Last week, Blue Moon Brewing Company had a class-action lawsuit filed against it by beer drinker, and homebrewer, Evan Parent. He asserts that the packaging and labeling of Blue Moon Belgian White, combined with its premium price, and placement on shelves adjacent to craft beer constitutes consumer fraud on the part of parent company MillerCoors.
On the one hand he's got a valid point. Blue Moon has always been a Coors product. It is part of the craft and import division of MillerCoors called Tenth and Blake. Other breweries in this division include Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co., 10th Street Brewery, AC Golden, Birra Peroni, and Plzensky Prazdroj (better known to English-speaking drinkers as Pilsner Urquell), as well as hard cider maker Crispin, among others. The Founder and Head Brewmaster of Blue Moon Brewing Company, Keith Villa, was a yeast scientist at Coors before being sent by the company to get his Ph.D. in Belgium in 1988. Coors even paid for his education, which admittedly was not a huge sum of money at the time. After receiving his degree, he returned to the U.S. and was put in charge of new product development. He devised and opened The Sandlot Brewery (now known as Blue Moon Brewing Co. at the Sandlot), a 10-barrel facility situated inside Coors Field. It was in this facility that he created a Belgian-style Wheat Beer. That beer, originally called Bellyslide Belgian White (The Sandlot's beers had baseball-themed names at the time), was eventually named Blue Moon Belgian White. This paved the way for a new style beer in the average consumer's palate. Though, to be fair, Blue Moon also has pockets deep enough to buy placement anywhere MillerCoors feel it is appropriate, particularly when it comes to shelf placement in any supermarket. This is a dirty little secret that explains why most shoppers buy boxed cereal at eye-level versus the same stuff in bags at foot-level. Given that and Blue Moon's marketing, it is easy to understand how they could be mistaken for a craft brand.
On the other hand, "craft" has no legal definition. Craft is an industry term set forth by the Brewer's Association. Certainly a case can be made that the packaging of Blue Moon is deceptive to the average consumer of beer as there is no mention of MillerCoors on any of the packaging. It is worth noting that the definition of craft is constantly changing so as to include those larger brewers not owned by macro brewers; Yuengling, Samuel Adams, Lagunitas, Sierra Nevada, to name a few.
It would, however, be tough to legally prove outright fraud on the part of MillerCoors and, in fact, there might be a precedent set in a related industry; spirits, to shield them from financial harm. Recently, Makers Mark had a class action suit against them dismissed by a U.S. District Court in Tallahassee. The plaintiff in the case objected to parent company Beam Suntory's use of the word "handmade" on it's labels. The judge in the case stated that "...nobody could believe a bourbon marketed this widely at this volume is made entirely or predominantly by hand." Indeed, a similar case could be made in favor of Blue Moon in that no one could believe that a beer available at every deli, bodega, supermarket, gas station, 7-11, and Rite Aid could be perceived as having come from a small independent craft brewery. It's just not possible to have that market reach with such limitations. In the spirits world, this could also spell good news for Tito's Handmade Vodka, also currently embroiled in a class action lawsuit, although many of the claims in that suit have already been dismissed. That being said, a ruling in January found that consumers who thought that Kirin Ichiban was brewed in Japan (it hasn't been since Anheuser-Busch acquired it in 1996) are entitled to a refund. This could really go either way.
What's far more troubling to me is corporations acquiring smaller craft brands, Recent examples include A-B InBev, purchasing Blue Point, 10 Barrel, Goose Island, and Elysian. Those brands have long enjoyed public recognition as craft and, in the case of Elysian, continues to produce a beer called "Loser", the label of which proudly states that "corporate beer still sucks". As market share for craft beer continues to infringe on macro beer and as macro's overall share continues its decade-long contraction not just in overall craft vs. macro consumption but also in beer vs. wine vs. spirits consumption, macro-breweries have found it necessary to recapitulate and alter their approaches to the market in order to get their products in the hands of consumers less likely to take them on faith and brand recognition alone. A-B InBev's approach to the market was off-putting enough that Elysian Co-founder and Brewmaster Dick Cantwell recently resigned from Elysian following A-B InBev's takeover, after a few months of trying to make it work. It's also interesting to note that Blue Moon has provided material and scientific support for craft brewers such as Kim Jordan of New Belgium (who just so happens to be Dick Cantwell's girlfriend).
The question is, does the average consumer make a choice to purchase a beer because they think it's craft or do they drink something that they like and is readily available in the market (even if that market is their local 7-11)? Given the size and distribution footprints of these macros, are these takeovers helping or hurting craft? Should we view macros' offerings as a readily available entry points that can serve to expand the palate of the average light adjunct American lager drinker? Should we think of their beers as a gateway into more interesting and flavorful beers? Or, is their appearance as craft (some would say "crafty") an assault on the craft industry as a whole, which continues to carve out market share in an environment where overall beer sales are in decline?
So, what's the answer? Do consumers have a right to know that the beer that they're drinking is from an independently-owned, small-batch brewery or from one of the international conglomerates? Does the average drinker really care? Chris Cuzme, of Cuzette Libations, frequently says, "There are 2 types of beer. The good kind and the other kind." If the macros make the good kind, who are we to tell others not to drink up?
To me, that attitude is the key difference between a beer nerd (or enthusiast) and a beer snob. Let people drink what they want. Educate when you can and in the meantime, relax, don't worry, have a homebrew.