Defending Your Space: Big Breweries vs. Small Breweries

Defending Your Space: Big Breweries vs. Small Breweries

Author: Beer Law HQ Staff

published Published: June 22, 2023

read time Read time: 3 mins

Beer Law

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In the ever-expanding world of breweries, there is room at the table for everyone. Some breweries are large, some are small but known for cutting-edge flavors, and some are all about sports. No matter the brewery's size, the angle you take to differentiate yourself from your competitors, or how avant-garde your flavor profiles are, there is a place for you in the craft beer industry. However, what happens when the big regional brewery goes head-to-head with a small craft brewery?

There are plenty of stories of smaller craft brewers having to take on a larger competitor. Many of these disputes have to do with trademark infringement, which we have discussed in “Trademark Disputes - What Craft Breweries Need to Know.” Often smaller breweries have filed their trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) only to find out later that a big conglomerate is using a similar name, or vice versa. The assumption is that the big guys have the money to fight, and the little guys do not. However, despite budgets, small breweries are defending their place in the brewing industry and coming out on top.
In 2017, MillerCoors (now Molson Coors) rebranded their Keystone beer cans with a large “STONE” on the can. In 2022, Stone Brewing Co. (Stone Brewing) filed a trademark dispute claiming MillerCoors infringed upon their registered trademark STONE®. After the three-week trial, Stone Brewing won the landmark $56 million jury case against MillerCoors, the fifth-largest beer company in the world. Unfortunately, Stone Brewing hadn’t even had time to clean up after the celebration party before being hit with a trademark infringement lawsuit. This time a small brewery from North Carolina, Sycamore Brewing, filed a trademark and unfair competition lawsuit against Stone Brewing once they began using the registered trademark “Keep It Juicy” that Sycamore Brewing had used since 2020. Sycamore Brewing alleges the two companies came into direct competition when Stone Brewing began distributing in Sycamore Brewing’s sales territory of the southeastern U.S. Furthermore, Sycamore Brewing accused Stone Brewing of being a “trademark bully” and claimed Stone Brewing had a history of using its size and wealth as one of the nation's largest craft breweries to force smaller breweries into changing their names to prevent any confusion with Stone Brewing’s brands. However, the case was dismissed after Stone Brewing filed a countersuit, showing that a small Connecticut brewery had used the same phrasing for years before Sycamore Brewing.
In each situation, the breweries should protect their intellectual property as well as not infringe on the property of another. In most cases, breweries can settle issues quickly by establishing coexistence agreements where both can exist and operate amicably. If not, the next step is an administrative hearing similar to litigation.
Just because a brewery is smaller does not mean it cannot or should not fight an infringement lawsuit against larger or more established breweries. These cases have set a precedent declaring that being bigger doesn’t always guarantee a victory. This is why registering your intellectual property and protecting it is so important. To help your brewery and protect your intellectual property, including trademarks:

  • Have a paper trail with all your T’s crossed and I’s dotted to help you defend your place in the brewery industry.
  • Establish processes up front to give you the peace of mind that safeguards are in place to protect you and the brewery you’ve worked so hard to build. 
Do you feel alone in defending your place at the table? Let our seasoned intellectual property rights professionals at Beer Law HQ sit with you as your partner so you are never alone. Contact us today for your craft brewery legal advice!
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