Bell’s Brewery sends cease and desist letter to Northern Brewer

TwoHeartCan2011

Copyright Bell's Brewery - provided for context under fair use

(Kalamazoo, MI) – Northern Brewer confirms that Bell’s Brewery has sent them a cease and desist letter.

[3/23 Update II: Here’s the official response from Bell’s.]

[3/23 Update: This is a story that has brought a lot of passionate responses so I’m digging a bit deeper. I hope to get more from Bell’s as to how this came about if they are able to discuss it (may take a while where they are out at the Craft Brewers Conference which just started). I also have an email out to Northern Brewer to see if they typically get permission from brewers before designing/marketing kits that clone a brewery’s commercial beer. Is this a homebrewing industry-wide practice or not?]


Northern Brewer posted the following message on Facebook an hour ago:

So … we just received a letter from an attorney representing one of our favorite craft breweries; this letter informed us that we need to change the name of our Three Hearted Ale kit in a hurry. We’d love to hear your suggestions!

A Northern Brewer representative later confirmed that Bell’s Brewery sent a cease and desist letter. It’s a peculiar decision because Northern Brewer hasn’t filed a trademark application for the name, “Three Hearted Ale.” [Update: The kit has been around for ten years according to NB Marketing Director Jake Keeler.] It begs the question of how a homebrewing store can effectively communicate that a brewing kit can be used to create a clone of an existing commercial beer without using the name of that beer.

Regardless of the merit of the C&D, the Facebook thread is on fire with over 100 comments over the past hour. Some suggestions include, “triple middle fingers IPA,” “Cold Hearted Ale,” and “Cease and Desist Ale.” Northern Brewer is the fourth largest beer community on the internet with dozens tens of thousands of users. Did the lawyers poke a stick at the wrong beehive this time?

Oakshire Brewing even went so far as to create a commercially available “Three Hearted Ale” this past fall though it was a Single Batch release.

A USPTO search also shows that Bell’s requested an extension last week to oppose a trademark application for “Third Street,” an unreleased beer from Cold Spring Brewing in Minnesota. One of Bell’s longtime staples is a beer called, “Third Coast.” Perhaps the thought is that the word, “third,” as well as a location of some kind could cause confusion among consumers.

Bell’s Brewery’s spokesman was unavailable for comment.

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38 thoughts on “Bell’s Brewery sends cease and desist letter to Northern Brewer

  1. Total dick move. It should be noted, however, that they DO have a homebrew shop on the premises. So it’s not just the brewery going after a homebrew shop, it’s a homebrew shop going after a homebrew shop, sort of. Still a dick move.

  2. Larry Bell apparently wants to copyright all numbers in word form. What a Dick

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  4. Bell’s beer is crap over the last two years. Flat cases of beer, recalling Two Hearted for being spoiled. Quit supporting a dick. The guy thinks there is nothing wrong with his beer and it’s your taste. Support all of the better breweries in Michigan not run by jackasses.

  5. Sad. Compare this to Surly who actively collaborated with Northern Brewer to develop a Furious clone.

  6. What YNN said. I will refrain from Bell’s for a bit…I do have a cellar I can go to.

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  8. As a long time Kalamazoo resident, this appalls me. I like Bells beer, but I might just switch to keystone light… it doesn’t leave a bad taste in my mouth….

  9. People often want to lash out at Bells or any other brewery who ends up having to file one of these letters. In the end this is something they have to do. While it might not seem like a big deal that a homebrew shop is using something similar to their name the fact is for them to correctly defend their trademarks they have to show they are activily doing so. If they let this pass and then some other brewery picks the name up for a beer they could show Bells did not pursue action in the past. It might not be fun but people really need to relax and see Bells as being super evil or anything for something like this happening. It is just something that has to happen sometimes.

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  11. Agreed, who farted ale almost made me spit coffee on my monitor.

    Too Harded Ail was a good one, too.

  12. Why is it that everything thinks it is evil to protect a trademark? Do people not understand that there is a legal requirement wherein a trademark owner has to protect their trademark or else it is perceived as abandoned and allowing for another individual or company to come in and take it over? Sure it sucks, but at least it was just a C&D letter and not a lawsuit…

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  14. It’s also up to the trademark owner (via their lawyers, of course) to decide what they see as a threat to their mark and what is inconsequential. It’s well within Bell’s right to send out a c&d, though it’s a bit of a grey area to determine whether or not this is an infringement.

  15. @NobleSquirrel The problem as I perceive it is that the letter was sent without any other communication. The explanation they provided today was great but it came after the fact. Had they explained it this way w/ Northern Brewer first, I’m guessing NB would have understood and been more quiet about it. NB admits to being furious about it when they first received the letter: http://northernbrewer.blogspot.com/2011/03/nb-bells-lets-all-relax-dont-worry.html.

  16. Northern Brewer was selling Three Hearted Ale as a Bell’s clone. The likelihood that anyone would confuse that with a bottle of Bell’s Two Hearted Ale or that it would dilute Bell’s trademark is a stretch that only a trademark attorney on retainer would be willing to suggest. I call BS.

  17. @beersage & Kristen, perception can be reality. Unfortunately, this was a part of a formal defense for trademark protection. Bells didn’t feel that a phone call would have been sufficient. And to Kristen, there could very easily be a confusion that this was a licensed product and does attach Bells name to it, albeit somewhat discreetly. Anyone that has ever been to Northern Brewer or their website would be well aware of the fact that this is a Two Hearted clone just from the name. That’s where the line gets blurred. I reiterate that it sucks that it has come to this, but at the end of the day, the industry is running out of elbow room…

  18. @Noble I should clarify. Still serve the cease & desist to satisfy legalities but talk it over first so that the infringing party knows where you are coming from & why you still have to serve it.

    As ridiculous at this might sound, at this point, if I were a brewery sending a C&D, I would not only do it that way but also come out publicly & say what’s going on before it gets reported by another source. The court of public opinion rewards honesty & transparency these days. A consultant for a large company actually suggested recently that they make a mistake on purpose and come out & apologize for it afterwards. It’s brilliant when you think about it.

    That and the risk of letting others speculate or tell the story before knowing all of the facts is pretty high considering how much closer connected we are all now.

  19. @beersage, that’s fair. I agree that both steps should have been taken simultaneously. I actually find Northern Brewer to be more in the wrong with their response and posting it the way that they did. Did they bother to reach out to Bells at any point in the past or after receiving the C&D? At the end of the day, this is far from a big deal and way easier to stomach than the LA-Moylan’s Celtic Cross debacle…

  20. @Noble Yeah, I think all three parties (myself being the third) could have been more courteous in how we handled the situation or reported it out.

    I might actually bring on an ombudsman eventually if you’re interested. 🙂

    Cheers,
    Adam

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  22. As much time as I spend perusing your fine site, I suppose I could actually do something more worthwhiel 😉

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