The Magic Hat–West Sixth dispute got me to thinking of other times in the history of American craft beer that packaging, if not style, has seemed a little… deliberately familiar, say? I’m not taking a position on this particular dispute, but it reminded me of a couple of earlier ones.
The above is part of the packaging from a six-pack of Pacific Ridge Pale Ale. Anheuser-Busch introduced the brand in late 1996, rolling it out of its Fairfield, Calif., brewery with the tag, “Brewed in Northern California,” and an ad campaign that included billboards in the Pacific Northwest exhorting consumers to “Think Globally, Drink Locally.”
The packaging was clearly meant to mimic that other pale ale brewed in Northern California and becoming so phenomenally popular: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale out of Chico. The packaging of Pacific Ridge was dominated by a pastoral green, just like Sierra Nevada’s, with a body of water amid a forest backed by soaring mountains—again, just like Sierra Nevada’s. Finally, the mountainous name itself and the ingredients, including the game-changing Cascade hops native to the Northwest, were unmistakable imitations.
Moreover, the brand came at a time when Anheuser-Busch was throwing everything it had at the craft-beer sector, Sierra Nevada included: It was the era of the 100 percent share of mind campaign meant to choke distribution channels for craft brands; and the era of phantom crafts, including earlier Anheuser-Busch flops like Elk Mountain and Red Wolf as well as Michelob‘s hefewiezen and amber bock (flops being a relative term here: the phantom crafts never did much for Anheuser-Busch’s bottom line, with brands like Bud and, especially, Bud Light the company’s cash cows, but they had sales most craft brands would’ve envied). Pacific Ridge Pale Ale quickly joined that pantheon of meh; you can still find it here and there, but it’s nowhere near as ubiquitous as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, the brand it was meant to hurt.
One more case of packaging pugilism—and this one involved two craft brands. Sometime in the 1970s, a brewery calling itself the California Steam Brewery popped up in Novato, just north of San Francisco. Its packaging, including its squatter bottles, looked suspiciously similar to that of Anchor Brewing, which predated California Steam by several years and was well into (and well-known for) its pioneering role in American craft beer. Plus, as the brewery’s name baldly declared, the Novato brewery’s signature beer was meant to be an interpretation of the steam style—the trademarked signature of Anchor to this day.
As far as I can tell, Anchor’s founder, Fritz Maytag, reached a gentleman’s agreement with California Steam’s founder, a vintner named Rich Dye, to discontinue the brewery (there is no record of a lawsuit between the two, for one thing). However it happened, California Steam, like some abruptly stunted shoot on one of those diagrams of the evolution of a species, disappeared, while Anchor, happily, kept right on pioneering.
· Actually, Yes, Big Beer Did Manipulate the Market and Prohibition Did Affect Smaller Breweries [TomAcitelli.com]
· What Price Distribution? [TomAcitelli.com]