For the last four years, one of America’s biggest beer operations, Molson Coors, has been embroiled in a back-and-forth legal catfight with Stone Brewing, perhaps the most popular modern craft brewer in the mainstream market today.
At the crux of the case are two peculiar questions: Why on Earth would Molson Coors rebrand Keystone Light, the eternal drink of choice for frat-house fistfights and blacking out at Daytona 500, to refer to it as the new shorthand “Stone”? And why would Stone Brewing spend a huge chunk of change battling a corporate macrobrew company in court over this? How many people could possibly be confusing the two, given that Stone’s ales are roughly twice the price of Keystone Light?
The catfight escalated earlier this month when the trademark trial got underway, and it’s been a contentious fight that keeps wading into ridiculous territory. It’s less of a statement of how Craft Breweries Are Under Attack and more an indictment of how absurd America’s culture of branding and advertising can get. Anyone with a functioning set of eyeballs, taste buds and an intact frontal cortex can tell the difference between a Stone IPA and a Keystone Light, without even taking a sip — but winning at capitalism means finding an edge in the margins, no matter what.
To be fair, if there was any way for Molson Coors to piss off a company named Stone, this is it: The rebranded cans of Keystone prominently scream “STONE” on one side of the new blue packaging, with the words “Key” and “Light” tucked fore and aft of the word. Stone’s attorney Noah Haghey has argued that the rebrand was designed to combat a nearly $100 million decline in Keystone sales between 2011 and 2016, continuing that the rebrand leveraged the reputation of Stone Brewing to potentially deceive customers. He’s also argued that Stone has lost sales since the Keystone rebrand.
In the court case, Stone founder Greg Koch pointed to a handful of social media posts that confused the new Keystones with Stone beer as hard proof of a disinformation campaign. One post on Reddit featured a stack of Keystones in a store aisle, creating a lattice design of the word “STONE.”
“What impression did this make on you?” Hagey asked Koch.
“I don’t want to sound overdramatic, but horror… It’s beer, it says the word ‘Stone’ and it didn’t come from Stone Brewing. Steam coming out of my ears, flummoxed — all of the reactions,” Koch replied.
At first glance, this looks like a textbook case of the brave, tiny David taking on an evil, flavorless corporate Goliath in the name of self-defense and righteous justice. At least until you consider the counter-argument from Keystone lawyer Jonathan Bunge that Stone’s decline in sales happened during 2019, amid a beer industry slowdown that also led to the shutter of multiple Stone tasting rooms and the loss of several million dollars in revenue.
Putting that aside, there’s the hilarious irony that Stone Brewing itself is a behemoth in the craft-beer world — and its counsel has been on a legal tear in the last few years, mounting more than 125 trademark infringement complaints against all manner of bars, restaurants, pizza shops, wineries and even a popular rock-climbing franchise for daring to use “Stone” as part of their monikers. Stone has attempted to bully smaller businesses into giving up their names and rights, and the David-and-Goliath narrative starts to fall apart under this context. Perhaps it really is the case that Stone’s rage over infringement is more a symptom of capitalistic need than any principle about creative expression and rights to one’s unique work.
Which, fair! But copyright cleverness has always been a part of craft-beer culture, with endless riffs on protected brands just for the sake of witty lulz (consider the brews dubbed Guns ‘n’ Rosé and Breaking Bud). In part, the problem is just that craft brewing as an industry is so saturated that people are running out of names for their beers. And, for the most part, many violations go unnoticed by trademark and copyright holders, and often the impact is so immaterial that it’s not worth fighting.
But Stone appears to have been extra-inspired by the sheer size of Molson Coors, as well as the existential horror of being confused with shitty light beer, no matter how rare the occurrence. It didn’t help that Molson Coors paid for a series of billboards promoting the new Keystone rebrand to be installed next to Stone Brewing’s headquarters in Escondido, California. (This remains fundamentally hilarious to me, the observer, despite my long-standing love of Stone beers.)
No matter how you look at it, the fight over Keystones being confused for actual craft beer is stupid to the point of near frivolity. No, I’m not a copyright lawyer, and other legal observers have noted that this is a significant case, but I’m sorry — if you’re spaced out enough to think the $8 six-pack of “KeySTONE Light” beers you bought is a product from a legendary indie California brewer, perhaps the last thing you need is a legitimate 9 percent ABV imperial IPA coursing through your system.
The best part of all this may just be that Koch, the founder of Stone, once claimed that a light beer is a product that would never, ever be associated with Stone… yet the suit rolls on. Clearly, beer drinkers need to be protected from their own lapses in common sense — and, more importantly, Stone needs to cling to the principle, and profits, in equally paranoid measure.