The two largest craft brewers in California are now embroiled in a trademark dispute over craft’s most ubiquitous style — the India Pale Ale.
On Jan. 12, Lagunitas Brewing Co. filed a lawsuit against rival Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., the second-largest craft brewery in the country. According to the suit, a new Sierra release, Hop Hunter, infringes on Lagunitas’ trademarked logo designs and packaging for its own Lagunitas IPA — particularly the company’s famous labels that feature the stylized, oversized letters “IPA.”
The lawsuit comes just days before Sierra Nevada planned to roll out a new beer, Hop Hunter.
Lagunitas has asked a judge to issue a restraining order that would prevent Sierra from launching the beer, asserting that the proposed label designs on Hop Hunter, itself an IPA, feature “all capital, large, bold, black ‘IPA’ lettering in a font selection that is remarkably similar to the iconic Lagunitas design.” The suit also features a request for unspecified damages.
“I wish it wasn’t happening, but wishing does not make it so,” Lagunitas founder Tony Magee told Brewbound. “There are thousands of IPAs in the United States, all of which use those three letters and those brewers have found unique and individual ways to present them.”
The label isn’t just similar to Lagunitas’ design, according to the filing, but is also a radical departure from traditional Sierra labeling, enough to both create consumer confusion between the two brands and to potentially make consumers “believe that Hop Hunter IPA is a collaboration with Lagunitas, and, thereby, sponsored or approved by Lagunitas.”
Sierra refused to comment on the lawsuit. An official statement on the Sierra web site noted: “Hop Hunter IPA is the latest product in our portfolio, with the bright Sierra Nevada banner prominently displayed across the top of the design, and the beer style underneath — an IPA in this case — so that beer drinkers know exactly what beer they are reaching for. We have no interest in our products being confused with any other brand.”
Sierra has big plans for Hop Hunter; last week, executives told Brewbound the new beer would be the “single biggest release since Torpedo.” Torpedo is currently the best-selling IPA in the U.S. Sierra Nevada has until 10 a.m. on Jan. 15 to file its response to Lagunitas’ request for a temporary restraining order against the release of Hop Hunter. A preliminary hearing is set for Jan. 20 at 1:30 p.m. in Oakland, Calif.
Lagunitas currently owns four federal trademarks for its popular IPA label, a brand that was introduced into the marketplace in 1995. In each of those trademarks, Lagunitas does not claim the exclusive right to use “IPA” or “India Pale Ale.” Rather, it is the design of the logo that it is seeking to protect by filing suit.
Magee claims in an affidavit that his company sent a cease-and-desist letter to Sierra Nevada on Dec. 5 after he saw images of the Hop Hunter labels. He also said in the affidavit that he had personally communicated with Sierra Nevada founder Ken Grossman, but could not “negotiate and amicable solution.”
Magee told Brewbound that he begrudgingly filed the lawsuit against Sierra.
The India Pale Ale is the most popular style of craft beer in the U.S. In 2014, according to market research firm IRI, more than 21 percent of all craft beers sold were IPAs.
Sierra Nevada’s Torpedo Extra IPA currently makes up more than 2 percent of all craft sales, according to IRI. Sales of Lagunitas IPA are just under 2 percent of total craft sales.
Brendan Palfreyman, an attorney at Harris Beach PLLC in Syracuse, N.Y., said he believes Lagunitas has an uphill battle to fight.
“I think it will be a difficult case for Lagunitas to win, only because the overlap is really the use of the acronym IPA in large letters, centered on a beer label with a particular font,” he told Brewbound.
A judge will most likely focus on the subtitles of each label, and look to analyze things like shape, size, spacing and font texture, Palfreyman added.
The lawsuit comes at a time when breweries are increasingly trying to defend their trademarks amidst a growing competitive set. In the past, Lagunitas has aimed to work through potential trademark conflicts outside of the courtroom. In 2012, Magee approached the owners of fellow California craft brewery, Knee Deep Brewing, about a similar-looking IPA label. Magee told Brewbound that the two parties moved forward “without lawyers.”
More recently, in 2013, Lagunitas received a cease-and-desist letter from Sweetwater Brewing for the use of the “420” on its labels. Rather than taking the Atlanta brewery to court, Magee said he simply removed “420” from his company’s labels.
Magee told Brewbound that it was important to look at trademark lawsuits from a “global perspective.”
“The craft breweries of today will be the global brands of tomorrow,” he said. “One day, Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors, Heineken and Diageo will attempt to emulate the best of American craft breweries. I have to take these steps now to protect a future that I think is 100 years long.”
If that’s the case, other craft brewers currently selling IPA packages with oversized, stylized lettering ought to be concerned: Interestingly enough, Lagunitas also claims in its lawsuit that, to the best of its knowledge, no other U.S. brewery had marketed or sold India Pale Ales using the acronym “IPA” prior to the company’s launch of its flagship brand.
Embedded below are full PDF versions of the complaint and Tont Magee’s affidavit.