Stone Mill Pale Ale, from Crooked River Brewing Co. of New Hampshire, is the newest organic stealth micro from Anheuser-Busch, not that you’ll find any information about it on their corporate website. That’s because like Wild Hop Lager of Green Valley Brewing Co., the packaging reveals no information whatsoever about who’s behind the beer. Both beers are brewed by Anheuser-Busch at either their plant in Fairfield, California or Merrimack, New Hampshire (although I have no independent knowledge of either beer being brewed anywhere but Fairfield).
Similar to Wild Hop Lager in packaging, marketing and secrecy about its origins, the Stone Mill Pale Ale is targeting high end consumers with folksy, farm-friendly images and its organic certification. The only difference I can see is one is a lager and the other an ale. Both Crooked River Brewing and Green Valley Brewing are not real breweries, they’re dba’s owned by Anheuser-Busch. There’s nothing inherently wrong with using a dba, many businesses use them, including many contract breweries.
Until they bought the Hudepohl-Schoenling Brewery in Ohio, Boston Beer Co. was probably the most well-known contract brewery. There were a lot of complaints about them in the early days, especially for Oregon Brewing (their own stealth micro), but for the most part the beer itself didn’t suffer. And by and large the majority of contact breweries are simply one company making their beer at a brewery they don’t own in order to keep capital investment low.
In this case, however, the difference is quite important. Here a giant company is trying to keep that fact a secret as a marketing strategy. They know that many consumers and potential consumers of organic products would likely be reluctant to buy organic beer from America’s biggest beer company. So everything about Stone Mill Pale Ale is calculated to make it appear like a small organic company that cares about organic farming and similar issues.
But another strange thing about this is that there is, or at least was, an actual brewery by the name of Crooked River Brewing in Cleveland, Ohio. They opened in 1994 but stopped brewing in their own facility in 2000. But the label was purchased by Frederick Brewing Co. of Maryland (which itself was just bought by Denver’s Flying Dog Brewery). As far as I can tell, the Crooked River label is still currently being sold. Given the number of attorneys Anheuser-Busch employs, it’s pretty hard to believe they would have missed that their made up name was already being used by another brewery.
In addition, there used to be a Crooked Waters Brewing in Peoria, Ilinois. It was a brewpub that opened in 1996 and closed in November 2000. Then there’s a Crooked Creek Brewery that’s a contract brew made by the Straub Brewery in Pennsylvania. As far as I can tell they’re still in business and making beer, too.
So that’s a strange development. The dba for A-B’s second stealth micro has the same name as a label still being made. I’m no legal expert and I’m not a lawyer but from what I have seen in these types of trademark disputes I can’t see how Frederick Brewing could lose. They appear to own a label that’s been around for twelve years. A-B is using the same name for essentially the same class of goods. That that fact would cause confusion among consumers seems prima facie.
Anheuser-Busch’s Stone Mill Pale Ale.
UPDATE 5.17: The Stone Mill Pale Ale website does now state that they are “in partnership with Anheuser-Busch.” That’s a pretty euphemistic way of saying it is an Anheuser-Busch product. I don’t know the exact nature of the way the dba was set up, but the domain name at least is registered directly to Anheuser-Busch, Inc. Can you have a partnership with a name you made up and created out of thin air? As far as I know, the packaging does not reflect this disclosure, but perhaps new packaging will. Until then, unsuspecting consumers will still not likely know who’s making this organic beer.
Sorry this is hard to read, but this is a full size screen capture. It’s hard to read at the website, too. I guess that’s why they call it the fine print.