MillerCoors LLC, owner of the Blue Moon Brewing Company (“Blue Moon”) brand and purported brewer of the Belgian-style witbier, recently removed to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California a class action lawsuit filed by Evan Parent on behalf of himself and all similarly situated consumers.  Despite the fact that he claims to be a “beer aficionado,[1]” Parent alleges to have purchased Blue Moon beer from various retailers from 2011 to mid-2012 under the mistaken belief that it was a “microbrew or ‘craft’ beer.” Parent asserts that MillerCoors deceptively marketed and charged a premium for Blue Moon beer by: (1) misleadingly characterizing it as a “craft” or “artfully crafted” beer; and (2) withholding the name “MillerCoors” from its label.

In 1980, there were 8 craft breweries in the United States. By 2014, that number had grown to 3,418.  During that time, craft breweries have slowly cut into the massive share of the $100 billion domestic beer market held by large breweries, such as Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors. Craft beer has quickly grown from roughly a 3% market share in 2000 to 19% in 2014.  The large breweries have responded by creating their own “craft beer” brands, such as Blue Moon and Shock Top, and by purchasing craft breweries, such as Goose Island, Kona Brewing Co., Leinenkugel, and 10 Barrel Brewing.

Parent’s claim is founded upon the definition of “craft beer” set forth by the Brewer’s Association, a not-for-profit trade association, “dedicated to small and independent American Brewers, their beers and the community of brewing enthusiasts.”  The Brewer’s Association defines “American Craft Brewer” as:

  • Small: Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less;
  • Independent: less than 25 percent is owned or controlled by an alcoholic beverage industry member that is not itself a craft brewer; and
  • 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.

Parent alleges that Blue Moon is located in Coors Field, but that the Blue Moon beer sold in stores is brewed at MillerCoors’ Colorado and North Carolina breweries. Parent asserts that MillerCoors’ massive annual production takes it outside the definition of Craft Brewer set forth by the Brewers Association.

It is undisputed that MillerCoors does not qualify as a “Craft Brewer” pursuant to the guidelines set forth by the Brewer’s Association. Contrary to plaintiff’s assertion, however, the Brewer’s Association is not the arbiter of how “Craft Brewer” is defined.  Additionally, it remains to be seen whether “craft beer” can only be brewed by a “Craft Brewer.” In other words, it is unclear whether the term “craft beer” is reflective of the brewer who produces it or relates to the product itself. Does MillerCoors’ size preclude it from producing a “craft beer,” even if it uses quality ingredients and small batch sizes? Presumably, Parent will have a difficult time disputing the “quality” of Blue Moon beer given he purchased and consumed it regularly over an 18 month period. Despite being an “aficionado,” over that lengthy time period, Parent was unable to distinguish the “quality” of Blue Moon from the other craft beers he presumably consumed.

craft beer 2Parent’s suit is the latest foray of plaintiffs into the requirements of truth in labeling, as it relates to the beer industry, following Anheuser-Busch’s settlement with a class of consumers alleged to have been misled that Kirin Ichiban beer was brewed in Japan. Similar battles have been fought within the food and soft drink industry over terms such as “all natural” and “organic.”

Parent’s initiation of a legal battle over the definition of the term, “craft beer,” and the ability of the large breweries to use that phrase in reference to their product represents the culmination of a significant “craft beer” movement that has dramatically changed the landscape of the beer industry.  The outcome of this case will not only set an important precedent for future mislabeling and deceptive marketing class actions, it could also have a significant and widespread impact on the beer industry, particularly in how large breweries, such as Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors, respond to their market share losses, and promote their own “craft beer” brands and subsidiaries. Many interested parties will be watching this case carefully, including this writer.

 

[1] No self-respecting beer nerd buys Blue Moon., or refers to themselves as an “aficionado.”