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April 13, 2021

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Oregon hard seltzer maker takes on beverage giant in pre-Super Bowl scrimmage in court

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Owners of a Pendleton-based brewery bristled at an ad that aired Jan. 24 during a nationally-televised NFL playoff game and promoted Michelob ULTRA Organic Seltzer as the “only national USDA organic certified seltzer.”

That’s just not true, says Suzie’s Brewery.

The Oregon manufacturer started selling Suzie’s Seltzer in July, after receiving its own federal certification as an organic hard seltzer. The small family-owned company markets its bubbly beverage as “The Official Hard Seltzer of Mother Nature,” urging customers to “Crack a Cold One To The Tune of Crickets and Frogs.”

Now, the makers of the two seltzers are set for their own scrimmage in federal court Friday: Suzie’s Brewery takes on Anheuser-Busch Companies as it rushes to block the global competitor from running the same ad on Super Bowl Sunday.

“Using the bully-pulpit its massive national advertising budget allows, Anheuser-Busch has premiered a new false and misleading advertising campaign aimed at convincing health-conscious drinkers that its new organic hard seltzer is a unique, one-of-a-kind product,” the suit says. “To be clear, it is not.”

Suzie’s Brewery Company filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Portland this week.

With a potential viewership of 99.9 million people on the line during the upcoming nationally televised NFL Super Bowl LV, lawyers for Suzie’s Brewery are seeking a court order to keep Anheuser-Busch from airing the ad during Sunday’s game or during pre- or post-game shows.

“Anheuser-Busch will continue to pursue its strategy of unfairly squeezing out its smaller competitors in the organic hard seltzer market (like Suzie’s Brewery) unless this court puts a stop to its misconduct,” wrote Daniel C. Peterson, an attorney for the Oregon brewery in a motion for a temporary restraining order.

Messages left for Anheuser-Busch Co. and its lawyer seeking comment were not immediately returned.

U.S. District Judge Michael H. Simon has scheduled a 1 p.m. hearing on Friday. The judge has given Anheuser-Busch Co. to file its response to the Oregon brewery’s motion by 5 p.m. Thursday.

Chris Barhyte, the founder and chief executive officer of Suzie’s Brewery, says his family-owned business has been distributing its USDA-certified organic hard seltzer for at least five months before Anheuser-Busch’s Michelob Ultra brand entered the market.

He learned of the Michelob ad after receiving several text messages and phone calls the day it aired during the NFL playoffs on Jan. 24.

Since the airing of the Michelob ad two weeks ago, Suzie’s Brewery has received multiple complaints and concerns from its consumers and at least one retailer questioning its organic certification, according to Barhyte and Suzie Brewery’s sales manager.

The Oregon company attempted to contact the beverage giant to get it to “cease and desist” its ad campaign and agree not to run it Sunday, but so far the global company has refused, Suzie’s Brewery’s lawyers wrote to the court.

The Barhyte family has been involved in other food and beverage industry businesses, tracing its lineage back to a mustard manufacturer in the 18th century, with its recipe traveling west on the Oregon Trail, according to Barhyte. Business grew and expanded to new mustards, marinades and sauces, and developed an organic line called Suzie’s Organics.

While Barhyte was visiting his son in college in Colorado in the 2019, he said he saw the potential appeal for hard seltzers “among all generations” and decided to expand the company’s organic brand by entering the hard seltzer market, according to his declaration filed in court.

Suzie’s Organic Hard Seltzer received its certification under the USDA’s National Organic Program on June 1 of last year and started distributing the drink on July 21 in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Jersey. It expects to introduce it in other states soon, according to Barhyte.

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