Legal spat over ‘IPA’

beerfight-600x276 Breaking today is an interesting story I saw first reported on sfgate.com about how Lagunitas is suing Sierra Nevada over the latter’s new Hop Hunter IPA. You can find far more details on the Chronicle’s website as well as some interesting reader comments, many of which are highly critical of Lagunitas.

The suit is largely based on Sierra’s use of IPA in big, black lettering displayed prominently on the side of the six pack carton and label.

This type of spat seems to me more as having to do with the expanding craft beer market nationwide rather than the local market. Most consumers here in California, and especially the North Coast know the difference between a new Sierra IPA and the classic Lagunitas IPA.

However for the Bud Lite crowd in the rest of the United States, the idea of an IPA is still somewhat of a novel concept. From the Lagunitas point of view I could imagine they feel Sierra is trying to get its brand equated with IPAs in general and possibly even piggy-back on the success of Lagunitas’ iconic IPA. For the newbie beer fan who knows they just like an IPA, they likely would just reach for anything with IPA on the package. Lagunitas is therefore probably worried Sierra is trying to get its brand synonymous with the letters and beer style IPA.

I was invited by Sierra Nevada to its Hop Hunter launch party later this month at the Torpedo Room in Berkley but I can’t make it because I’ll be at the major Unified wine industry trade show in Sacramento. I’d love to try the new beer, but I guess I’ll just have to wait until it shows up in the Napa market.

So while I can’t speak to the beer, I will say that I think Lagunitas and its founder Tony Magee are stretching it a bit with this lawsuit. You can’t trademark IPA, and while there are certain design elements similar in both packaging it’s not so similar that I think a consumer (even a Bud Lite drinking moron) would think it’s the same beer or a collaboration between the two breweries. Magee is also mentioned in the great article I blogged about last week as arguing Boston Beer Company’s new IPAs were a threat to his business. The sensitivity and litigiousness exhibited by Magee are at odds to my perception of a very successful and independent-minded brewer.

UPDATE Jan. 14: In the Santa Rosa, Calif. The Press Democrat today is a report that Magee is already backing off of the lawsuit because he quickly discovered he had already come close to losing the case in the court of public opinion.

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