In Beer Battle, Internet Beats Goliath


Photo by ScubaBeer/FlickrCC

In the Internet age, David can go on Facebook to help him bring down Goliath.

That's what happened in Morrisville, Vermont, where the tiny Rock Art Brewery, maker of Vermonster beer, marshaled a wave of public opinion to help in a lawsuit against Hansen Beverage, which sued for copyright infringement on their Monster Energy Drink.

In this action, Hansen violated a cardinal New England rule: Do not mess with Vermonters. They are well-insulated, wear generally supportive footwear, and are armed to the teeth. Last month, when Rock Art owner Matt Nadeau received a boilerplate "cease and desist" letter from Hansen Beverage, he told me, he decided not to take a simple action like putting an extra "t" in the name of his beer.

With help from Facebook, YouTube, and the Associated Press, Nadeau hoped to drum up enough negative PR for Monster that it will become unprofitable for them to keep fighting.

"I could do that," says Nadeau, then pauses. "Don't want to."

The beer in question is an American barley wine with 10 percent alcohol-by-volume content and a load of hops that clearly necessitate the term "Vermonster." Hansen's Monster Energy Drink, on the other hand, is made with taurine and guarana and does not bear a passing resemblance to barley wine. Nadeau suspects that the lawsuit is due to a recent partnership between Hansen, who made their name with all-natural, preservative fee sodas before breaking into the energy drink market, and the monster (sorry) brewery Anheuser-Busch.

Acording to Nadeau, Hansen's lawyer, Diane M. Reed, told him that Hansen had plans to enter the alcoholic beverage market.

"I said 'Too bad, I'm already here,'" Nadeau told the Associated Press. "I've been here. And I'm already brewing beer."

Hansen's email to Nadeau's attorneys said that the name would "undoubtedly create a likelihood of confusion and/or dilute" Hansen's trademark. Both Reed and a Hansen spokesperson declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Nadeau shares a building with a metal fabricator and has only seven employees. He was advised by five copyright lawyers, he told me, that even though the law was on his side, Hansen would inevitably squeeze him in a war of attrition until he either had to shut his doors or stop selling Vermonster. But with help from Facebook, YouTube, and the Associated Press, Nadeau hoped to drum up enough negative PR for Monster that it will become unprofitable for them to keep fighting. Two of the largest beverage retailers in Vermont pulled Monster from their shelves, and stores as far away as Connecticut joined in the boycott. At the time of this writing, their YouTube video, "Matt and the Monster," has just over 63,000 views.

The resistance tells a peculiarly Vermont story. Vermonters like their artisanal food producers, and they hate being told what to do. Cheddar cheese and maple syrup seem quaint--until you try and mess with them. Vermont is one of four states that began its existence as an independent republic, and they even have a nascent secessionist movement.

Jeff Baker, a pink-haired Burlington resident, said in a letter to the CEO of Hansen's that Nadeau keeps at his brewery:

"The Vermont people are proud of their heritage and will always fight tooth and nail to protect all things Vermont. ... Coming after a locally owned, independent, small Vermont company will bring down the house around you."

And in the end, it worked. This week, Hansen and Rock Art reached a deal: Vermonster can keep its name as long as the brewery promises never to go into the energy drink business....the same deal that Nadeau offered them on September 28th.

"A victory of us as well as for America," he says. "13 days of social media, and corporate America went from, 'No, you're not having anything' to, 'Okay you can have what you want!'"