Naming a baby is easy — at least when you and your spouse finally agree on a name.
Most likely you heard or read the name somewhere, thought it was cool and appropriated it as your own. Who cares if there are a million other Michaels, Suris and Knoxes walking around? Yours is the special one.
If only it were that easy naming a beer nowadays.
With the explosion in the number of craft breweries in the U.S. — there were more than 2,400 operating last year — it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find that perfect name to represent your new brew. Or even your new brewery.
That’s because craft breweries, from big to small, are trademarking names. And they are being fiercely protective of their brand identities, worried that two beers or two breweries with the same name will cause confusion among drinkers.
“Now that we’re fighting for tap handles and shelf space, that’s when the claws come out,” said brewer Brad Clark of Jackie O’s Pub & Brewery in Athens, Ohio. “Protecting your brand is important. That is really the heart of it.”
Great Lakes Brewing Co., the award-winning brewery in Cleveland that celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, knows only too well.
The brewery released a new seasonal beer this year called Alchemy Hour Double IPA. It was a massive hit, scoring rave reviews from the most critical of beer snobs.
But the brand won’t return next year because — as it turned out — Widmer Brothers Brewing Co. in Portland owns the trademark to “Alchemy” and also released a new year-round brew called Alchemy Ale this year.
Brady Walen, brand manager for Widmer, said his brewery has great respect for Great Lakes and its beers but had to put the kibosh on Great Lakes using the name to protect its brand.
Widmer found out about the Great Lakes brew right before Alchemy Hour hit the market.
“It sounds like they just didn’t know that we have Alchemy as a trademark,” Walen said.
Knowing how much Great Lakes invested in the beer and understanding that it was a short-run seasonal brew, Widmer allowed Great Lakes to release the beer this year, but asked that the name not be used again in the future.
Great Lakes has acknowledged in a statement that “Alchemy Hour” will disappear, but the same recipe will return next year with a new, yet-to-be-determined name.
The Great Lakes-Widmer Brothers example is far from unique:
• Indigo Imp Brewery, in Cleveland, had to change the name of its Winter Solstice beer because of Anderson Valley Brewing Co.’s Winter Solstice. The Indigo Imp beer now goes by Winter Soul.
• The Brew Kettle, in Strongsville, Ohio, had to stop using Black Jack Porter because of Left Hand Brewing Co.’s Black Jack Porter. The Brew Kettle beer now goes by One Eyed Jack Robust Porter.
• The Seventh Son Brewing Co., in Columbus, Ohio,, originally was called Born Brewing — until it learned it might run into a problem with Rolling Rock holding a trademark for “Born Small Town.” Instead of chancing it, the brewery changed its name.
The problem really has swelled over the last few years not only because more breweries are opening, but also because existing brewers are expanding their distribution territories.
In the past, there wasn’t as much overlap among smaller or regional brewers so you didn’t have to worry as much about infringing on a trademark — or someone finding out that you’re infringing on their trademark.
That certainly was the case with Jackie O’s, one of the most prolific breweries in Ohio. Jackie O’s produces between 50 and 60 different beers each year.
But until this year, the brewery sold its beer only at its brewpub, located in a remote part of the state in Athens.
There wasn’t much worry before about infringing on another trademark. But now that Jackie O’s opened a production brewery and is distributing in Ohio, it is a concern.
“We’re trying to get all of our stuff covered to make sure we don’t run into these problems,” Clark said.
The naming problem also likely stems from the rise of nanobreweries, tiny brewers who may not be as savvy at checking trademarks.
Although sometimes it’s just a matter of two people coming up with the same idea independently.
That might explain why there are at least four “Main Street” breweries nationwide, including one in Garrettsville, Ohio.
Then there’s the conspiracy theory that big brewers snatch up names deliberately to cause confusion.
“Some of that discussion has wondered if the purpose is not to build a brand on its own merits or to capitalize on the success of the other brand name, but to damage the other company’s brand,” said Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association, a Boulder, Colo.-based trade group.
He said it’s up to brewers to do diligent research, which includes everything from simply checking the Internet to hiring attorneys.
The last thing a brewer wants to do is invest thousands of dollars in labels and other promotional materials only to find out it can’t use the name.
Brewers sweat over beer names. They want them to be not only interesting, but also, in many cases, related to their breweries.
Fifty West Brewing Co., in Cincinnati, has names such as Alternate Route, Loneliest Road, Coast to Coast IPA and Speedbump Kolsch.
“It’s challenging,” Blake Horsburgh, one of the owners of Fifty West, said about picking names. “What we do is we try to make it relevant to the brand Fifty West. Anything we come up with, we ask, ‘how does it relate to Fifty West or the journey that we’re taking in our business or the brewery?’”
And sometimes, the perfect name they come up with just isn’t available.
The craft beer industry is largely collegial, with brewers wanting to see each other succeed. When trademark issues arise, they often are settled amicably, Gatza said.
He cited the example of Russian River and Avery Brewing both using the name “Salvation.”
“They agreed to each keep their own beers in the market and then did a joint brew called ‘Collaboration Not Litigation,’” he said.
But it’s not always amicable.
Thirsty Dog Brewing Co., in Akron, Ohio, filed a federal lawsuit against the Thirsty Dog Tavern in Atlanta in 2010. The case eventually was settled.
Thirsty Dog co-owner John Najeway also said he often advises other brewers to quit using the name “Leg-humper” because Thirsty Dog owns the trademark to Old Leghumper.
“We all make porters and stouts and dortmunders and fruit beers at the end of the day,” Najeway said. “But the biggest value is your brand. Our brand is Thirsty Dog and we have a lot of equity after 16 years in the business in those names. That’s why they’re all trademarked and registered.”