In April, a California beer drinker sued MillerCoors, the makers of Blue Moon, for deceiving him into thinking the macro-brewed wheat ale was a true craft beer. The case was likely just an attempt by opportunistic lawyers looking to cash in on bogus marketing claims — prior suits caught Anheuser-Busch brewing Beck's and Kirin Light in the U.S. but labeling them "imported" — and it was recently thrown out by a federal court.
The plaintiff had pointed to the Brewers Association's definition that craft beer is small, independent, and traditional, but the judge rebuffed the argument as the BA's criteria are not legally binding. MillerCoors was also accused of misleading consumers by hiding its ownership behind the fictitious Blue Moon Brewing Co., but the judge acknowledged that the company had filed all the necessary paperwork to do so legally.
It's unfortunate that any beer, no matter its origin, can be labeled "craft," but it's not surprising. "A lot of smart people have tried to define this term, and it continues to be quite elusive," says Robert Lehrman, the principal attorney at Lehrman Beverage Law. "It's hard to imagine that resource-constrained governmental entities will want to jump into this fray anytime soon." Lehrman also points to the difficulty in defining handmade, a word on the Tito's vodka label that's drawn eight lawsuits, as reason to believe a binding definition for craft beer won't ever happen.
States can create their own alcohol-labeling laws, but getting a state to protect "craft beer," would take years and be very controversial, says Lehrman. What's more, the BA's definition has evolved over the years. The maximum size of a craft brewer, for instance, has grown to accommodate Boston Beer, makers of Sam Adams. If the trade group's rules change and a state's doesn't, the protection becomes another senseless rule, like that Texas statute that you can't label a beer "beer" if it's more than 5 percent alcohol — you call it an "ale," even if it's a lager.
About two dozen craft-like breweries operate or distribute in the U.S. Some are partially owned, like Lagunitas's 50-percent share belonging to Heineken; wholly owned, such Anheuser-Busch InBev's Goose Island; and others, your Blue Moon and Shock Top, exist only in the imagination of marketing departments. We're not saying to avoid non-craft brewers, Lagunitas Sucks IPA and Goose Island Bourbon County stout are phenomenal, after all. But it's good to know where your suds are coming from.