After years of debate over what constitutes a “craft brewer,” MillerCoors – which produces and markets the Blue Moon line of craft-style beers – has been hit with a class action lawsuit over the use of the word “craft” on both its website as well as various marketing and point-of-sale materials.
The suit, filed last week in the California superior court of San Diego County, alleges that MillerCoors deceptively brews, markets and distributes Blue Moon Brewing products in an effort to intentionally mislead customers into purchasing a “craft beer.”
“Through its false and deceptive marketing, Defendant misleads consumers to believe that Blue Moon is an independently brewed, hand-crafted beer,” The suit states. “While MillerCoors does not constitute a craft brewer, and thus Blue Moon does not constitute a craft beer, Defendant falsely identifies it as such on the MillerCoors website. This practice misleads consumers and allows Defendant to charge up to 50% more for Blue Moon beer than it charges for other MillerCoors products.”
Filed by Clark & Treglio, the complaint, which lists “beer aficionado and home brewer” Evan Parent as the plaintiff, claims MillerCoors violated California’s “Consumer Legal Remedies Act;” California’s Unfair Competition Law and participated in “deceptive and misleading acts.”
“Defendant’s business practices are immoral, unethical, oppressive and unscrupulous,” the suit claims.
In a statement sent to Brewbound, MillerCoors spokesman Jonathan Stern denied the claims and said the company is “tremendously proud of Blue Moon” and will continue to embrace its “ownership and support” of the brand.
“The class action filed against MillerCoors in California is without merit and contradicted by Blue Moon Brewing Company’s 20-year history of brewing creative beers of the highest quality,” he wrote. “There are countless definitions of ‘craft,’ none of which are legal definitions. We choose to judge beer by the quality, skill and passion that goes into brewing it.”
In the suit, the plaintiff, Parent, is characterized as a so-called “beer aficionado” who “frequently purchased” Blue Moon products from 2011 until mid-2012 from San Diego-area retailers.
According to the filing, Parent believed Blue Moon offerings were actually produced by independent craft brewers — the kind the Brewers Association defines as those that producing less than 6 million barrels and less than 25 percent owned or controlled by a non-craft brewer. There are currently 103 operating breweries in San Diego.
It wasn’t until July 2012 that Parent, the San Diego beer aficionado, learned that Blue Moon was in fact made by MillerCoors and stopped purchasing the brand.
The lawsuit relies on the BA definition of what it means to be a craft brewer and claims MillerCoors, which produces more than 76 million barrels annually, does not qualify as such.
It’s important to note, however, that the explanation of a “craft brewer” listed in the suit comes from a nonprofit trade organization whose stated purpose is to “promote and protect American craft brewers.” While there is currently no legal definition for what constitutes a “craft brewer,” the federal government does extend various excise tax break for small brewers producing less than 2 million barrels.
The complaint also states that MillerCoors goes to “great lengths to disassociate Blue Moon beer from the MillerCoors name,” and argues that the beer, which is brewed at multiple MillerCoors brewing facilities around the U.S. and not a “Blue Moon Brewing Company” location, is falsely advertised to consumers.
“In part, what we would like to see, is the end of the practice of deception that MillerCoors has undertaken with delivering its products,” James Treglio, the filing attorney told Brewbound. “It’s not just mislabeling — that would seem to indicate that they forgot to put the name on their products — what they are actually doing is specifically excluding their name from Blue Moon products.”
When consumers visit the bluemoonbrewingcompany.com website, Treglio said, MillerCoors is not clearly listed as the parent company. MillerCoors does however state its ownership of the brand on both millercoors.com and on tenthandblake.com, the company’s craft and import division.
Nevertheless, at the heart of this lawsuit is the contentious issue of truth in labeling and the ongoing struggle of determining the true meaning of “craft.”
Over the years, small brewers like Maui Brewing founder Garrett Marrero have spoke out against the tactic of deceiving customers with misleading labels that do not disclose the true ownership of a brand.
In 2011, he called Kona Brewing products — a brand owned by Craft Brew Alliance and produced on the mainland — “deceitful.”
“In our local market in Hawaii, it’s more competitive as what the average tourist sees as local beer,’” he told beer blog The Full Pint. “It’s disconcerting to say the least how acceptably deceitful the Kona labels on packaged product are. To me, and most of the world, local means made in the local area where the marketing makes it appear to be. For Hawaii, local would mean made in Hawaii. Can you image San Diego’s local beer being made in the Midwest?”
“For us, it’s more about truth in labeling and origin,” he added. “At least give the consumer the info and tell them on the package where its actually made rather than let them think its from here.”
That’s exactly what Treglio claims he’s after.
“We are trying to take the deception out of the market and allow consumers to make informed purchasing decisions,” he told Brewbound.
But MillerCoors isn’t the only company taking that approach. In fact, many BA-defined craft brewers without a physical brewing location have made a habit of hiding where their beers are contract brewed. Others have created entirely new product lines in an effort to experiment with new styles and control coveted shelf space.
But when questioned whether or not Clark & Treglio would pursue action against craft breweries engaging in similar practices – i.e. Boston Beer’s ‘Traveler Beer Company’ line of shandies – Treglio said he “wasn’t sure” if his firm would look for other cases, admitting, however, that future class action litigation could intensify if large beverage companies continued to participate in what he believes are dishonest business practices.
“Our focus is on this one particular case,” he said. “In this case, the whole Blue Moon product line was set up to deceive consumers of craft beer into purchasing the product.”
The lawsuit, filed April 24, seeks restitution and disgorgement and demands a jury trial.
Editor’s note (6:30 p.m. EST): Craft Brew Alliance executives reached out to Brewbound to note that all of the company’s labels, Kona included, currently list each city where CBA products are brewed. CBA currently produces its Widmer, Kona, Redhook and Omission lines of beers in Portland, Ore., Woodinville, Wash., Portsmouth, New Hampshire and under contract at Blues City Brewing in Memphis, Tenn. Kona’s bottled offerings are not currently produced on Hawaii, but are, however, sold on the Islands.