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What counts as ‘craft’ beer? Nobody knows, at least for now
By Daniel Garner on October 28, 2015 at 6:00 PM

A California judge dismissed a class action lawsuit against MillerCoors that alleged deceptive advertising related to the brewing conglomerate’s Blue Moon beverage — specifically its status as a “craft” beer.

In Evan Parent v. MillerCoors LLC, Case No: 3:15-cv-1204-GPC-WVG (S.D. Cal. Oct. 26, 2015), the plaintiffs alleged that MillerCoors was deceiving consumers by (a) advertising Blue Moon on its website as a “craft” beer, and (b) advertising it as “artfully crafted” and brewed by the Blue Moon Brewing Co. on bottles and commercials, then selling it at premium prices.

According to the plaintiffs, relying on an industry group for American craft breweries known as the Brewers Association, a beer is only a “craft” beer if the brewer:

  • Produces less than 6 million barrels of beer annually
  • Is not more than 25 percent owned or controlled by a non-craft brewer
  • Makes beer using only traditional or innovative brewing ingredients

Thus, according to the plaintiffs, MillerCoors – which produces more than 76 million barrels of beer annually – does not qualify as a craft brewer, and its advertisements for Blue Moon as being “artfully crafted” or “craft” beer is deceptive.

U.S. District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel in the Southern District of California dismissed the claim without prejudice, finding that the plaintiffs’ complaint did not state a claim showing that a reasonable consumer could be deceived by MillerCoors’ advertisements of Blue Moon. Among his reasons included the fact that MillerCoors’ own website advertises Blue Moon prominently, meaning that a reasonable consumer would know MillerCoors brewed the beer. He also noted that the plaintiffs failed to allege any facts suggesting that MillerCoors controls where retailers place Blue Moon on their shelves or that the price of a product, by itself, constitutes any sort of representation about the product.

Curiel also rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that MillerCoors intentionally deceived consumers by advertising that Blue Moon is brewed by “Blue Moon Brewing Co.” (the beer’s trade name) rather than by MillerCoors. In denying the claim, the court noted that federal regulations specifically permit a brewer to label or package beer pursuant to a registered trade name, which is exactly what MillerCoors does with respect to Blue Moon.

Curiel refused to rule on whether there is any actual definition of what constitutes a “craft beer,” finding instead that a consumer could not be deceived by MillerCoors’ website calling the beer a craft beer, again because by visiting the website, a reasonable consumer would know MillerCoors was the brewer.

Because Curiel declined to consider whether craft beer has a legal definition, the long-term ramifications of the ruling are unclear. But before beer manufacturers or retailers start advertising mainstream, large-production beers as craft beers, they should note that Curiel declined to consider the possibility that “craft” has a legal meaning based only on a technicality (the plaintiffs alleged only one instance of MillerCoors advertising Blue Moon as a “craft” beer – on its website, which could not be deceiving since consumers would know MillerCoors was the brewer). If MillerCoors had called Blue Moon a craft beer on a television commercial (which does not identify MillerCoors as the brewer), for example, Curiel likely would have had to consider whether that advertisement was deceptive.

So if you make or sell beer at retail, you still may need to think twice before calling it “craft” beer. But as a beer consumer, feel free to start claiming that you enjoy a good craft beer every now and then, no matter what kind you drink. For now, no one can tell you you’re wrong, and as the great television show “Futurama” once told us, being “technically correct” is “the best kind of correct,” a sentiment any good beer snob is sure to appreciate.

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