The notion that you can place a trademark on a beer style is nonsensical — especially if the brewery in question didn't invent the style in the first place.
But it's happened in New Zealand and it could have implications in Britain and the rest of Europe, as Heineken is the major player in the brewery in question.
One of the leading brewing groups in New Zealand is DB. It was previously known as Dominion Breweries, but that name doesn't fit in modern times, especially as DB is now owned by Asia Pacific Breweries based in Singapore. Heineken is the majority shareholder in Asia Pacific.
One of DB's subsidiaries, Monteith's, specialises in producing beers that capitalise on European styles and traditions. It brews a bock, a strong German-style lager. In recent years it has added an Austrian and German style called radler as well as saison, based on a famous Belgian beer style.
Nothing wrong there, you might think: imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But DB and Monteith's have slapped trademarks on Radler and Saison. This means that a smaller Kiwi brewery can no longer call its beer "radler" while Belgian brewers of saison can't export their brands to New Zealand.
"Radler" is the German for cyclist. In the 1920s, an Austrian innkeeper mixed lager and lemonade to make a low strength beer to refresh hot and thirsty cyclists. It's what we would call shandy. The style became popular and many breweries in Austria and Germany started to make similar beers.
In New Zealand, a small organic brewery called Green Man in Dunedin launched its version of radler. Then along came Monteith's with its own radler in 2000. Two years later it was awarded a legal trademark for the brand. Monteith's owner, DB, instructed its lawyers to tell Green Man to change the name of its radler. Faced by the prospect of crippling legal bills, Green Man reluctantly gave in and now calls its
The irony of the situation is that Green Man's version is a true radler of 2.5% abv while Monteith's is twice the strength at 5% abv. So it's far removed from the original idea of a refreshing light shandy,
but DB has, courtesy of some big-
muscle lawyers, cornered the New Zealand market for the style.
You may think — apart from the hurt to Green Man — that the fate of a Kiwi shandy is, in every sense, small beer. But the decision to trademark saison is of far greater concern to beer lovers. It's a renowned Belgian beer style. In a country where beers from the Dutch-speaking areas tend to dominate, French-speaking Walloons feel saison is their best-known contribution to the world of beer.
"Saison" means season. The beer style was first brewed by farmers to refresh their families and work force during the summer and the harvest that followed. Before refrigeration was developed in the 19th century, seasonal beers were made in the spring and stored and consumed during the summer when temperatures were too high to allow brewing to take place. Belgian saisons are similar to the bières de garde — keeping beers — brewed over the border in northern France.
The renewed interest in Belgian beers over the past 20 or 30 years has brought saisons to a wider and appreciative audience beyond Wallonia. More than a dozen Belgian brewers now produce saisons, which are members of the ale family. They are strong, ranging between 5% and 6.5% abv, and have a rich malt character balanced by peppery and spicy hops.
The best-known saison brewer is Dupont in the village of Tourpes. In keeping with the traditions of the style, Dupont was originally a farm and the beers are brewed in old brick farm buildings. Saison has been brewed there since 1844, but now Dupont, along with other Belgian brewers, can no longer export to New Zealand.
The Society of Beer Advocates (SOBA), a CAMRA-style consumer group in New Zealand, has vigorously opposed DB's attempts to close the market to other versions of Radler and Saison. It points out that DB has slapped trademarks on two beer styles the company did not actually invent.
The issue is an important one at a time when there has been a great renewal of interest in traditional beer styles in Britain, Europe and the United States. India pale ales, porters, stouts, Pilseners and bocks are widely brewed again, bringing much-needed diversity to the beer scene.
This renewal of beer styles could be cruelly nipped in the bud if the likes of global brewing groups such as Asia Pacific use legal trademarks to force competitors out of
In Britain there is enormous interest in IPA, the style that changed brewing dramatically in the 19th century. There are now dozens of interpretations of India pale ale.
This revival could be short-lived if — and this is a purely hypothetical argument — Greene King, producer of the best-selling IPA, used a legal trademark to force all other brewers of the style to change the names of their beers.
There would be outrage, not least in Edinburgh, where Caledonian Deuchars IPA is a best-selling brand and is a former winner of the Champion Beer of Britain award.
Deuchars IPA is now owned by Heineken's S&N subsidiary. As they say in legal circles, I rest my case.