Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Beer Name Game

As a homebrewer I never was much for naming my beers.  I don't know why but it just wasn't my thing.  Maybe it was the impermanence of a 5 or 10 gallon batch of beer that wouldn't be around for more than a few months that made it not worth bothering with a name.  Or maybe since I usually tweaked recipes from one brew session to the next it wasn't worth it to name an "unfinished product".  Not that I have a problem with people giving their homebrews names, it just wasn't for me.  For competitions I would just enter my beers by their style name such as "Robust Porter" or "Northern English Brown Ale". 

Well that doesn't really work in the world of professional brewing.  For legal and marketing reasons you gotta call it something.  Naming my beers after their style seems a bit boring and since a lot of what I brew doesn't fit into exact style guidelines it wouldn't be real feasible anyway.  Lucky for me I've been compiling a list of possible beer names for a few years now.  Some are specific names that fit a certain style or flavor characteristic, some are interesting plays on words, and some are just words or phrases that "sounded like they would make a good beer name".  I have compiled a pretty big list and keep adding to it regularly.

The trick is out of all those names probably about half of them will be unusable.  Not necessarily because they are vulgar, violate TTB rules or just don't make sense (although there are some on the list that qualify in this regard), but because they are already in use.  See there are a little over 1900 craft breweries operating in the U.S. right now.  If you assume (conservatively) that each brewery has 5 standard beers and 5 seasonal beers that's nearly 20,000 beer names that are in use.  Well that generally means all the "easy" names have already been taken.  But how do you know?  Well as luck would have it the TTB has a name search directory that can help you check for already registered labels.  However, as with many things in the TTB, it isn't exactly the most useful tool.  It is an exact name search which means you have to search for the exact name to see if anyone is using it.  That means you have to try all the different variations and spellings you can think of to make sure you aren't naming a beer RYESING SUN when there is already a beer named RYSING SUN (hypothetical example).

But who cares you say?  So what if there's a beer in Ohio named Hoppin' Wheat and a beer in California named Hopp'n Wheat (hypothetical example)?  Breweries and their trademark lawyers that's who.  Trademark law can be a real "sticky wicket" as they say.  There's a lot of in's and out's but the gist of it is if someone else was using it first and they think your name is too close to theirs (which is very open to interpretation) they can sue you for infringement, even if you had no idea they existed or have no plans to ever sell beer in a market that they service.  Ignorance is no excuse for the law as they say.  So, when naming a beer you have to not only check every derivation of it you can think of in the TTB directory but it's also a good idea to search Google/Yahoo etc.  just to be sure.  While you're at it a search of the US Patent and Trade database probably isn't a bad idea either.  Even then you have to hope you did a good enough job researching so you don't get into trouble later.

This scenario works for brewery names as well.  Blank Slate was actually the third name I came up with for the brewery (actually my friend Chad came up with it).  Several years back I was looking to use the name "NO LABEL BREWING COMPANY" so I did a bunch of searching and found it wasn't in use.  Fast forward a few years and when I was getting ready to incorporate I decided to double check.  Sure enough, somebody had started using it.  You snooze you lose I guess.  There are a lot of examples out there of others who had to change their names after they were already doing business.  There was recently a brewery in Louisiana that changed its name from "PELICAN BREWERY" because there is apparently a brewpub in Washington called the "PELICAN BREWPUB".  Even though the chances of either brewery selling beer very far outside of their own state is slim, in this "globalized world" in which we now live I guess this is just how it goes.  In our litigious society sometimes even very loose relationships between names can cause someone to change theirs.  I just read this past week about a new brewery in Columbus that was changing their name from "BORN BREWING" because Rolling Rock has a trademark on the slogan "BORN SMALL TOWN".  Seems like pretty shaky grounds to claim infringement but just to be on the safe side (since Rolling Rock is owned by Budweiser who has LOTS of lawyers) they changed their name to "SEVENTH SON".  Of course a quick search of that name yields a brewery in Florida named "SEVENTH SUN" so we'll see how that works out. 

So the next time you pick up a beer and think "what's in a name", the answer is generally "a lot of research and lawyers"....

As for me, maybe I should use a random word generator for all my beer names to avoid any legal entanglements.  Anyone up for drinking a "BATHROBE AGGRANDIZING METRONOME"?

OK, maybe not....