Words & Photos - Matthew Curtis
On the 8th of September, to very little fuss, Camden Town Brewery published a piece on their website titled The Home of Hells. It brought to light two things, how important their brand Hells Lager is to them as a company and that how another company, who were not named in the statement, has very recently given their own lager the name Hells. It goes on to tell of how Camden had attempted to contact the other brewery and asked them to change the name of the beer with no success. I tweeted a link to the statement and unknowingly placed myself at the centre of a Twitter shit-storm.
It soon turned out that the unnamed brewery was the Craft Brewing Company, based near Norwich in Norfolk who trade under the name Redwell. Their response painted a very different picture of the incident, accusing Camden Town of using big brewery, bully boy tactics and giving them only 7 days to cease manufacture of their own Hells Lager. A beer that up until a month ago, did not exist. The Craft Brewing Company (who from here on in I shall refer to as Redwell for brevity) then go on to challenge Camden to a 'taste off' with the loser having to drop the name Hells for good. I tweeted the link to this too and thus the shit-storm continued to rage on.
To be perfectly honest, both statements made me cringe. The public domain is never the place for trademark disputes. Camden's statement was well written, but used terms such as 'intellectual property' painting them in the same big brewery colours that Redwell had also done. Terms that will do nothing to endear them to their customers. On the other hand, Redwell's own statement was rushed and contained many mistakes and factual inaccuracies, it had all the hallmarks of a knee jerk reaction.
I stated on Twitter that neither brewery would win this battle but despite this something inside me would not let go. I simply had to get to the bottom of this come hells or high water. I began my research by trying to find out if Hells was in fact a beer style or if it was truly a brand that Camden had created for themselves. In Redwell's statement they write "Hells, for any German, is a generic description for light lager, as is the term helles and hell along with several other similar variations."
In German 'hell' or 'helles' simply means 'light' or 'bright'. 'Hells' does not mean either of these things, in German it just means 'hells' and is not used to describe a beer style. 'Hell' and 'helles' are though, as indicated by the German Beer Institute on their website. What this means is that although 'Helles' and 'Hell' are styles of beer 'Hells' is without question of a doubt a brand. A brand that has been developed and used by Camden Town Brewery for four years. A brand that they are becoming synonymous with.
After I had decided that Hells was not a term used to describe a style of lager I then went on to look into similar disputes and their outcome. Does anybody remember Brewstar of Morpeth near Newcastle-upon-Tyne? After Brewsters of Lincolnshire asked them to change their name they did so and became the fantastic Anarchy Brew Co. Remember Magic Rock Curious pale ale? Well this is now called Ringmaster after the Chapel Down Brewery, who brew a beer called Curious Brew, asked them to change that name, which they did. What about Thornbridge Raven Black IPA? I asked Thornbridge Brewer Dominic Driscoll what happened here and he told me that the Orkney Brewery, who brew Raven Ale, asked them to change the name. They got together, had a few beers and Raven metamorphosed into Wild Raven.
This is just three examples of British breweries working out branding disputes behind closed doors in a mature and businesslike fashion. On any of these occasions no heels were dragged through the mire and not a drop of blood was shed.
So why did Camden feel the need to go public with this particular dispute? Well after speaking to the brewery I know that Director of Brewing Alex Troncoso personally tried to contact Redwell on numerous occasions to arrange a meeting to sort this mess out. Eventually when Redwell's answer to their calls was to arrange a winner takes all loser takes nothing taste test, Camden felt they had no choice but to take things to the next level. If Redwell had shown some maturity at this stage it would have never come to this. It should never have come to this.
The further I delved into this mess the more I began to believe that Camden were in the right and that Redwell were taking advantage of previous mistakes. Camden's dispute with Weird Beard (that also involved BrewDog) made all three breweries look bad but on this occasion the consumers rallied behind Weird Beard and Camden earned the bully-boy reputation that Redwell have used to their advantage on this occasion. In my opinion this is now water under the bridge, mistakes were made but in the end the name of the offending beer was changed.
Redwell are no stranger to legal disputes themselves having had a wrangling with Red Bull who wrote a letter asking Redwell to change the name of their brewing operation. Redwell took this to the national media with accusations of corporate bullying and Red Bull eventually backed down with Redwell's own profile being raised significantly. I even discussed this with some of the guys from Redwell when I met them at the Craft Beer Rising earlier this year. We had a bit of a laugh about it while I tried their beers which I really enjoyed, especially their Pilsner and India Pale Lager.
I spend a lot of time down at the Camden Town Brewery bar. It's 3 miles from my office and directly on my route home from work. It's my local brewery, it's a very important part of what 'craft beer' is to me and I've been a regular there since it opened in early 2012. I've got to know a lot of the people that work for the brewery through my bar visits and through this blog, I call many of the staff friends. Camden Town's bar encapsulates the spirit of the craft beer scene, it's a fantastic place to buy a drink and spend an evening. If anyone believes that they hold their brand above their beer then I can assure you that you are wrong. The guys at Camden are some of the most passionate, hardworking people in the industry. They are not bullies, they simply care a great deal about something they have spent the past four years building their business on and they have every right to try and protect this.
It's when I saw several people who I respect and also call friends announce that they would be boycotting Camden Town beers because they are 'bullies' that I was incensed to dig deeper. After both of the statements had been released I tried to remain impartial but after much deliberation I now firmly believe that Camden are being taken advantage of and that Redwell are in the wrong.
As a craft brewery, Redwell have a responsibility to educate and inform their customers. Stating that 'Hells' is a generic description used by Germans to describe light lager is a falsehood and just a little research on my part proved this. It is an easy enough mistake to make so I will gift Redwell the benefit of the doubt and believe that this is indeed a mistake. I know from speaking to several people at Camden including senior staff that Redwell were asked several times to change the name of their beer. They refused and I believe that they are playing on Camden's past spat with Weird Beard in an effort to besmirch their name.
Craft brewing is a professional and mature young industry and this kind of behaviour has no place in it. Redwell are both misinforming and misleading their own customers at the cost of the credibility of one of our country's best breweries and this is simply not acceptable.
As a consumer, as a customer, as someone who is passionate about beer I ask you Redwell to please see sense and change the name of your beer. Let's put this behind us, move on and concentrate on making great beer for people to enjoy.
To quote my friend and fellow beer writer Chris Hall 'Camden Hells Lager is their lifeblood'. It is everything they stand for and have worked for since their inception in 2010. Taste it side by side with a Tegernseer Hell, a highly regarded authentic Bavarian Helles and tell me that it's not an incredibly accomplished beer. Taste their new India Hells Lager which launches in cans next month and tell me its not a game changer. Most importantly please join me for a beer at the brewery bar next Friday evening, the 19th of September and experience The Home of Hells for yourself. I challenge you not to have a good time.