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  • Writer's pictureDavid Baker

Craft brewer wins trademark lawsuit, sued for same thing

After a three-week jury trial, Stone Brewing Co. won its lawsuit against MillerCoors (now Molson Coors) for trademark infringement based on the misleading marketing Molson Coors' Keystone Light used to promote it beers in 2017. The San Diego federal court case came to an end when the jury decided that Molson Coors had unlawfully used Stone’s registered STONE trademark after the company rebranded its Keystone beer as STONE and awarded Stone Brewing $56 million.

Ironically, Stone Brewing now stands accused of doing many of the same things it claimed against Molson Coors.

Sycamore Brewing, LLC of Charlotte, North Carolina has filed suit against Stone Brewing based on allegations of trademark infringement involving the slogan “KEEP IT JUICY.” Sycamore makes Juiciness IPA and holds a registered federal trademark on the beer’s slogan, KEEP IT JUICY, which was issued in 2020. And yet, Stone Brewing has been the very same slogan to promote its Stone’s Hazy IPA brand, both on the beer packaging as well as on the brewery’s website, all without a registration or any rights conferred by Stone Brewing.

To make things worse, the two companies operate in the same geographical markets and in the same market type while using virtually identical slogans. Heck, even the font and visual styling are very similar. As such, it’s hard to imagine a jury (or a judge if the matter is presented by motion) not agreeing with Sycamore Brewing.

However, the most disappointing thing about the case may be the way Stone Brewing portrayed itself during the litigation against Molson Coors.

Stone Brewing is a well-known craft brewer, the nation’s 9th largest, yet produces a fraction of the beer produced by international beer behemoth Molson Coors. For example, Stone produced 347,000 barrels of beer in 2020 while Molson Coors produced more than two hundred times as much. In fact, the size of the monumental jury award was based on the fact that while the infringement occurred, Molson Coors sold more than $1.7 billion of Keystone beer branded as STONE. Yes, that’s ‘billion’ with a ‘b.’

Stone Brewing used this fact for the duration of the four years the lawsuit was underway, repeatedly proclaiming itself the underdog and claiming the moral high ground as the representative for other craft brewers that pride themselves on independence and quality over everything else. Victorious, Stone Brewing even publicized the win by claiming that it was a craft brewer fighting a big, evil microbrewery (the term “evil” was actually used by Stone Brewing).

Stone Brewing Co-Founder Greg Koch was reported as saying, “This is a historic day for Stone Brewing, and for the craft beer industry. MolsonCoors threatened our heritage, but we stood up to that threat. They will put the ‘Key’ back in ‘Keystone’ ending their hostile 4-year co-op of the Stone name. Cheers to our legions of fans, friends and supporters who believe in the good that craft beer brings. This is your win too.”

Of course, this only made fodder for Sycamore Brewing which deftly included the following arguments in its lawsuit against Stone Brewing,

“Stone is a craft beer pioneer. Every craft brewery in the world owes a debt to Stone for evangelizing craft beer at a time when most of the United States thought beer choices extended no further than Budweiser and Coors. To say Stone has helped invent the modern craft beer experience is in no way a stretch. Stone innovated beer styles that are still used by nearly every brewery on the planet. It afforded new breweries visions of themselves unbound from the limitations of “micro” and enlightened by a consumer exploring the vastness of “craft.”

But, as Stone grew larger and larger, it lost its way. While it used to preach the gospel of “community” in craft beer, it now seeks to damage smaller breweries by filing questionable trademark actions against them and to steal the trademarks of those smaller breweries it believes will not fight back. Sycamore is fighting back. Stone stole Sycamore’s registered KEEP IT JUICY trademark. Unlike the dubious trademark disputes Stone initiates, this case is based upon an actual trademark inarguably owned by Sycamore that Stone is using for the exact same purpose in the exact same markets. So, Sycamore will fight to maintain ownership of its trademark and brand. And, as it does so, it hopes to remind Stone that its existence used to be good for the craft beer industry before Stone decided that competition and innovation were things to damage, not celebrate.”

The case is now pending before the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina as Sycamore Brewing, LLC v. Stone Brewing Co., LLC, Case No. 3:2022cv00148 (W.D.N.C. 2022).

Why It Matters. Most trademark infringement lawsuits come down to evidence and arguments over similarities of the marks and the confusion in the minds of consumers. Rarely are they “open and shut” cases. Instead, they typically involve protracted litigation, expensive consumer confusion studies, and battling expert opinions are trial. This does not seem to be one of those cases. Hypocrisy much?

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