As the craft beer industry continues through it’s first real boom period, we’re likely to hear more and more about one brewery being upset with another for cribbing ideas or methods from one another. The beers themselves have even begun to mimic each other in style and flavor. We’re at the very tail end of brewers still trying to figure out what really works in a retail marketplace. Just as one brewery finds success with a gluten-free bourbon peach kombucha beer, it’s only a matter of time before we’ve got five more to choose from. (Think the avalanche of pumpkin ales we drowned in following the rise of Southern Tier’s Pumking.)
Nowadays, brewing the beer is the easy part when you consider what it takes to sell it in such a competitive marketplace. What works in the brewpub might not do so well on the shelves of a grocery store. Think about the shelves of your local beer store. What does it take to stand out these days? Everyone’s label art is shiny and fun. It has to be, or else it will be swallowed up in a sea of ambient label fonts and brown glass. Rogue Brewing has even gone as far as spray painting their bottles hot pink to catch a few more eyes at the beverage center.
One of the first notable micro brews to market their beer in such a way is, yes, Magic Hat. While certainly no Magic Hat apologist, they certainly have themselves a dedicated following of people who just simply do not care about malts and hops and just want to drink a beer because they think beer is tasty. They’ve done an especially great job of branding their flagship beer, #9. The bright orange cans and logo have made it the go-to favorite beer of people who do not give a shit about beer. They might drink Miller Lite or something else regularly, but MAAAAN if they didn’t love the beer they tried at their nephew’s college graduation party and had to tell everyone about it.
One brewery from Lexington, Kentucky called West Sixth Brewing flew a little too close to the sun, and is now the subject of a lawsuit with Magic Hat over trademark infringement. I first heard about this yesterday, when West Sixth launched a campaign smearing Magic Hat as corporately-owned (true) legal bullies (maybe true) who are just being big old jerks and telling them they have to change the branding or feel the wrath of South Burlington heaped upon them.
This morning, Magic Hat issued a press release with their side of the story. They say they attempted to work with West Sixth prior to any litigation, and only considered legal recourse after West Sixth stopped cooperating. Magic Hat says they had an agreement for several changes to be made before West Sixth walked away from the table. According to the press release, those changes included:
1. Remove the design element that mirrors Magic Hat’s #9 starburst/dingbat star packaging;
2. Use and promote the wording West Sixth Brewing in conjunction with the design (Magic Hat agrees that this will help eliminate confusion);
3. Work in good faith to phase out and replace any existing materials that may contain the prior version of the encircled “6” design;
4. Amend its current federal trademark application or re-file the application with the new design.
What the press release also included, which is at the top of this post, was a side-by-side picture of the two cans, something West Sixth’s petition to boycott Magic Hat doesn’t think to include. I was more than willing to jump on Magic Hat yesterday after reading their side of the story. Problem is, I take one look at that photo and I immediately see their gripe. I don’t think they were trying to deceive anyone. The regular West Sixth logo appears to be some kind of pea green, not orange. The similarities remain. Just because you didn’t mean to rip anyone off doesn’t protect you from someone saying you ripped them off. While yes, it’s slightly silly to point out that a six is an upside-down nine, but the thing about beer cans is that they can be shipped or even displayed upside down whereas bottles can’t. It does not take much to confuse people these days, so don’t act like it’s out of the question more than a few people to make that mistake.
At this point, regardless of how this shakes out, consider it a massive win for West Sixth. Hell, I hadn’t heard of them until yesterday but I found it interesting enough to break out the old keyboard machine and write. Win or lose, their name is out there now. I can’t exactly say I agree with their tactics, but they’ll be painted as the brewery that dared to challenge the big bad corporate brewery for having the audacity to have a logo similar to one they created after the fact. People love an underdog story.
Problem is, our homie the underdog in this situation is in the wrong. Which is why I’m politely asking West Sixth to never do anything that forces me to side with Magic Hat ever again. You guys do your thing quenching the thirsts of the people of Lexington, Kentucky. It’s a noble calling. But Magic Hat has nothing to gain from a war with you other than it’s intellectual property back. I don’t need to defend them anymore than you’re attempting to milk this situation for all the publicity you can needed to be pointed out.
I still won’t be buying any Magic Hat though, just not because of this.