Sequestered from cold ones with the fellas
Plus: Amazon’s three-tier wishlist and America's new alcopop whipping boy
Look, Stone Brewing Company’s early-2022 jury trial against Molson Coors set a very high bar for hilarious beverage-alcohol litigation, what with the revelations that Keystone Light might actually just be Coors Light runoff, Stone was broke as hell, and according to Molson Coors’ own assessment, the average Keystone drinker was too. Hard to top that! Still, I expected a lot more out of the trial portion of the protracted legal showdown between Anheuser-Busch InBev and Constellation Brands over the which firm is legally entitled to sell Corona hard seltzer in the United States. But it’s… kinda sucked so far?
Quick recap: Constellation owns rights to ABI’s Grupo Modelo beer portfolio in the U.S., because the Department of Justice forced the world’s biggest beer company to divest them in 2013 in order to acquire the Mexican firm. Those rights include Corona and Modelo “beer,” a term that a decade ago encompassed the malt-based alcoholic beverage we all know and love, and not much else. Of course, the intervening years saw the hard seltzer boom and the broader redemption of flavored malt beverages and fermented-sugar alcopops, and when Constellation launched its own sugar-based hard seltzer under the Corona brand in 2020, ABI took issue, and, well, here we are. As I put it in a pre-trial column in December 2022: “If hard seltzer is beer, Constellation’s in the clear, but if not, ABI wins a lot.” Too cute by half, but now you know the stakes.
Stupid? Yes. Funny? Yes! Or so you’d think. However, having kept a close-ish eye on trade coverage of the trial, currently underway in the Southern District of New York, I’ve been totally underwhelmed with the developments therein. A few highlights, gleaned from accounts in Beer Business Daily and Beer Marketer’s Insights:
Constellation kicked off its argument by pouring malt-based and sugar-based hard seltzers into glasses for the eight-person jury to eyeball in an apparent effort to demonstrate that both were clear and therefore… ah… something.
ABI’s attorney explained that the company’s 2013 deal with Constellation came with a brewmaster, because the smaller firm, based outside of Rochester, New York, had little brewing experience, and the macrobrewer “didn’t want amateurs [to] destroy our reputation” by cocking up the recipes for Corona (et al.) to be sold in the U.S.
The judge on this trial sounds pretty annoyed with everyone, and particularly Constellation for filing late-night motions. He also apparently can’t stop calling the company “Constitution,” which is a very on-the-nose error coming from a federal judge.
It might not be a legal argument per se, but one of the grievances animating ABI’s case is that it handed Constellation a “plug-and-play” money-printing machine back in 2013, and this some thanks they get. This was, of course, the exact outcome upon which the DoJ conditioned ABI’s Grupo Modelo acquisition back in 2013, so the fact that the company is now whining about it kinda gives the game away. Yes we divested this business to a competitor, and now they’re using it to compete with us is an illuminating look at how ABI apparently thinks anti-trust should work (i.e., poorly.) It’s also very true that Constellation has been on a heater lately. In fact, as this trial unfolds in New York, the company’s executives are in Las Vegas fluffing distributors with forecasts of Modelo Especial overtaking Bud Light in the next few years.
Apparently the jury has been directed by hizzoner not to drink beer or hard seltzer for the duration of the trial, which is the worst form of sequestration I’ve ever heard of. Imagine the follow up questions during jury instruction! “Sorry, your honor… does that mean like, all beer and hard seltzers, or just the brands at issue in this trial? Can I still crack a couple non-litigated cold ones with the fellas?”
A tip of the hat to the intrepid editors of BBD and BMI who are on the ground in NYC for the trial. It’s not your fault this is shit is boring! All of us here at Fingers HQ salute your service.
🤝 Consider supporting Fingers!
You’ll get full access to every edition of the boozeletter, the entire archive of The Fingers Podcast, and the paid Fingers Weekender in your inbox every weekend! It helps me continue publishing the boozeletter, and it’s as little as $8 a month or $80 a year, which works out to like, less than one airport Blue Moon per month. Skip the mediocre beer that you didn’t actually want, fund independent journalism about drinking in America that you do! Smash this button for more details:
📬 Good post alert
📦 Analyzing Amazon’s three-tier wishlist
Earlier this week, Vice’s very-good Motherboard tech vertical published an internal 2021 document from Amazon outlining the company’s plans to partner with a free-market think-tank and other major big-box retailers to surreptitiously push for the “unlocking” of the American beverage-alcohol retail landscape. Among the items on Amazon’s three-tier wishlist (as recently as a couple years ago, at least):