Aeronaut Brewing Company Is Suing One of Its Founders

The Somerville maker says that FAB Beer—launched by a former partner—ripped off its recipes, among other allegations.

FAB Beer launched in the Boston-area market in late December 2019 with an IPA called Squid Pro Quo. Now, FAB founder Ben Holmes’ former company, Aeronaut, is saying the brew steals design elements and more from them. / Todd Mazer Photography

The new, Boston-area contract brewery FAB Beer says its cans are vehicles for art and activism—but in a new lawsuit, the FAB founder’s former business partners at Aeronaut Brewing Company say that FAB’s cans rip off signature Aeronaut recipes and design elements, among other allegations.

Aeronaut, operated by Ronn Friedlander and Daniel Rassi, is suing former business partner, Ben Holmes, for copyright infringement, Universal Hub reports. In a lawsuit filed January 15 in Boston’s U.S. District Court, the two Aeronaut owners say their founding third partner took Aeronaut recipes, fonts, label templates, and a universal product code (UPC), as well as a social media account and proprietary contact lists, to launch a competing brewery.

The lawsuit comes two years after Friedlander and Rassi began reducing Holmes’ role at Aeronaut, where he was previously the president and CEO, “due to concerns about Mr. Holmes’s management style,” according to the court document. Following mediation, Holmes stepped back from Aeronaut in May 2018, but he remained on its board of managers until the end of 2019, and he still retains a share in the company. Aeronaut alleges that Holmes started making moves to launch his own beer company as soon as he stepped back from Aeronaut, registering an online domain name, and iterations of an LLC, for FAB in May and June 2018.

In December 2019, Holmes and Aeronaut signed a buy-out agreement, which—in a counter-motion filed today—Holmes says permits him to operate a competing business. Holmes’ motion acknowledges that FAB’s use of an Aeronaut UPC was a mistake, which he’s already fixed; otherwise, he denies stealing from his former friends and business partners. He says the recipes are based off of a West Coast IPA recipe called Embarrassment of Riches, and a pilsner recipe, both of which are created by Dorchester Brewing Company, where FAB Beer is brewed. FAB is using the recipes with permission, the counter-motion says.

For its part, Aeronaut’s lawsuit says that Holmes viewed a password-protected file of Aeronaut recipe information, while using an Aeronaut-owned Google account, in November 2019, “around the time he likely needed recipes for his new company… Mr. Holmes had no legitimate Aeronaut business purpose for accessing these documents.”

Aeronaut is asking a judge to order FAB to stop marketing and selling its beers, and to recall and destroy the products already in the market; as well as destroy all of the proprietary information they allege Holmes took from Aeronaut. The company is seeking unspecified damages, and a trial by jury.

In Holmes’ counter-motion, he says FAB is being asked “to do things that [we] have either already done or were in the process of doing.” Each side was already communicating through lawyers because of the mediation process, so “there was no need to file suit and cause [FAB] to spend money defending this matter.” Holmes is asking the judge to make Aeronaut reinstate access to his email and files.

Friedlander and Rassi emailed Boston a statement on Thursday evening. “We’re disappointed that it’s come to this point, but we have to protect the future of this business that we’ve worked so hard to build,” they say. “We are proud of the time, effort and resources our team has contributed to get Aeronaut to where it is today. However, we do not tolerate unethical practices and procedures from current or former employees. We aim to stand by our core values and the recipes we have developed through years of hard work and experimentation. Aeronaut Brewing Company celebrates a collaborative nature throughout our industry, and we embrace friendly competition. We will continue to brew world-class beer, celebrate our community, and look forward to Aeronaut’s growth in 2020 and beyond.”

Reached by phone Thursday evening, Holmes says, “We anticipate that this will be resolved shortly, and we look forward to continuing to drink awesome Aeronaut beers and awesome FAB beers. I also invite the user to drink them side-by-side.”