Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Sorry, craft brewers, you can't trademark the word "craft"

This is not going to be a popular opinion, but I see the point of the U.S. District Court judge who threw out a class action lawsuit seeking to prevent MillerCoors from calling its 70-million-barrel brand Blue Moon a "craft beer."

I'm not arguing that Blue Moon is good or MillerCoors is righteous or anything like that, so please don't flick your mustache foam at me. This is an argument about the English language, and who has the right to define it.

Demeter International trademarked the word "biodynamic" and can successfully sue companies that use it without certification. Different countries define the word "organic" and there are legal ramifications for companies that use it correctly.

But "craft," like "artisanal" or "handmade" or "natural," has no legal certification. It's free for anyone to use. And why shouldn't it be? We're not talking about health issues, as we would be with "organic." What is the public expectation for a "craft beverage"? Most importantly, who gets to define it?

The Brewers Association attempted to step in with a specific definition of "craft beer." But it's not all that well worded.

There are three requirements: small (6 million barrels a year or less); independent (not owned by a larger beverage company that's not a craft brewer; a bit tautological). The third, more nebulous requirement, is "traditional," but the definition is murky, because where does pumpkin spice ale fall:
Traditional: A brewer that has a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation. Flavored malt beverages (FMBs) are not considered beers.
"Traditional or innovative brewing ingredients?"

Anyway, my point is not to nitpick the definition, but to question the right of an association to form, exclude companies it doesn't like (i.e., the bad guys, the megabreweries), and take the word "craft" from them.

"Biodynamic" is a made-up word: Demeter can have it. I've written a lot about the bad definitions of "organic," but nobody doubts that consumers have an expectation of healthy produce when they see the word and it's better off defined.

"Craft," though, is widely used in a variety of fields without definition, to the point of being a cliche. But when you get to the heart of what it means, I don't think you can define it by size or ownership. I'm not saying Blue Moon is a good beer. But with all its resources, MillerCoors could make 1000 bottles of an absolutely bitching witbier or kriek lambic or anything else it wanted to. Why should an association of which it is not a member have the ability to say that such a beer is not a craft beer?

You want a term that can be defined by size and ownership? How about "microbrew"? MillerCoors might fight a legal definition of that in court, but the English language would not be on its side.

In this case, the English language, and the court system, may seem like it's on the side of the bad guys. But "bad" is all a matter of perspective. Don't forget the Jedi used their inherited, royalist midi-chlorians to stage a terrorist war against the meritocratic Empire.

My advice to the Brewers Association is to take a page from Demeter: Create your own word. Don't try to remove from circulation a word the rest of us are already using.

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