Founded by two dads – Adrian Thomas and Mark McGuiness-Smith – Belleville Brewery is named after Belleville Primary School their children attend in Southwest London; the firm also requires that investors have a child at the school, to maintain community links.
Belleville Brewing Company can produce 60 casks per week, but tends to do two US-style brews a week – one of its leading brands is handcrafted beer Thames Surfer.
“We produce 40 casks, but we’re about to start bottling outside, so at that stage will produce three brews a week, one of which will go off for bottling,” Thomas told BeverageDaily.com this morning.
Trying to thrash out compromise
But Thomas recently received a ‘cease and desist’ letter from UK law firm Humphreys & Co., stating that a “considerable degree of similarity” between the Belleville name and AB InBev’s 'Belle-Vue Kriek' brand, would lead to deception and confusion among the public and consumers.
The letter also demand that the microbrewer destroy all packaging and promotional material and references to the Belleville name on its website, asserting that it was gaining a “free ride” on AB InBev’s EU reputation. The penalty for non-compliance? The threat of costly court action.
Describing the lawyers as AB InBev’s “rottweilers at the gate”, Thomas said that since reports of the situation had arisen, the brewer had approached him personally, circumventing its legal intermediary.
At the moment trying to sort out some sort of solution,” he said. “I don’t know what that might be at the moment – they’ve asked us if we would amend the name slightly by adding something to it. We’ve talked to them about the possibility of a co-existence pact or agreement.”
He added: “So I’m not sure at the moment – nothing’s set in stone. But at least we have a direct line to them and they’re willing to talk to us, which certainly wasn’t the case two or three days ago.”
Legal letter came as ‘hammer blow’
An AB InBev spokesperson said: "We are in discussion with the Belleville Brewing Company about our existing trademark registration for Belle-Vue
“We believe in a vibrant and diverse beer industry and are talking to Belleville about how they can continue to sell and market their beer without diluting our trademark rights."
But slamming AB InBev’s initial approach, Thomas said: “The stupidity of the whole thing is that, if they’d spoken to us first rather than just sending this appalling letter, then they might have found something out about the brewery, about who we were, how big or small we were.
“Then probably most of this could be avoided. But that’s not the way, unfortunately, big business works. They just think that you can send a letter out – the ‘might is right’ sort of approach.”
Although a name change was easy to effect, Thomas said it carried a significant cost in design terms, disposing of labels and pump clips.
“We’re very small, so we are struggling to pay bills in the first few months – we’re a London brewery, and our rent is astronomical…so this came as a hammer blow really,” Thomas said.
“We’re very community based, but everyone knows the school, and everyone now (hopefully) knows the brewery. In some respects the payoff is that, if we have to lose the name, the added publicity will help us to sell beer so that we can actually pay for the rebranding. That’s the only silver line to the whole thing,” he added.
“Ultimately though, I want to keep the name. It’s the reason the brewery exists, because 10 dads got together and thought ‘wouldn’t it be cool to have a brewery?’"
US microbrewers ‘just blew me away’: Thomas
Driven by his passion for beer, and experience of good local brews in the UK, Thomas said he had spent the last two summers travelling from Florida up to Maine, where US microbrewers “just blew me away”.
“Places like Sweetwater and Red Brick in Atlanta, Brooklyn in New York, Dog Fish Head, and especially in Maine – it’s such a small town, and yet it must host 12 breweries, all so incredibly varied,” he said.
“This is a cracking business to be in, I love it. The thrill of sending a cask off to a pub, then have them phone you and saying ‘it went in eight hours’, nothing beats that.”
Asked how American-style, pale ales were trending in the UK, Thomas said: “I would like to think that with the younger generation coming through, drinking trends are changing – people don’t want to go to the pub, drink eight pints then stagger home.”
He added: “I think it’s much more the case, particularly in London where beer is fairly expensive, that your average 25 year-old wants to drink three or four but wants to drink good quality beer. Plus young adults travel now, go to the States, develop these tastes and want to have them here.”
Thomas said he believed that, beyond well-loved old breweries, UK consumers “want hoppier beers, something with a bit of attitude to it”, but said that American trends had since moved on even further.
“They’re now brewing slightly weaker beers (3-4% ABV) and there is almost a backlash against really hoppy beer,” he said.