Defendant MillerCoors’s misguided campaign to steal the consumer loyalty and awesome reputation of Stone’s craft brews," and adds, "The Gargoyle does not countenance such misdirection of consumers."
Cofounder Greg Koch appeared in a video announcement explaining the lawsuit, saying, "We believe MillerCoors is intentionally and deliberately trying to create confusion in the marketplace with their Keystone brand." Later in the video, he denies the lawsuit is an attempt to seek publicity at Keystone's expense.
In a separate press release, Koch gave a more characteristically humorous response to Keystone's alleged misappropriation. "We all know Keystone is specifically designed to be as inexpensive, flavorless, and watery as possible," he said. "We can’t have potential Stone drinkers thinking we make a shudder light beer. Or for our fans to think we sold out."
Perhaps no other fight seems better suited to the ongoing battle between craft and macro beer. From early on, Stone Brewing staked its reputation on the sometimes extreme bitterness of its beers. The label for its heavily hopped flagship ale, Arrogant Bastard, even reads: "This is an aggressive beer. You probably won't like it."
Meanwhile, Keystone Light historically billed itself as the "Never Bitter Beer," and ran this amusing ad campaign warning the perils of drinking bitter beer include, "Bitter Beer Face."
In response to a request for comment, MillerCoors media relations manager Marty Maloney stated: “This lawsuit is a clever publicity stunt with a multi-camera, tightly-scripted video featuring Stone’s founder Greg Koch. Since Keystone’s debut in 1989, prior to the founding of Stone Brewing in 1996, our consumers have commonly used ‘Stone’ to refer to the Keystone brand and we will let the facts speak for themselves in the legal process.”