Monday, May 3, 2010

Phillips Interview #3: The Beer Carries Itself

In this final part of the Phillips interview, we talk about the future of the brewery, and Matt Phillips comments on craft-brewery vs. craft-brewery legal issues.

As I'm sipping the last of Matt Phillips' prototype Steinbier, I notice an assistant gesticulating to get his attention. He has another appointment and the visitor is waiting. Damn, I think, probably someone more important than a beer blogger. Phillips tells me to relax, he's got time. I launch into a final round of questions, pissed off that I saved some of the big ones for last.
- SO, apart from the ones I've tried today, what beers are planned for the summer?
MP: There's going to be a Kölsch in the Showcase [Phillips' 12-pack mixer].

- Didn't you do a Kölsh last year?
MP: That's right, the Hudson Light. It was our charity beer. We do one every year. Our way of putting a bit back in.

- Speaking of funds, your brewery was famously started with a stack of credit cards. Are you finally out of debt yet?
MP: No WAY! I'm in way more debt [laughs]. Paying that off is never going to happen!

- Maybe you need to expand your business model. Your reception area looks like a good spot for a bar?
MP: I never really considered opening a bar. We got a good thing going, and good relationships with local places. I'm not into becoming their competitor. But that said, I'm getting more into food and beer pairings. A food-related venture is an inevitable destination. I don't want a brewpub, but I'm excited about putting on cheese-tastings and other pairing events. So far we haven't had a lot of interest from local chefs but I'm hoping that will change. Food is really a part of what beer is all about for me.
I spend a bit more time fishing for Phillips' favourite beers. He plays safe and goes weak at the knees about Pliny the Elder. Jason from Driftwood had the same reaction. Great. That finally shatters the "Pliny is over-hyped" conspiracy theory that I had invented for myself because I can't get hold of any.

So who are his influences? He credits the original Whistler Brewing Company (apparently a step above the mediocre brewing outfit that currently bears that name), and also Ben Schottle. So, a former employer and a current work colleague. Another safe play by Phillips. But I do finally trick him into admitting that he holds naked midnight brewing sessions during which beer demons are summoned. I swear.

Back to reality, and a serious side of it at that: I finally broach the topic of legal disputes between craft breweries. Back in 2007, Phillips was forced to change the name of his "Blue Truck Ale" to "Blue Buck Ale" — in order to avoid the threat of legal action brought by the Red Truck Beer Company of North Vancouver. Sadly, legal disputes between craft-breweries are not that rare. Central City Brewing are currently facing possible legal action by Bear Republic, who allege that Central City's "Red Racer IPA" infringes on their own "Racer 5 IPA" and "Red Rocket Ale" brews.

Now, like many people, my initial reaction was "assholes." As if the craft industry doesn't have enough to deal with competing with macros and getting their beers into new mouths, without petty squabbles amongst themselves. And exactly how many craft-brew drinkers (generally a discerning bunch) are going to mistake the BC beer for either of the California brews — especially when their crossover markets are small? But the more I think about it, the more I realize that both breweries are victims of a virulent litigious culture that punishes you for not attacking the vaguest infringements of copyright. Despite his personal anguish over the name-change, Matt Phillips is sensitive to the larger issues at play:
MP: With Red Racer, there was a lot of people thinking that there could be an issue there. I have empathy for them both. It's not a fun thing to go through. Bear Republic has a lot invested in their brand, and they have the trademark. But the reality is if they don't protect it, their trademark is gone. It's kind of tough. Craft brewers aren't the kind of people who are litigious...but quite often we're forced into real-world situations that don't reflect our personalities. I feel sorry for Gary over at Central City and he's dealing with a US brewery and they tend to litigate first, ask questions's one of those realities.
The problem is, if Bear Republic did not object to perceived similarities, then in the eyes of the law, they have failed to defend their trademark. This would permit a predatory company to aggressively rip off the Bear Republic brand, safe from legal action, because they would likely be able to successfully argue that BR's trademark was invalidated when they failed to object to Central City's similar designs. The whole situation leaves a far bitterer taste in the mouth than either of the excellent IPAs involved would do...

Phillips is philosophical. Sure, it hurt to change the name. And he is very clear with me that it hurt the company too. But he also understands that art and adversity are the most familiar of bedfellows.
MP: We're passionate about our beer but we're proud of what we do. So many breweries have so much in common, we have similar stories, and the names end up sounding similar. Looking for new names is a challenge. We can be days and days and days thinking up great names, then we look it up and it's already there. There's 30 red-truck brands in various segments, but we didn't have the money to fight it. There is a loss, to be honest, but we're really happy with the Blue Buck. And in the end, the beer carries itself.


  1. Thanks for that Dan. It is good to hear about the people behind the brews.

  2. I remember hearing all the Victoria locals fuming with anger over the "greedy senseless" suing of Phillips while working at Mole. Naturally, having no idea what the situation was joined in, pissed about something I didn't even understand. This puts all questions to rest. Still a bummer for Phillips. But at least he can still stand behind his line of delicious beers!