March 23, 2011

NB & Bell's: Let's All Relax, Don't Worry, Enjoy a Homebrew

The basic outline is pretty well known by now: Bell's Brewing served us, and not in a tall frosty way. NB has been legally asked to rename our Three Hearted Ale American IPA, our five-gallon tribute to a Bell's brew of a similar moniker.

The news hit Northern Brewer World HQ on Monday, and the buzz locally and around the blogosphere has been notable. Personally, I felt affronted in the same fashion that many of the NB faithful apparently were. Over the next 24 hours the news circulated through other outlets, with some taking neutral and not-so-neutral stances.

Many of you, our valued customers, have offered testimonials of powerful emotions about this. For many hours, I can say that my voice around the warehouse echoed your sentiments.

But this morning I'd like to take a moment to spread some calm:

The fact that a homebrew recipe kit became noteworthy enough to draw legal attention is a powerful statement of the love for brewing that made this kit one of our best sellers in the first place. Your choice in purchasing this kit, and likely your attraction to it via your enjoyment of its commercially-brewed muse, is the real story here.

I know plenty of homebrewers who have a deep reverence for a particular beer. Usually, one of their  first pursuits as a homebrewer is to try to reproduce or emulate the essence of that particular commercial beer - after all, what fun is a hobby without a personal connection? Those same homebrewers would be remiss to deny that it was their encounter with a pint or bottle of Bell's (or Sierra Nevada, or Dogfish Head, or Surly, or Founder's, or Russian River ...) that inspired them to spend their time and money creating a drink they could feel proud to have brewed.

It's in your hands that such a brew remains. NB has recipe kits in the spirit of historical styles and often specific (and trademarked) craft beers that lit the flames of our passions to brew. We're homebrewers ourselves, but NB is also a business and  as such, we have to comply with the rules of trade. While creating a recipe that emulates a popular brew to the effect of calling it a 'clone' isn't wrong, there are rules that govern how we market those recipes with the effect of preserving the integrity of the product that became so initially revered.

Let's put it this way: as a homebrewer you have the freedom to make any beer you so desire. As long as you're happily serving it to friends and family, without making a business enterprise of it, you're free to brew it and call it whatever you please. NB, as a business, has to play by a different set of rules. And that's where we're at today.

We're still offering the same recipe that you've made a best seller. You're still free to brew this fine ale. When it's done fermenting and is pouring from your bottle or tap at home, you're free to call it by whatever name you'd like! We have merely had to change the commercial moniker by which we sell said recipe.

You may very well have come to love this recipe kit because of your experience with the Bell's brew that it emulates. So please don't find yourself at odds with Bell's for protecting what they have, in kind, created. Bell's Brewing is amongst the finest producers of microbrewed ales, the world over. Their business obligations and the craft of the people who brew their great beers are separate entities, as any pro brewer can attest. I ask of you, our loyal homebrewers, not to call out or boycott Bell's for fulfilling their legal obligations. Remember, the people who acted on behalf of Bell's in instigating this change did so because of their commitment to their product, just as you choose NB because of your commitment to your product.

Let's be happy that we live in a nation that not only allows for such creativity to produce a beer that catches the tastes of brewers and beer lovers like ourselves, but a nation that gave us the freedom merely thirty years prior to have a hobby that so benefits our creativity and subsistence.

Cheers to our fine customers AND the fine people who make Bell's beer!


  1. Cease and Desist from Papazian coming up...

  2. and Cease and Desist dub step mashup in 3...2...1...

  3. A very mature response, Steve. I think you deserve a real apology, and that their reasoning, justification, and statement was a joke.

    Cheers to you for being the bigger company!

  4. What will the new name be, I heard that you will be holding a contest to find a new name?

  5. You guys should change the name to Fox River IPA to keep the theme going.

  6. Great post! Glad you and Bells could work it out so amicably. I have been looking to start homebrewing again (did it in the late 80's). And I will look to your company to help get me going again as a result of the way you have handled the situation. Cheers!

  7. @ollllo, Jeffrey, & Anonymous - thanks for the suggestions! We've enjoyed the outpouring of ideas this week.

    @wadeo - Sorry, there's not a contest, that must be one of those internet rumors. New name is already decided, labels being changed, and will be announced in the next few days.

    @John - cheers, and welcome back!

  8. I appreciate the NB response - but this is super lame on Bell's part. They named a beer after a river and an Ernest Hemingway story (which is awesome) but then they are trying to reserve the rights to that name (which they copied almost directly) and anything even remotely resembling it? Does not computer...

  9. I choose to support northern brewer, my "two hearted" © <---copyright kit will be bought in the next week and will be given an appropriate name at home...probably not a flattering one. This just reminds me of the beer wars movie. This isn't what the "craft" brew scene is about. Its about the passion and love of good beer and the people drinking or making it, NB represents that always including in this matter thats why they will continue to have my business.

  10. If anyone remembers, Bell's has gone thru this same issue. They were forced by Molson to change the name of Solsun to Oberon. (who could confuse Molson with Solsun?)

    Its a business, plain and simple, and laws are in place to protect businesses of all kinds.

  11. An other vote for changing the name to Fox River Ale!

  12. Author's revised kit name:

    Three of Hearts Pale Ale

  13. Do a prince like name change.... "The beer formerly known as Three Hearted Ale."

  14. I know I talked to you about this in person, Steve, but I figured I'd mention this for your readers as well... Bell's has a LEGAL OBLIGATION to protect their trademark for Two Hearted Ale. That's the way trademark law works. If they let spiritual brothers like Northern Brewer slide, what would happen when Annheiser-Busch or some other corporate giant decides to release "Too Heartless Ale", Bell's sues, and they get their 500 foot tall radioactive lawyers out of cold sleep to say "But Bell's did nothing to protect their trademark when this teeny little homebrew shop in Minnesota violated it!"

    Really, I doubt Bell's meant this in a mean-spirited way, or that they didn't feel a pang of guilt. But remember, they've already been on the receiving end of trademark law from some vicious corporate giant that could easy crush them out of existence with lawsuits. Those noxious cease-and-desist letters are one of the few defenses a small, decent company has against the predations of corporate giants.

    So please, everyone, give Bell a break, just as Steve has done. They had to do this.