The Australian International Beer Awards dinner is the biggest night in beer for many, an occasion that sees hundreds of beer industry folk fly into Melbourne to celebrate together. Heck, some even dust down their once-a-year suits for the night. It’s also one that stirs no shortage of nerves among the brewers in the room, as they wait to see if they've secured a trophy.
At last May's awards, however, there was a very different reason behind the nervous feeling flowing through Chris Farmer, co-founder of Banks Brewing (née Mr Banks). His bar manager had just sent through a cease-and-desist letter that had landed in their generic email inbox.
“It was just this email that came to our info@,” Chris says. “And my bar manager sent it to me going, ‘It’s legit, we’ve made it.’.”
The letter related to one of their core range beers, the DDH pale ale McConaughaze. It's a beer they’d been brewing for several years and had named after one of Chris' heroes, Matthew McConaughey.
It's a fandom for McConaughey that stretches back a little further and goes a little deeper than those who fell for the actor on the back of his stellar performance in True Detective; he's attended Texas Longhorn games hoping to meet the number one ticket-holder and has read his book too – a great read according to self-confessed non-reader Chris.
“I’m a big fan of Matthew McConaughey and his work, in all aspects of his life,” Chris told The Crafty Pint. “Even the rom coms – I’m a big rom com kind of guy.”
The name was chosen relatively quickly after they’d thrown around a few ideas of words that rhyme with haze. Of course, paying tribute to someone and their intellectual property, whether a film franchise or public figure, is a risky process for brewers, one that can lead to a legal challenge.
According to McConaughey’s lawyers, the concern was that the beer was going to profit from his brand, one he had spent his career building. Not only were they worried about the name but also the use of a Lincoln car on the can (a reference to The Lincoln Lawyer), given the actor’s association with the vehicle.
For Chris and his team, it came at a particularly bad time and he didn't really feel like the brewery had "made it" but rather a costly exercise was in front of them. Just a few months earlier, they'd decided to take the plunge and give McConaughaze its own printed rather than labelled can, which meant 60,000 of them had just arrived at the brewery.
“I’d worked out in the costing of that beer that we were going to be in the negative on the can costs for at least two runs because of the number of printed colours,” Chris says, with such concerns outweighed by his impressions of the first prints.
“When it came out, I was just drinking that beer out of the can because I was so happy with it.”
Faced with 60,000 cans he could no longer use – and a potential run-in with one of his idols – Chris was relieved to discover McConaughey and his legal team weren’t out to make things too hard for them: they even came up with a way for the brewery to keep the beer name with an official endorsement.
The brewery was told they could keep using the McConaughaze name if they provided ten cents from each can sold to the actor’s charity, which supports homeless youth in America, an issue had seen for himself on a recent trip.
“Maybe a year-and-a-half before,” he says, “we’d been in Portland and the homelessness there then compared to the trip before was just so out of control.”
Chris sent a case of the beer to what he was told was McConaughey’s address and, while it looked like the agreement would lead to a positive resolution for everyone, things came unstuck right at the end. McConaughey’s relationship with Wild Turkey included a clause that meant he couldn’t associate with another alcohol brand.
“So [the legal team] came back to us and said that, as much as they looked forward to the partnership, it wasn’t going to happen.”
Ultimately, however, the McConaughey camp said Mr Banks Brewing could run through their printed cans before changing the name. The new name would be Alriiight, in reference to McConaughey’s catchphrase in Dazed and Confused, which the actor has used regularly since appearing in the early 90s film.
It's not the only such tale in recent months in the local beer world, either. Venom Beer were contacted by the manager for US band Cradle Of Filth after releasing a tribute beer of their own – a result of brewing company founder Joel Drysdale's love of the band.
As with the outcome here, initial threats of legal action turned into something far more positive: the band had been looking for a local brewing partner in Australia so ended up working with Venom on the release of the King Chaos Impaler Ale.
As for Banks, changing the name of that one beer had something of a snowball effect.
“Considering the amount of money spent on it, to just change one word on that can just wasn’t sitting well with me,” Chris says of the process that led to their evolution to Banks Brewing.
It turns out the name change was something he’d been pushing for some time, but which brewery co-founder and partner Penny Farmer plus head of sales Morgan Cole weren’t so sure about.
“I’ve kind of been advocating for two years that we should drop the Mr on Mr Banks and just make it Banks. That’s the name of our dog, after all.”
The decision to drop Mr and refresh the core range was also driven by a desire to streamline the offering and make it more consistent with their focus on limited release beers.
“We’ve probably gone through five or six different logos on our limited beers,” Chris says. “I know how stupid that is from a branding 101 perspective – it’s your logo and you want that everywhere. But it just didn’t seem like it really mattered with the beers we were making and what people were looking for from us.”
Ultimately, while the core range might be more important to the brewery in the future, fans of the Melbourne outfit’s limited releases can rest easy in the knowledge it’s the same old Mr Banks at heart.
“The core focus of our brewery is limited release beers, that’s what we have a lot of fun with, that’s what everyone wants from us,” Chris says. “But we want to appeal more to the everyday craft beer drinker rather than just the beer geek.”
While they’ll be thinking a bit more deeply about beer names in the future, they don’t want to leave behind the puns they’ve used in the past.
“I don’t want to get too far away from that stuff, I still want to be able to have fun and creative.”
As for the cease-and-desist, the costly label change, and the possibility Chris could have pissed off one of his genuine heroes, even with hindsight he says: “I wouldn’t change a single thing that’s happened for us, everything has gotten us to where we are” before adding with a laugh: “There might be some beers I might not have made along the way.”
Although one thing does still play on his mind…
“It is so surreal that it was actually real," he says, "that sometimes I wonder if someone was actually catfishing me..."