A Case of Bass

An 1899 American court decision handed a victory to U.K.-based Bass Brewery, an injunction against Christian Feigenspan in New Jersey. Feigenspan had sought to use a triangle symbol to label two forms of beer: a pale ale, and half-and-half – pale ale and brown stout blended, in this case.

See from p. 207, a decision of the New Jersey Circuit Court.

From Jess Kidden’s Google Beer pages, we have a good idea what Feigenspan’s labels looked like, in a period card or poster.

Bass famously labelled its draft and bottled beers with a red equilateral triangle. Wholesalers bought in bulk from Bass in Burton-on-Trent, England and re-sold to retailers world-wide, both bottled and draft forms.

Feigenspan was using red, too, to colour its (isosceles) triangle although its trade mark registration disclaimed any particular colour. Bass, as the case explained, sometimes used alternate colours to its brand its pale ale, white was one. Red was typical though, especially for bottled Bass, and actually preceded any other colour, according to evidence taken.

Feigenspan was not on strong ground. The decision is well-worded and smartly paced. Mr. Feigenspan as a witness did not, as well, strike the court as honest and guileless.

One point I’d like to bring out here is, Feigenspan argued his half-and-half could not violate Bass’s rights because, in essence, it wasn’t (India) pale ale, the type for which Bass was famous. As a mixture of beers and with a different colour than pale ale typically had, Feigenspan was trying to argue half and half was a separate product.

The court made quick work of this argument, holding both forms of beer were “malt liquor”, and “courts should not be astute to recognize fine distinctions” where the products were of a general class.

Here we see the limits of beer style, the thing near and dear to the heart of the beer enthusiast.

The defendant’s argument was never very strong anyway, as a mix of beers is still much closer to either component than, say, a box of paper tissue. But whatever force the argument had was quickly deflated by judicial logic and, I’d add, common sense.

Reading the case, I was reminded of the reaction of a friend of the family who could never be persuaded to like beer. Try this, I’d say, try that, this has fruit in it, that has nutmeg.

“It’s still beer”, he intoned. And so it is. From a certain point of view – but one rather widespread among, we might call them, non-initiates.

Feigenspan continued to market its brands under other labels. It came back fairly strong after Prohibition ended (1933). 10 years later though, Ballantine Brewery in the same state bought its share capital.

If you would a second case of Bass, see here.




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