Beer names and labels don't make or break a purchase decision for me. Sure, a label design, or more specifically a brand design, can be useful in defining a brewery's voice in the market but to me, it's not about the packaging that surrounds the beer, it's what fills that packaging that counts most. The late Don Younger, a famed Portland publican used to say, "It's not about the beer, it's about the beer." And that is wise and important to remember. The most crucial goal is to make good beer. As the market swells and the number of breweries reaches a point of market saturation, the only thing that matters is the quality of the brewery's offering. It is in this environment that craft beer finds itself at a point where trademarks are also important. That realization has lead to some recent high profile lawsuits and legal actions that have raised a few eyebrows in a community built on inclusiveness with a history of openness and a desire to collaborate.
While it is true that commercial beers are becoming harder and harder to name, these days craft brewers seem to be suing over what appear to be small matters. This action or threat of action can often confuse and, at times, enrage the average craft consumer. Look at the recent Twitter backlash at Lagunitas. When they tried to argue that Sierra Nevada’s Hop Hunter IPA had infringed on their trademarked font for their IPA label, the larger online public came to the defense of Sierra arguing that there was no real possibility of brand confusion and, moreover, they didn’t own the trademark on IPAs. A clear message was sent to Lagunitas that their actions were not very "craft" of them. A day later, Lagunitas withdrew their suit and offered an apology.
Bell's Brewery also got into a bit of an online controversy when they took umbrage to the name of Innovation Brewery out of Sylva, NC. Bell's argued that because their beer has a tagline that reads "bottling innovation since 1985”, there would be brand confusion and filed an objection to Innovation's trademark petition, a position that would be easy to defend if they had (a) trademarked their tagline (they had not) or if (b) the general public was aware that this was the tagline for Bell's. Judging from the online reaction, with many bewildered consumers vowing to never drink another Bell’s beer again, it can safely be said that this was not the case. Larry Bell had to release a statement acknowledging the controversy and defending his position to the public.
Local Brewers Kevin Stafford and Basil Lee of Finback Brewery were also locked in a legal battle with Sierra Nevada over the name Narwhal (the originally chosen name for Finback). Since 2012, Sierra Nevada has made a beer called Narwhal Imperial Stout and argued that even though Stafford and Lee had been using the name Narwhal since 2010, Sierra objected to their use of the name for their brewery despite it being a brand they had been building for years. It was a legal battle that Sierra eventually won and a lesson in filing for your trademark immediately. After hearing this story I made a personal decision to never drink Sierra Nevada's Narwhal Imperial Stout and have not done so to this day, despite hearing how delicious it is from friends. I have had Hop Hunter IPA and really liked it. While it is understandable that Sierra Nevada needs to protect its intellectual property, it's worth noting that there is an Evil Twin beer from Heretic Brewing, as well as an Evil Twin Brewery. Both are wildly successful and co-exist in the market. Concessions can be made and legal agreements can be reached, particularly among breweries known to have originated from opposite coasts of the country.
To my mind, it's counterintuitive from a public relations standpoint for craft breweries to begin filing suits against one another, particularly against those smaller breweries with loyal followings, even if it is just in the neighborhoods where those breweries reside. The craft community is built on a David vs. Goliath attitude and doesn’t take kindly to large breweries with deep pockets forcing the little guys into submission. Small brewers may not be armed with much but, to paraphrase Garrett Oliver, their cause is just and their spirit cannot be deterred. Seeing regional and national craft brands suing smaller craft brands just doesn't sit right with the average drinker. It's reminiscent of Dogfish Head being sued by Anheuser-Busch over Dogfish's use of the words "punkin" and “chicory” in 2 of their flagship brands. Dogfish eventually prevailed but imagine the cost -- not only financially but also in terms of the time and focus that such a lawsuit took away from the brewer whose energy would have been better served creating and selling great beer.
It is an odd place for craft beer to find itself. Defending your trademark is a large part of owning a trademark and, if a case can be made, businesses have a duty to defend their trademarks, lest they lose them. If Joe Nano-Brewery is given a pass on a trademark infringement that could then open the floodgates for the big guys to follow suit. However, a lawsuit can often be enough of a financial burden to sink most small breweries at a delicate time in their infancy as a small business; a point that is not lost on the big breweries as their market share continues to erode as craft continues to ascend.
It is my hope that the craft beer community can continue to grow and flourish and remember that a rising tide floats all ships. Today's craft beer drinkers are educating themselves with each glass and are wildly promiscuous in their choice of beers. With such variety to choose from and with the culture of increasingly popular bars with rotating taps, a lawsuit filed against another brewery might just leave enough of a bad taste in the consumer’s mouth that the instigating brewery’s beer might never reach that mouth. And that would be a travesty because in the end it’s true; it’s not about the beer, it’s about the beer.