Trouble brewing for cyclists’ beer in trademark row
There are few occasions when beer and politics should mix.
Barack Obama has recently demonstrated one of the few times when it can work, diffusing a race row with the offer of a peace-making beer at the White House.
Any Federal politician gingerly holding a beer in an RSL or public bar in an unconvincing attempt to come across as a man of the people is an example of when it doesn’t.
Unfortunately, sometimes beer is politics. Two columns ago I recommended Monteith’s Doppelbock Winter Ale as a top beer for a cold winter’s night. In doing so I inadvertently bought into a storm brewing in New Zealand and was subsequently contacted by the wonderfully named Society of Beer Advocates (SOBA), a New Zealand-based beer advocacy group. In a case reminiscent of the US-based shoemaker trying to stop Australians calling their woolly boots ‘ugg boots’, SOBA is calling for a boycott of all of Monteith’s products because its parent company, DB Breweries, has trademarked the name Radler.
The name radler has really only entered the lexicon of most Australian beer drinkers in the last few years, popularised by Lion Nathan’s Barefoot Radler. While not exactly a household name, it is a beer style in the same way pilsener, stout or brown ale are. But because many beer styles remain largely unknown to lager loving antipodeans, the registration seems to have slipped under the radar in the shaky isles. That is until the tiny Green Man brewery in Dunedin brewed one and was immediately hit with notices it was infringing DB Breweries’ trademark.
So what is a radler? As Monteith’s website goes to great length to promote, they neither invented the name nor the style. Radler is the German word for ‘cyclist’, and in its original form the radler is basically a shandy – a lager mixed with lemonade. It is a functional beer designed to be a low-alcohol refreshment for weekend bike riders around Munich. As a regular beer mixed with equal parts lemonade, the authentic radler is a mid-strength drink of around 2.5% abv. Given that it was served as a radlermass (cyclist’s litre) it was the perfect strength for a Bavarian beer lover wanting to successfully negotiate their way home upright after an afternoon’s ride around an alpine meadow. From a marketing perspective ‘radler’ is also a far better term to use to market to an Australian – or a Kiwi – than “shandy”, which would guarantee no one under 70 would buy it.
Ironically, the beer Green Man is no longer allowed to call a radler was true to style, made by mixing the brewery’s own lager and organic lemonade. On the other hand, the Monteith’s equivalent is a regular heavy beer with a hint of lemon and lime. According to the brewery’s website it is “brewed to full strength at 5% alcohol by volume”, lightly hopped “to ensure the bitterness does not dominate the flavour” with “residual sweetness to complement the added lemon juice”. So while a true radler is designed to be both low-alcohol and refreshing for the responsible bike rider, Monteith’s trademarked version sounds pretty much like the sort of thing Nicola Roxon is trying to stamp out with an alcopops tax: full-strength, sweet, fruity and very unbeery.
While some have suggested the situation is tantamount to a New Zealand winemaker selling chardonnay and trademarking the style name, given the liberties Monteith’s have taken with the style I suggest it is actually more akin to a winemaker producing a wine cooler and trademarking the name “Champagne”.
DB Breweries, which is owned by Asia Pacific Breweries Limited, in turn part-owned by Heineken, has also trademarked another beer style, saison – French for season – and unsuccessfully attempted to trademark the style names ‘bock’ and ‘summer ale’.
This leads to the ridiculous situation whereby Belgian brewers such as the world famous Saison Dupont, who have been brewing the style since 1844, cannot export their beer to New Zealand under their traditional names.
Through a spokesperson DB Breweries says that they “trademarked ‘Radler’ as a reflection of the significant investment it had made and the brand recognition we had achieved from 2001 until 2003. This investment continues. The trade-marking of brands is standard business practice worldwide.”
No one could get upset if they trademarked ‘Monteith’s Radler’, which is the brand that they have invested in but radler itself is a style that belongs to brewers and beer lovers everywhere, even in New Zealand. The brewery seems that they have relied on a general ignorance of beer to slip this one through.
It’s obviously much harder to pull such a swifty in Australia. Here the Registrar of Trade Marks considers whether a trade mark has any descriptive or generic meaning that may make it unsuitable for registration. The Australian registrar is either a knowledgeable beer connoisseur or simply did his homework because Lion’s Nathan’s attempts to even register the more appropriate ‘Barefoot Radler’ brand name here was declined because ‘radler’ was considered a descriptive word by IP Australia.
Why does this matter to the Australian beer drinker? Just balancing the ledger really. Monteith’s Doppelbock Winter Ale is still a top beer. But while companies such as DB Breweries are entitled to protect their intellectual property, trying to use trademark laws to corner the market for an internationally recognised beer style that they neither invented nor named is using the trademark laws as a sword against small breweries and not a shield to protect its own legitimate business interests. At a time when beer drinkers are learning that there is much more to beer than just lager this is a hugely retrograde step and it can only hurt the continued growth of beer education and appreciation if brewers can’t call a beer by the name of style they have brewed.
Monteith’s is too good a brewery to resort to that for a small corporate advantage.
I just hope that they see reason before the two cartons of winter ale in my garage expire…
Now, here’s one for the weekend:
Luckily, Australian beer drinkers can still enjoy a saison called a saison and, while they can be hard to find, they are well worth the effort.
A number of Australian breweries – primarily the Victorian-based Temple, Bridge Road and Otway Estate breweries – produce excellent interpretations. Imported versions include the style-defining Saison Dupont and the Silly Saison (named after the village of Silly where it is brewed) and should be available in good bottle shops or online from the International Beer Shop.
The style was pioneered in the French-speaking farmhouses of the Belgian province of Wallonia. It was provided to farm workers as a sustenance and refreshment and farm workers were reputed to consume up to four litres per day.
It’s a hard style to define due to its origins but saisons are rustic and refreshingly crisp while occasionally bordering on tart. They are fruity and spicy (even actually spiced on occasions) due to the yeast used. They can be a bit challenging for the dyed-in-the-wool lager drinker but will certainly reward the adventurous.
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