Last week, Stone Brewing co-founder Greg Koch began posting a series of cryptic Tweets as a lead-up to a “scrap” that would go down at noon today. Having worked for Stone for numerous years and coordinated on various marketing campaigns with Koch, this had all the earmarks of such an initiative. They are interwoven into the DNA of the 22-year-old, Escondido brewing company, which rose to prominence in the late-nineties and early-thousands thanks as much to its extremely hoppy beers (especially for the marketplace at the time) as Koch’s adventurous marketing, most notably the taunting verbiage on the back of bottles of Arrogant Bastard Ale. But a video and press release that went out earlier today attest that this melee—a lawsuit filed against MillerCoors over the branding of its Keystone line of beers—is quite serious.
The suit alleges that multi-national “Big Beer” conglomerate MillerCoors is purposely trying to create confusion in the marketplace with a recent rebranding of the products in Keystone’s portfolio. A prime example are 12-ounce cans, which break the word “Keystone” into two words on separate lines that read “Key” and “Stone” (which appear in all capital letters). When rotated a certain way, all that is visible is the word Stone. Furthermore, on 30-pack cases, the word “Keystone” appears, but it is depicted so that only the word “Stone” is shown on a can (which is rotated in the manner noted above) and the “Key” merely precedes it. From there, other terms like “Light” are tacked on, again, independent of the can.
“Are we doing this for publicity…no. We figured you ought to know the facts,” says Koch in his video message to consumers (which can be viewed in its entirety by clicking here). “The point is, there’s an intentional obfuscation that they are attempting to run, confusing people with our brand.”
“Keystone’s rebranding is no accident,” adds Stone CEO Dominic Engels. “MillerCoors tried to register our name years ago and was rejected.” He also notes that Keystone’s social-media posts have “almost universally dropped the ‘Key.’”
As an observer employed in a marketing capacity within the brewing industry, I will say that the first time I saw Keystone’s rebrand, I wondered how it would be received by my previous employer. It struck me the same way as it did Koch, as an attempt to piggyback off a legitimate craft brand, albeit through one of the most blatant and sophomoric attempts at subterfuge I’ve seen by a multi-billion-dollar corporation.
In the video, Koch switches from fact- and opinion-driven summation of the lawsuit filing to his trademark, dryly-comedic bashing of Big Beer. He insults the “flavorless and watery” nature of Keystone products and performs multiple spit takes with the beer. While a court of public opinion will not provide judgment on this case (in which Stone is being represented by BraunHagey & Borden LLP), in this day and age, there is no way that craft-beer consumers and the population at large won’t make up their own minds about the merits of the suit. It would seem Koch’s delivery leaves the door open for doubters who would say that, while there is substantial cause for taking MillerCoors to court, Stone is attempting to benefit from as much publicity as possible in the process.
Stone has set up a social-media hashtag—#TrueStonevsKeystone—for people to follow along, primarily with Koch. Of course, this case may never make it to court. As Koch says when addressing MillerCoors in his video: “You can end all of this right here and now by one simple move that reinforces your brand that you’ve built. Put the ‘Key’ back in ‘Keystone.’ Stop using Stone as a stand-alone word. It’s ours.”
Tags: #SDBeer, beer, big beer, Brandon Hernández, braunhagey & borden, craftbeer, dominic engels, Escondido, Greg Koch, indiebeer, keystone, keystone light, macrobeer, millercoors, san diego, social media, stone brewery, stone brewing, stonegreg, truestonevskeystone, twitter, west coaster
As its name suggests, popular local watering hole Small Bar (4628 Park Boulevard, University Heights) is, well…small. But al fresco relief from a tightly packed but enjoyably raucous interior is available on the outdoor patio. Or at least it used to be. Though the venue has offered patio-space to patrons since opening seven years ago, the City of San Diego has seen fit to have owner Karen Barnett shut it down completely, stating it was never permitted—despite City officials having conducted numerous inspections of the property before and after Small Bar opened and failing to note this. Adding to the oddity of it all, the City inspector who brought the patio-issue to light wasn’t even there to address this issue; they came to investigate an issue with the restaurant’s exhaust system after a neighbor complained about a wafting hamburger scent. That issue has since been fixed. Barnett wishes correcting the permitting issue was as easy, but despite her efforts to expeditiously submit permit applications, the City is requiring a hearing that they have yet to set a date for, and requiring the patio be closed until said hearing and approval. Many regular patrons and casual fans of Small Bar find this excessive and unreasonable. Supporters of Barnett and her business have gone so far as to launch an online petition to reopen the patio via Change.org and a crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe to help with permitting fees and fines. To find out more about this complicated development, we sat down with Barnett to get her side of the issue.
What has the City required of you and what is the time-table for this issue being resolved?
Karen Barnett: The supervisor of the main contact for the case called me last Monday saying that neighbors were emailing photos of people on the patio, which was against their Civil Penalty Notice that I was issued in late-June. I was, apparently, incurring daily fines for staying open and not immediately shutting down, and in less than 75 days had accrued $30,000 in fines. That number would scare anyone, and I instructed the staff to shut the patio down. Friday morning I received an email from Code Enforcement informing me that a hearing is being scheduled, but no date has been set. I have no idea how drawn-out this process will be, but I hope to have all that is required of me [including permits and an initial deposit of roughly $3,000] submitted to the City this week.
What sort of permitting are you applying for?
KB: There are a couple of different things I’m going for. A “Sidewalk Café Permit” will simply allow customers to occupy the patio. I’m also seeking a “Neighborhood Use Permit”, which would allow customers to smoke on the patio, just as they’ve been doing for years. My ultimate goal is to expand into the space behind the building, creating a larger patio area with a second bar, allowing smokers and dogs. If I can accomplish that, then I will prohibit smoking on the front-patio to appease those who don’t like to walk past smokers or allow smoke to waft into the main bar.
What about this do you deem excessive or hurtful to your business?
KB: When you set out to build or construct anything, it is absolutely your responsibility to ensure you are up-to-code and following all rules. This patio was built at least five-to-seven years before I occupied the space. It was used by two businesses prior to Small Bar. Nobody goes into a home or business purchase, looks around and says, “Hey, I should call a City official to see if I owe them some money.” That’s crazy. Further, when you open a business, an inspector already has to come out to walk the site and make sure you are OK to open. So, with Small Bar and the previous business, at least two different inspectors could have looked at the site then and said, “Hey, there’s no permit on file for this patio.” We would have made sure we were in code from the get-go. Now, we’ve built this business over the years where regulars who live in the neighborhood visit my patio every day. It might sound silly to say they’re suffering because their local bar lost their patio, but they are. And I employ 30 people. With the patio down, I lose business. If I lose business that means the bar is slower and I need to cut shifts early, including kitchen hours. Therefore, staff across-the-board is losing money. We all have rent, some have children and families to support, and it’s a financial burden to us all. This is a huge hit to us all.
You’ve been outspoken about this development on social media. What exactly are you looking for from the City?
KB: All I’m asking for from the City is to be reasonable with our situation. They weren’t called out to Small Bar because someone fell of the patio or was injured due to poor construction or installation. They came out because some anonymous person who is hiding behind their telephone and computer can’t come meet with me like an adult and give me the chance to address their concerns. I should be allowed to operate just as I have for the past seven years, and go through all the paperwork and plan drawings, and pay fees to get in code. It should be noted that when I contacted the woman who is handling my case in Code Enforcement, who sent me the list of things I needed to correct, she flat-out refused to help me. I had questions about paperwork and what applied to my situation—some of the paperwork asks for names of contractors who performed the work and when it was worked on…which I have zero way of knowing—and her response was that it was not her job to understand it, just to ensure I turned it all in and adhered to their demands. She literally directed me to the website I had just told her I read and needed help with. It’s quite clear that the City does not care about me or my staff. They just want money. I pay my taxes. The entire situation is so disheartening.
On a more positive note, how has it been to have so much unsolicited support from the public?
KB: The support received has been absolutely overwhelming. While I have a Small Bar’s manager, Louis Mello, for operations support, I go home to an empty house and struggle alone with the challenges that a small-business owner faces every day. This entire situation has had me stressed out and full of anxiety. Reading the supportive comments on the Change.org petition, GoFundMe and Facebook pages from friends, people I’ve never even met, local business competitors, people from all over the world who have visited my little business, has brought me to tears multiple times. A thank-you doesn’t seem like enough.
Tags: #SDBeer, beer, Brandon Hernández, change.org, city of san diego, city permit, code enforcement, craftbeer, facebook, gofundme, indiebeer, karen barnett, Karen Blair, louis mello, park boulevard, patio, san diego, Small Bar, social media, university heights, west coaster