Building Beer Brands: Trademark Disputes and Resolutions

These days, brewers find themselves navigating the fast-moving legal waters of naming a brewery and their beers.

By Jeremy Zoss

CORRECTION: A previously published version of this post incorrectly stated that “Northbound Smokehouse & Brewpub in South Minneapolis sued Northeast Minneapolis-based Northgate Brewing over the similarity of their names.”

Northbound Smokehouse did not “sue” Northgate Brewing over similarity in their names.

Photo by Maxwell McGruder

Photo by Maxwell McGruder

In late November, Ohio-based Great Lakes Brewing announced that Alchemy Hour, the company’s well-regarded seasonal Double IPA, would be changing its name to Chillwave. According to a statement released by Great Lakes Brewing, the name change was the result of a trademark conflict with the Craft Beer Alliance (CBA), which owns the Widmer Brothers, Kona Brewing and Red Hook Brewing brands. CBA informed Great Lakes that it owned a trademark on the word “Alchemy.” Great Lakes’ statement on the matter states that the two parties were able to reach an agreement on the matter that avoided any lawsuits but required a name change for Great Lakes’ DIPA.

With the explosive growth of craft breweries, these types of copyright issues are becoming increasingly common. Clown Shoes Beer recently announced plans to change the name of its Vampire Slayer Smoked Imperial Stout to Undead Party Crasher rather than fight a costly court battle with TI Beverage Group, which owns and markets vampire-themed wines. An upstart Texas brewery changed its name from Namaste Brewing to Kamala rather than risk a court battle with the much larger Dogfish Head. Perhaps the most disappointing is the lawsuit filed by Magic Hat Brewing against Kentucky’s West Sixth Brewing Company. Magic Hat claimed that West Sixth’s logo (the number six in a circle) was confusingly similar to the logo for its #9 beer (the number nine in a circle). The two businesses fortunately reached an agreement on the matter out of court.

Copyright disputes have appeared closer to home as well. Prior to the launch of either business, Northbound Smokehouse & Brewpub in South Minneapolis tussled with Northeast Minneapolis-based Northgate Brewing over the similarity of their names. The two ultimately came to an agreement that avoided a court battle. Both parties declined to comment for this article. A not-yet-launched brewery in Faribault was sent searching for a new name after the Boston Beer Company informed its owners that its proposed name, Patriots Brewing Company, would infringe on Boston Beer’s “Brewer Patriot” trademark. The Faribault brewery opted not to fight the world’s largest craft brewery and agreed to change its name. It currently goes by F-Town Brewing Company. Minnesota’s Lift Bridge Brewing took Wisconsin’s Lucette Brewing to court over perceived similarities between Lift Bridge’s Farm Girl Saison and Lucette’s Farmer’s Daughter Spiced Blonde Ale. Along with the similarity in names, both use black, white and red, and pictures of young women on the package.

Legal issues over brewery and product names are simply a reality now in the booming world of craft beer, according to Bartley Blume, founder and brewer of the recently launched Bent Brewstillery. He said that when there were fewer breweries out there, one could simply search Google to see if a name was being used. Now it’s more complicated, and prospective brewery startups need to take naming issues seriously.

“All you can do is the best you can on your due diligence and hope that another brewery is being as public as you are as you’re developing yourself,” said Blume. “It’s becoming more and more difficult to be unique when there are so many [breweries] coming out.” His company name has similarities to Duluth’s Bent Paddle Brewing, but the two were able to discuss the issue without it resulting in any legal issues. “There’s Big Bay and Big Wood. There’s Lakefront, there’s Great Lakes. There’s Great Divide,” said Blume. “Our images are completely different as well. I really don’t think there will be any issues with confusion.”

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