Rudolph’s family sues Bethlehem’s Brew Works

RUDOLPH THE red-nosed reindeer had a very good lawyer.

And if you ever had any doubts, check out what happened to Bethlehem Brew Works.

Like most brewpubs, Bethlehem has its own version of Christmas ale. It’s deep red, spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg, and chimes in at 9.5 percent alcohol. Brewer Jeff Fegley said, “When you smell the beer, you think Christmas.”

The beer, like all those at the brewpub, had been available on draft only. But last year, the family-run pub figured the Christmas beer would be perfect to launch its new line of bottled brews.

“It was only natural,” Fegley said. “After all, Bethlehem is ‘the Christmas City.’ ”

The brewpub contracted Weyerbacher Brewing in nearby Easton to brew and bottle the ale.

All they needed was a name.

Originally, they’d just called it Christmas Ale. But the brewpub wanted something snappier, so it held a name-the-beer contest. It received more than 200 entries, and the winner got dinner and a free growler filled with the ale.

The name: Rudolph’s Reserve.

Looking back on it, Fegley said, “We could’ve probably gotten away with it if it weren’t for the label.”

The label, by Maryland artist Robert C. Matteson, depicts St. Nick pulling a bottle from Rudolph’s saddle. It’s a witty caricature, even if Rudolph looks a bit spooked about Santa’s claws.

But Rudolph’s lawyer quickly put an end to the fun.

In a dispute first reported by Easton’s Express-Times, the brewpub found itself holding one of those tough-sounding “cease and desist” letters intended to shake the tinsel off your tree. An attorney identifying himself as a representative of the Rudolph Co. said Bethlehem had infringed on its trademark.

Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer a registered trademark?

In fact, Rudolph was created in 1939 by a copywriter at the old Montgomery Ward department store in Chicago. The writer, Robert L. May, came up with Rudolph and his nose for a Christmastime promotional booklet.

“Most people think Rudolph and Santa have been together forever,” said May’s daughter, Virginia Herz. “My father’s story was an amazing contribution to the lore of Christmas.”

Herz said that in 1946, Montgomery Ward returned Rudolph’s trademark rights to her father. Three years later, his brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks, wrote the familiar holiday tune.

The tale became a permanent part of American culture when Burl Ives narrated the famously kitschy, 1964 animated film.

May died in 1976, but his family retained rights to the image through the Rudolph Co.

The gist of the letter, Fegley said, was that the brewery would have to remove any image of “a red-tipped nose on any deerlike animal.”

(By the way, Rudolph’s Reserve isn’t the only beer named for Santa’s favorite pet. Cropton Brewery in Yorkshire, England, brews Rudolph’s Revenge, whose label depicts a deerlike animal with a red-tipped nose. No word on whether Cropton has encountered Rudolph’s lawyer.)

Said Fegley: “Our lawyer mentioned that they had even gone after someone who had a picture of a cow with a red nose and antlers, and pressured them out of using the image. It was depicting an image that was degrading the Rudolph image. ”

It’s not hard to understand why the trademark owners would be touchy. Rudolph is foremost a kiddies’ favorite.

And then there’s that crimson honker, a bulbous shiner that puts W.C. Fields’ schnozz to shame.

Said Herz: “The red nose was never meant to be associated with inebriation.”

As for Bethlehem’s version, Fegley said, “There wasn’t any rude or crude use of the name. It wasn’t like we were depicting a drunken Rudolph stumbling.

“It was a bit frustrating, but I kind of understand. When you have a trademark, you have to go after everyone that has some likeness.”

Rather than pay a royalty, Bethlehem agreed it would stop using the name. This year’s batch of 500 cases will become collectors’ items; next year, it’ll be brewed with a different name and label.

“It’s not a do-or-die situation for us,” Fegley said. “We’re just a brewpub. It’s not worth it to us to fight.”

So, how’s it taste?

This is one of those highly spiced brews that make you think you’re drinking Red Zinger tea with a kick. The ale, backed by three different Belgian yeasts, comes through nicely, though, for a festive holiday flavor.

Fegley suggests letting the bottle warm up to about 50 degrees. Then sip it beside a fire, maybe on one foggy Christmas Eve.

 Beer radar

In the spirit of religious diversity, word arrives from Shmaltz Brewing that its kosher He’brew, the Chosen Beer, is now available in six-packs. Look for Genesis Ale (the “first creation”) and Messiah Bold (“the beer you’ve been waiting for”).

On Tuesday, founder Jeremy Cowan will be winding up his 40 days and 40 nights wandering beer tour of America with a tasting at Monk’s (16th and Spruce streets, Center City) . . . Victory Brewing in Downingtown will unveil a new flavor next week. It’s Hop Wallop . . . Somebody at Kalamazoo Brewing sure must like stout. The maker of Bell’s beers produces, by my count, at least five different dark ones: Java Stout, Kalamazoo Stout, Cherry Stout, Expedition Stout and Special Double Cream Stout.

 Calendar

Tonight: Drink Pynk at McGlinchey’s (15th and Spruce streets, Center City). Taste the new, pink, Belgian-style ale from Yards and win free gifts. No cover. 6-8 p.m. 215-735-1259.

Tomorrow: SantaFest at Sugar Mom’s Church Street Lounge (225 Church St., Old City). Finish up your holiday shopping and enjoy seasonal brews at this annual craft show. No cover. 1-6 p.m. 215-925-8219.

 Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a glass of Winter Koninck.

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