What Ales Craft Brewers? A Case Study in Punning Beer Names


Stone Brewing Sosumi IPA beer

So many beers, so many puns. Make that too few puns — because that’s the struggle that craft brewers are finding themselves in these days. Yes, craft beer makers are feeling tapped out for clever names.

While you may be surprised – and sometimes baffled – by the creativity of beer names, the truth is that original ones that can be protected legally are hard to find. Once a niche in the industry, craft beer now makes up 12% of US beer consumption. There are over 4,600 craft brewers in the US and two new ones enter the market every day.

Between names for breweries and the beers they sell, the options for new names are shrinking. Hops as a creative territory is pretty much tapped, with brewers boasting varieties like Dust Bowl Brewing’s Hops of Wrath, Ruckus Brewing Co.’s Hoptimus Prime, Terrapin’s Hopsecutioner and Dogfish Head’s Notorious H.O.P.

Animal names have been swallowed up too – think Big Sky’s Moose Drool, Dead Bear and Mighty Squirrel. Breweries draw from local culture, nature, history, mythology and loose riffs on presidential names like Feral Brewing Company’s Barrique Okarma in Australia.

With endless beers to name and a limited number of words in the English language, brewers have turned to legal disputes to protect their IP and stake their claim. They’re coming after each other with fists swinging against trademark applications for brewery names, beer names and sometimes even family members.

Some instances are fairly straight forward: New England-based Wash Ashore Beer Co. disputed another brewery’s application for Washed Ashore Beer. But nothing is off-limits, with companies waging war over anchors, narwhals, kilts, yoga terms and even the word “idiot.”

It might sound idiotic, but it’s rooted in a real issue. A name is one of a brand’s greatest assets and with only so many ways to brew an IPA, companies have to rely on naming to differentiate their craft. The obvious solution would be to get more creative, but straying too far out of the ordinary poses challenges. People are less likely to order a beer they can’t pronounce, which limits how far a name can stretch.

As if it weren’t hard enough, brewers also have to contend with wine and spirits trademarks. When a Martha’s Vineyard-based brewery tried to trademark their Fireball Beer, Fireball Whisky moved to douse its flames.

And while most suits get settled out of court, larger breweries with bigger budgets can take their disputes to the next level. Brooklyn Brewery spends about $200,000 annually protecting their IP, and they don’t discriminate. Recently, they went after a three-person operation in Fresno, California for using the name Black Ops Brewing, which they argued was too close to their own Black Ops brew.

Unsurprisingly, Brooklyn Brewery emerged victorious, but not before spending 4-5 times what the other party was worth to have it rebrand to Tactical Ops Brewing.

Not all suits end with a win – some end in ridicule. Lagunitas Brewing Company tried to sue rival Sierra Nevada over a similar-looking logo and beer drinkers were quick to pass judgment. Lagunitas withdrew the suit while Stone Brewing in San Diego seized a social media opportunity and posted a fake label for “Sosumi IPA.”

Sometimes the disputes get personal. When a St. Louis brewer wanted to name his brewery eponymously, his own aunt and cousin filed an opposition because they felt having their last name associated with an alcoholic beverage would be damaging to the family reputation.

Of course, there’s one camp that’s benefitting from craft beer’s headache: the legal profession. And they’re even getting in on the fun: about a dozen lawyers are contesting San Diego-based Candace Moon’s attempt to trademark the title “Craft Beer Attorney.”

Callie Deddens is a verbal identity strategist for Interbrand in New York.