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Stone Brewing Co. sues MillerCoors over Keystone beer

California’s Stone Brewing Co. has filed a lawsuit against MillerCoors over its emphasis of the word “stone” in its Keystone Light rebrand, calling it a “surprisingly bold” and “disconcerting” appropriation of its own name.

Co-founder and executive chairman of Stone Brewing, Greg Koch

It follows the rebranding of MillerCoors Keystone Light beer to emphasise the “Stone” rather than the “Key” in its name, which Stone Brewing says demonstrates intention to create confusion in the marketplace with their own brand.

Filing a lawsuit on Monday, Dominic Engels, Stone Brewing CEO, claimed that Keystone’s rebranding is “no accident”, and that the big beer company had tried to register their name years ago but was rejected.

“Now its marketing team is making 30-pack boxes stacked high with nothing but the word ‘STONE’ visible,” he said. “Same for Keystone’s social media, which almost uniformly has dropped the ‘Key.’ We will not stand for this kind of overtly and aggressively deceptive advertising. Frankly, MillerCoors should be ashamed.”

‘Surprisingly bold’

Stone Brewing’s lawsuit was accompanied by a YouTube video featuring Greg Koch, co-founder and executive chairman of Stone Brewing, who describes the actions of MillerCoors as “surprisingly bold” and “disconcerting”, stating that in the world of beer “the name Stone is ours”.

“My partner Steve Wagner and I started the company 22 years ago,” he said. “At Stone we have always prided ourselves on going our own way. We have developed into a unique entity that I’m enormously proud of and I feel privileged to to be part of the wider craft community. This heritage that we have spent so many years to build has been threatened, right out in the open.

“Perhaps I feel I have no other choice. Big beer has been flat or declining and the have gone out into the craft beer world and made acquisitions. They found people who are willing to sell out, unlike us. They know they can’t buy Stone. They can obfuscate, they can co-op our brand and good name, Or at least they can try. We believe Miller Coors is intentionally and deliberately trying to create confusion in the marketplace for their keystone brand and that is why we are suing them.”

Koch added: “You can end all of this right here and now by one simple move that reinforces your brand that you’ve built,” Koch said in the video. “Put the ‘Key’ back in ‘Keystone.’ Stop using Stone as a stand-alone word. It’s ours.”

‘Publicity stunt’

However MillerCoors’ media relations manager Marty Maloney, is reported to have dismissed the lawsuit as a “publicity stunt”.

In a statement, he said: “This lawsuit is a clever publicity stunt with a multi-camera, tightly-scripted video featuring Stone’s founder Greg Koch. Since Keystone’s debut in 1989, prior to the founding of Stone Brewing in 1996, our consumers have commonly used ‘Stone’ to refer to the Keystone brand and we will let the facts speak for themselves in the legal process.”

Founded in 1996, Stone Brewing, based in Escondido, was a pivotal member of the US craft beer movement in the late 1990s, producing a number of highly hopped beers, including Arrogant Bastard, and encouraging consumers away from so-called ‘big beer’ styles of lager.

Since then, craft beer has boomed, although sales now now naturally slowing, while big beer has struggled to retain a grip on the market with sales of some of the biggest brands falling flat or in decline.

In response, many big companies have acquired craft breweries. In the US, AB InBev has bought Houston-based Karbach Brewing Company and Virginia-based Devils Backbone, following earlier purchases of Goose Island, Blue Point, Elysian and Golden Road, while MillerCoors bought a majority stake in Georgia’s Terrapin Beer Co. in 2016 – to name a few. Globally, AB InBev has bought London-based craft brewers Camden Town Brewery and Italian craft brewer Birra del Borgo.

Most recently, London Fields brewery was bought by Carlsberg for about £1m in 2017, and Heineken completed its takeover of Lagunitas. London’s Meantime was bought by SAB Miller for £50m, then sold to Asahi in 2016.

Last October, the Brewers Association launched a tongue-in-cheek crowdfunding campaign entitled ‘Take Craft Back’ in a bid to raise US$213 billion to “buy” brewing giant AB InBev. Nearly $4 million was raised.

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