Brewing battle

Coffee giant, Texas bar tussle over Starbock beer

May 10, 2004 - A Galveston, Texas, bar owner and coffee-giant Starbucks have both taken legal action in a battle over whether the bar can sell a beer it calls Starbock.


Rex Bell, who operates the 60-seat Old Quarter Acoutstic Cafe, has the beer contract brewed for him by the Brenham Brewery. Bell played guitar for many famous Texas musicians and who was immortalized in the Townes Van Zandt song "Rex's Blues."

"I have the trademark approved by an office full of attorneys in Washington, and (Starbucks) is acting like I'm in the wrong here," he said.

After initially sending several letters to Bell asking him to cease selling the beer, Starbucks filed a notice of opposition with the U.S. Trademark Office, claiming Bell's Starbock brand infringed on the company's existing trademarks and brand. Starbucks' attorneys say that Bell "adopted the word 'Starbock' which he knew would be associated by consumers with Starbucks and its products."

Bell's Houston attorney countered by filing a complaint for declaratory judgment in U.S. District Court which drew a 20-page counterclaim from the Seattle-based coffee company.

Bell says Starbucks contends the company has offered to end the battle amicably. But he says a Starbucks lawyer who contacted him last year said "amicably meant that I would tear up everything with Starbock on it and stop selling my beer. They can't own everything that follows the word 'Star.'"

John Egbert, Bell's attorney, says he asked for declaratory judgment as a pre-emptive action to force Starbucks to prove its claims. "I can't think of anybody in their right mind who would order a Starbock in Bell's bar, take a sip, and be confused that he was drinking Starbucks coffee," Egbert said.

There is conjecture that Starbucks plans to begin selling its own brand of coffee-flavored liqueur in U.S. restaurants, bars and liquor stores. A liqueur will be made under a private-label agreement with Jim Beam Brands Co., currently is sold at its outlets in Kobe, Japan.