Left Hand Brewing Seeks to Trademark the Term "Nitro"

Left Hand Nitro Milk Stout Label

Craft beer is getting huge. Yay! Right? Totally. It’s great. I’m watching breweries open up here in my home city of Buffalo. This boom is creating jobs, stimulating the local economy, and also offering some great beers for me to drink. But as craft beer gets big, we’re starting to see the business side of things. Craft beer is now big business.

I know it’s often hard for us to accept, considering the words “small” and “independent” are both present in the definition of “craft beer.” But looking at the industry as a whole, craft beer has become a big business. And as Eric Gorski of the Denver Post points out, “as the field becomes more competitive, that business also involves lawyers.

So, what’s my point? Well, it’s the first thing I thought of when I heard about Colorado-based Left Hand Brewing Company attempting to trademark the term “Nitro” as it applies to beer. You’ve probably seen “nitro beers” at your local beer bar, but if you’re not familiar with it, a “nitro beer” is a beer pressurized with a partial nitrogen gas blend. Guinness, for instance, is always pressurized with a nitrogen blend. Nitrogenation makes for a smoother and creamier beer than those carbonated exclusively with carbon dioxide.

It’s a fairly common practice in bars serving draft beer, but as of right now, Left Hand Brewing is the only U.S. Craft brewery to bottle a nitrogenated beer. And in September of 2013, the brewery applied for the federal trademark, hoping to stake exclusive rights to the term for beer. If they successfully obtain this trademark, they can either ask for money from the sale of any beer labeled with the term “nitro,” or simply restrict any other brewers from using the term.

Speaking on their actions to acquire the trademark, Left Hand President, Eric Wallace said, “Our main push, and I don’t want to get into it anymore than this, is that we have a bottle that is pretty unique. That is why we are pursuing it.” Pretty vague, right? So who knows what they plan to do with it if they succeed?

Left Hand Nitro Sawtooth All American Ale

But will they succeed? Not if Anheuser-Busch has anything to say about it. According to the Denver Post, the macro brewer asked for an extension to file opposition, and they were granted that extension. AB has until June 18th to oppose the trademark application. They haven’t formally opposed yet, but they now have just under 3 months to do so.

Now, before you jump down the throats of the evil, craft-eating monster that is Anheuser-Busch, let’s just quickly look at the facts. Terri Vogt, vice president of communications for AB, said in a statement, “As a brewer, we have produced our own nitrogenated beers, and, like many other brewers, large and small, we need to maintain the ability to identify them to consumers.”

They haven’t even decided to oppose the trademark. And if they do, it doesn’t seem as though they’d be hoping to trademark the term themselves. They simply want to be able to use it. At the same time, Left Hand hasn’t said that they’ll restrict usage of the term, but why else would they file for the trademark?

To me, “nitro” is descriptive. It tells consumers how a beer was carbonated. It’s not a kind of beer, as much as it is a way of serving beer. And plenty of breweries, brewpubs, and bars are doing it.

Photo by The Beertogprapher

Photo by The Beertogprapher

I just think our natural inclination as craft beer enthusiasts is to demonize the macro brewers, as if their every move is made to destroy craft beer. And I just don’t think that’s the case. There are still millions, if not billions of people, who enjoy domestic beers. And millions who like the “crafty” beers, like Shock Top and Blue Moon, that are put out by the big guys as well. Oh well, I say. That’s free market economics.

I’m not saying I oppose this move by Left Hand, or applaud the countermove by Anheuser-Busch. I guess I’m just giving you the facts and looking for your opinions on the matter. So what do you guys think?

For more on this story, check out this article from the Denver Post.

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