SAN FRANCISCO — Trouble could be, ahem, brewing for the Craft Brew Alliance Inc., maker of the Hawaiian-themed Kona Brewing Co. line of beers.
A federal judge in San Jose ruled Sept. 1. that CBA can’t shake a lawsuit claiming the company misled consumers to believe beers such as Longboard Island Lager, Big Wave Golden Ale and Fire Rock Pale Ale are brewed exclusively in Hawaii.
The lawsuit is one of a number of suits that have popped up targeting craft brewers who make regionally themed beers at locations across the country, claiming they mislead consumers into thinking their suds are made and packaged in cool locales in order to sell more six-packs and charge a premium.
In the case of Kona Brewing, plaintiffs represented by Faruqi & Faruqi and the Wand Law Firm claim that six- and 12-packs of the brand’s favorites—which also include Wailua Wheat Ale, Hanalei Island IPA, Castaway IPA, Lavaman Red Ale, Lemongrass Luau, Koko Brown and Pipeline Porter—come from breweries in Oregon, Washington, New Hampshire and Tennessee, rather than Hawaii’s Big Island. CBA obscured that fact on six- and 12-packs, plaintiffs claim, by only listing the company’s Hawaii address, including a map pinpointing Kona’s Big Island Brewery, and inviting consumers to visit its brewery and pubs when in Hawaii.
CBA’s lawyers at Shook, Hardy & Bacon pointed out in their motion to dismiss that labels on individual bottles and cans of Kona beer indicate the various brewing locations and the company’s claims of selling “Liquid Aloha” were at most “puffery.”
But on Sept. 1, U.S. District Judge Beth Labson Freeman of the Northern District of California allowed the majority of the claims to flow on.
“If the consolidated complaint solely alleged pictures of surfboards and the vague phrase ‘Liquid Aloha’ on the beer packaging, the case would end there,” she wrote. “However, the court finds that the Hawaiian address, the map of Hawaii identifying Kona’s brewery on the Big Island, and the statement ‘visit our brewery and pubs whenever you are in Hawaii,’ are not mere puffery but are specific and measurable representations of fact that could deceive a reasonable consumer into believing that the six- and 12-packs of Kona beer were brewed in Hawaii.”
Freeman allowed a wide swath of claims brought under California consumer protection statutes to move forward, but dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims for injunctive relief. She found that consumers who now know that the beer is brewed stateside don’t have standing to force changes upon Kona Brewing’s labeling practices and that the court doesn’t have the power to force CBA to brew the beer back on the Big Island.
Neither Shook Hardy’s Tammy Webb nor a spokeswoman for CBA responded to email messages Tuesday. Likewise, Faruqi & Faruqi’s Benjamin Heikali, who represent the plaintiffs, wasn’t immediately available.