Stone Brewing Co. has beer fans divided over its aggressive pursuit of trademark protection.
Stone Brewing is one of the cornerstones of San Diego beer, and of the craft brewing industry as a whole. Behind marketing slogans such as “yellow fizzy beer is for wussies,” Stone has long postured its brand as an underdog: a scrappy champion of small, artisan brewers taking on a corporate, big beer establishment that treats the beverage as a commodity.
That fight became less symbolic in 2018, when Stone launched a highly publicized lawsuit against MillerCoors and its budget beer brand, Keystone, alleging trademark infringement over Keystone cans that put a clear emphasis on the word “Stone.”
Except Stone itself is not so small anymore. Entering its 25th year, the brewery that gave us Arrogant Bastard ranks as the 18th largest brewery in a nation of eight thousand. It operates large brewing facilities on both coasts, and briefly served beer internationally, with a brewpub in Berlin, Germany (sold in 2019) and a taproom in Shanghai, China (recently closed).
So when Kentucky nanobrewery Sawstone Brewing emerged from obscurity last month to accuse Stone of using bully tactics over its own trademark dispute, Stone found itself on the opposite end of a big beer versus small beer public relations battle.
Earlier this year, Stone’s trademark attorneys hit Sawstone, which opened last August, with petition for cancellation filing with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Subsequently, a July 19 Kentucky Sports Radio story entitled “Shame on you, Stone Brewing” went viral, painting Stone as a heartless company using its superior resources, going after “a micro-brewery that is trying to stay above water during a global pandemic.”
Reinforcing the Stone-as-bully narrative is the fact that Stone has filed nearly a hundred such petitions for cancellation since January 2018. The agency’s website records reveal petitions against scores of alcohol production or retail businesses incorporating some variation of the word Stone in their trademark applications.
While Stone’s aggressive efforts to protect its Stone registered trademark may be easily traced to its lawsuit against MillerCoors, that trademark took a bruising hit in the court of public opinion. Craft beer fans across the internet, including plenty of longtime local fans, quickly “jumped on the hatewagon” against Stone.
At least, that’s how Stone Brewing cofounder Greg Koch characterized it in a wordy July 27 blog posted to the Stone web site entitled “In response to the wildly irresponsible actions of… Sawstone Brewing” — to date the brewery’s only official response to the “bully” allegations.
In the post, Koch, last seen in a documentary about himself entitled, The Beer Jesus From America, contends that the Sawstone kerfuffle is a “coordinated harassment campaign aimed at our company,” complete with “fraudulent reviews of our locations on well-known review sites.” He goes on to point out that trademark protection against “confusingly similar” branding is “a routine part of doing business,” and repeatedly asserts that these efforts, which are ultimately decided by the trademark agency, are resolved “amicably.”
A representative from Stone denied repeated requests to back up Koch’s claims by providing examples of fraudulent reviews or examples of amicable settlements reached in prior trademark disputes.
As to whether or not Stone is a bully, the majority of Stone’s trademark petitions appear to have merit. For example, it contested a Stoney’s Brewing Company in the Pittsburgh area, and a Cask & Stone Brewery in Napa, California, where Stone operates a brewpub. Others seem more open to interpretation, such as the Stone Bowl, a fruit bowl restaurant in Georgia, or Holystone Distilling in Salt Lake City. Stone has also sought for trademark protection over the word Bastard — objecting to such beer names Magnificent Bastard and Approachable Bastard.
However, Closer to home was the August 2019 petition aimed at a small local brewery, La Mesa’a Helix Brewing Co., and its flagship IPA that goes by the name “Stoner Moment.”
From a lay perspective, it would take a true stoner moment to find the term ”confusingly similar” to the Stone brand, to use Koch’s metric. In light of the current dust up, one would think that Stone would have more interest in preserving cultural cachet than going after a small brewer in its own backyard. However, at this writing Stone lawyers remain engaged with Helix over the use of the term. Helix Brewing founder Cameron Ball declined to comment on whether Stone’s overtures to settle the matter could be described as “amicable,” he does report that “Stone Brewing is not going to drop their objection to Stoner Moment.”
And while backers of Sawstone Brewing Co claim any similarity to Stone Brewing Co is moot because the historic building housing its brewery was constructed from sawstone, history suggests Stone’s trademark protection was always going to succeed. Which leaves little doubt Sawstone has engaged this fight primarily as an opportunity to gain national attention (and set up a GoFundMe campaign that has raised nearly $15K).
In that respect, Greg Koch is the last person who should be casting stones (no trademark violation intended). Koch made his name and fortune leveraging a David against Goliath stance. If he’s content to play Beer Jesus, settling into the Goliath role should be a cinch.
UPDATE: post deadline, Helix brewer Cameron Ball added, “Negotiating with Stone has been a positive experience. Greg Koch put me in touch with his in-house counsel who was understanding and pleasant to work with. Both Stone and Helix are focused on a mutual resolution and are actively working towards that together as collaborative brewers would do.”