The beer industry, like any industry, isn’t immune to grudges and disputes. But the lawsuit between California’s Stone Brewing and Chicago-based MillerCoors is playing out like some Real Housewives-level drama, minus the wig-grabbing and acrylic nails.
The latest oh-no-they-didn’t moment came this morning when MillerCoors submitted a counterclaim and answer to Stone’s lawsuit—beyond the legalese, the document throws more shade than a beach umbrella. Stone originally filed suit in February claiming that MillerCoors’ Keystone beer using the term “Stone” violated its trademark, and MillerCoors isn’t taking this accusation lightly.
In what amounts to a big legal clapback, MillerCoors counters that it, not Stone, owns the exclusive right to use the Stone mark in the United States. MillerCoors says that it began referring to Keystone cans as Stones back in 1995, years before Stone Brewing was even founded. If the judge were to accept this claim, it would mean that Stone Brewing would have to in effect stop calling itself Stone or branding its beers as such.
“It certainly is dramatic,” Brendan Palfreyman, a partner in the law firm Harris Beach and creator of TrademarkYourBeer.com, tells The Takeout. “I can’t get inside [MillerCoors’] head, but... I would be surprised if that was ultimately their goal, to prevent Stone Brewing from calling themselves Stone. But it certainly is a good bargaining chip that they could use to settle the litigation.”
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MillerCoors doesn’t stop there. The company punches back at Stone’s provocative video with some jabs of its own: “This case is not about ‘verbatim copy[ing],’ but Stone Brewing’s struggle with its new identity as a global mega-craft beer manufacturer. Gone is the small Stone Brewing of old.” Oooooh snap. The guaranteed, surefire way to rile up a craft brewery? Tell it that it’s not really craft anymore—it keeps the brewers awake at night.
MillerCoors twist the knife by mentioning the departure of Stone brewmaster Mitch Steele in 2016: “A private equity firm recently invested $90 million in a Stone Brewing venture. In 2016, the famed brewmaster behind Stone Brewing’s beers, Mitch Steele, quit the company, explaining that Stone Brewing had become too big: ‘I wasn’t planning on leaving, but you know, as these breweries get bigger and bigger, you struggle with the fact that you get further removed from the brewing process. You become a manager, you’re a strategist; you’re doing practically everything but brewing.’”
If this lawsuit was actually a reality TV show, this is the equivalent of MillerCoors bringing up its rival’s ex who dumped them and talked shit about them behind their back. Juicy! If you’re a beer drinker following along, pop another bag of popcorn because this spectacle isn’t going away anytime soon. Palfreyman notes that a previous lawsuit between two large craft breweries, Sierra Nevada and Lagunitas, was settled after just 24 hours. Don’t expect that here.
“This was an 82-page response, obviously well researched and well drafted and that tells me both sides are dug in,” he says. “I’d imagine this will be ongoing for some time.”