A California craft beer drinker has filed a class action lawsuit against MillerCoors, claiming that Blue Moon's parent company tricked him into thinking the mass-produced wheat ale is a craft beer. Evan Parent, the plaintiff leading the suit, brought the case forward on behalf of all Blue Moon buyers in California and says the premium price tag, placement among other craft beers, and labels and advertisements with slogans like "artfully crafted" falsely portrays the beer as a hand-crafted, independently-owned product.
Parent points to the definition of a craft brewer, set by the craft beer trade group, the Brewer's Association. It states that a craft brewer must be small (less than 6 million barrels, which MillerCoors exceeds), independent (not owned by a non-craft brewery or business), and traditional (using traditional and innovative ingredients).
MillerCoors may not seem to fit that model, but federal government doesn't technically have a definition for craft breweries, says Danielle Teagarden, a lawyer at the Seattle-based Reiser Legal that specializes in the brewing industry. "Craft is just what the consumer thinks it is. I wouldn't think Boston Beer is craft; how big does a brewery have to be?"
Playing to Parent's favor however, are California's consumer protection laws, which are some of the strictest in the country. Parent's suit points out that nowhere on the Blue Moon label does MillerCoors name itself as the brewery. Instead it points to the tiny Blue Moon Brewery, which functions as a pilot facility for small batches at Denver's Coors Field.
MillerCoors — a joint venture between SAB Miller and Molson Coors for U.S. beer sales — also owns the Henry Weinhard's, Leinenkugel's, and Crispin Cider brands. While MillerCoors.com does proudly tout the beers in its "craft" portfolio, those labels also refer back to their craft-portrayed brewery, not MillerCoors. "I think it’s great the MillerCoors connection is all over the web and Wall Street and business magazines, but it need not be on every label and ad," says lawyer Robert Lehrman of Lehrman Beverage Law. If MillerCoors secretly owned Blue Moon, that'd be different, he says. "But it’s no secret here. Anyone who cares knew a long time ago. It is preposterous that the plaintiff is a craft beer aficionado and didn’t know."
Lehrman thinks the whole suit may not be a battle to protect consumers and the craft beer name, so much as a gamble for a big payday by Parent's lawyers at Clark and Treglio law firm. "I suspect Parent is getting his same rent-a-plaintiff fee whether the lawyers win or lose."
"Class actions are notorious for their outsized attorneys's fees relative to any benefit for the class, so these plaintiffs’ attorneys are likely hoping for a large fee award if they are able to secure a good result," says Simon Fleischmann, a class action defense attorney at Locke Lord. He adds the case would also bring exposure and credibility, while a "good result" would also be a sizable settlement instead of a court win.
MillerCoors isn't staying quiet on the matter and responded to the suit with a short statement backing up the craft and clarity behind Blue Moon: "MillerCoors is tremendously proud of Blue Moon and has always embraced our ownership and support of this wonderful 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."
So should MillerCoors be able to brew massive batches of Blue Moon alongside Coors Light and group it into the craft camp? Or should Blue Moon get knocked down to the cheap beer shelf alongside its light beer brothers and sisters? Sadly, both solutions seem beside the point as this struggle between lawyers that leaves beer lovers no one to root for.