Thursday, July 14, 2005
Pabst Loses Words ‘Blue Ribbon’ To Defunct Illinois Brewery
By ROGER M. GRACE
During Prohibition, when some beer companies were managing to stay afloat by marketing malt extract, a defunct brewery in Illinois became the nation’s leading maker of that product, used in concocting home brews. The company gained dominance of the market by applying to its malt extract a description linked in the public’s mind to a beer of national reknown—and the company was allowed by the courts to get away with it.
The Decatur Brewing Company was incorporated in 1888, a successor to a brewery founded in 1862. It built up its business by advertising extensively in local newspapers. One 1894 ad read:
“Have You A Good Appetite? If not, drink a glass of Decatur Brewing Company’s ‘Pilsner’ Lager Beer before each meal. It Is cheaper than medicine, much more agreeable to the taste and a splendid appetizer. Try It. TELEPHONE 84.”
Selling beer in Decatur and other areas of Illinois, it was producing 9,000 barrels a year by 1895.
Then in 1914, Decatur Township became, by vote of the populace, “anti-saloon.” As one local commissioner explained it at the time, “This is not prohibition territory as some want it but simply local option territory, which provides there shall be no saloons and doesn’t regulate the shipping in.”
The Decatur Brewing Company, though precluded from selling its beer within Decatur, was not impeded from sending it elsewhere by rail. A direct telephone line to nearby Mt. Pulaski was set up and Decatur residents could call the number at no charge to order Decatur Brewing Company beer, which would soon arrive by train—right back to the city where it was produced.
The business climate for breweries was hardly ideal in this era of widespread clamoring for the banning of alcohol. The company ceased making beer in 1916, and the following year, its plant was dismantled, with machinery sold to breweries in Missouri, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. It continued to act as distributor for national brands, as it had for some years. Notable among the brands was Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer.
In 1919, the Decatur Brewing Company did something sly. Using the name Premier Food Products Co., it started manufacturing “Blue Ribbon Malt Extract,” obviously appropriating words associated with Pabst’s brew.
Decatur made no bones about its product’s chief intended use. In large type, an ad proclaimed: “Will Make The Finest Quality Home Brewed BEER,” with instructions on beer-making laid out.
Then in 1920, there came national Prohibition. While Prohibition was a death knell for innumerable breweries and distilleries, it served as a boon to the Decatur Brewing Company.
As you might imagine, with Prohibition looming in 1919, Pabst—which had been applying the words “Blue Ribbon” to its beer since 1898—wanted to use those words on malt extract of its own manufacture, and brought an action against Decatur. The District Court held that Pabst’s trade-name covered only beer, and dismissed the action.
The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, pointing out that the words “blue ribbon” were applied to various products, including “whisky, wine, vinegar, flavoring extract, candy, chewing gum, chocolate, flour, bread, cigars, chewing and smoking tobacco, citrus fruits, fresh grapes, fresh deciduous fruits, and canned fruits.” Judge Samuel Alschuler wrote:
“In view of the very wide and general employment of ‘Blue Ribbon’ as a trade-name, we believe the District Court properly concluded that appellant’s right to use it was limited to its registered product, and whatever other first use it made of it, and that in appellee’s use of it there was no likelihood of any confusion of its product with that of appellant.”
Poppycock. The fact that “blue ribbon” was used by candy-makers and fruit canners did not diminish the public’s association of “blue ribbon” with one brand of beer—that made by Pabst. Now breweries were now turning to the manufacturing of malt extract for use in making beer at home. The public would necessarily assume Blatz malt extract to be made by the erstwhile manufacturer of Blatz beer. And it would be right. Given the secondary meaning of “blue ribbon” as applied to beer, the natural assumption would be that “Blue Ribbon Malt Extract” was made by the brewery that had made “Blue Ribbon Beer.”
Anyway, as of 1932, Pabst had nothing to complain about. The Decatur Brewing Company, which had become Premier Malt Products, Inc., merged that year with Pabst, becoming Premier-Pabst Corporation.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company
MetNews Main Page Reminiscing Columns