Saturday, September 11, 2010

Beer Styles as Trademarks: A Comment

After reading this post on A Good Beer Blog, about style names and an attempt to trademark one in New Zealand, I feel the need to comment on the topic. Rare indeed, for me to venture away from the occasional beer review, homebrew recipe, beer release,and spotlighting of delicious finds in a bar.

First, I thought of Anchor Steam. The craft movement in America owes a lot to Anchor Brewing, perhaps one of the oldest, if not oldest "craft" breweries in America (they might not fit the definition in terms of barrel quantity, but as innovators, they certainly do). Anchor revived a beer that stylistically should be called American Steam beer, which used lager yeast in primitive conditions, without ice or refrigeration, to create an ale-lager hybrid in 19th century San Francisco. "Steam" somehow became the name associated with this style. When Anchor resurrected the style, they also trademarked the name Steam. All "steam" beers made in the US at least, can't use that style name, and instead the accepted style name is "California Common." Neither name is particularly descriptive of the underlying style, which is another comment altogether.

Arguably, this isn't that important. Style names and their lack of description at the worst confuse people new to the world of craft beer. Easily overcome, because if you've got the inclination to free yourself from the clutches of mass-produced, low in flavor beer, you're probably also going to slowly branch out and try whatever some beer bartender describes to you as "awesome." You'll find your way via your tastebuds. Principles matter though. The world of craft beer can't keep losing style names, which link history to tastebuds on some level, because of a brewery's financial creativity.

The stance I'm taking is, no one should be able to trademark what is essentially a recipe name. You can't trademark "Manhattan" or "Sazerac" (note: Sazerac is a brand name of a liquor distiller/bottler - besides the name of a cocktail - uniquely situated to survive with such a brand name; I don't recommend trying that with your future brewery). You can't trademark "Monte Cristo" or "Muffaletta" for your sandwich. Style names are in essence, signifiers. You see the name, you know the base ingredients. There's no rescuing "Steam" from Anchor, but let's limit this kind of use of the law in the world of beer. Brand your beer all you want, trademark it's clever name if you insist and it's not going to cause confusion, but leave the style name out of it. There's plenty of lawyers in the craft beer world, don't get us all worked up.


  1. Here, here: Don't get the lawyers worked up. -- Who could not agree with that?

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