For the better part of two decades, Lagunitas Brewing Co. has relied on its signature India Pale Ale for the bulk of its sales. The hopped-up vim that triggered an IPA craze still driving the craft beer market bears a distinctive, widely recognized trademark. “Lagunitas IPA,” the label boasts—its acronym a bold, black, frayed-at-the-edges serif font.
When Chico-based Sierra Nevada Brewing slapped a similar-looking arrangement of those same three letters onto a new brew called Hop Hunter IPA this past January, Lagunitas founder Tony Magee couldn’t help but feel territorial. The Petaluma brewer filed a federal complaint alleging trademark infringement to defend his turf—not over the acronym, which is almost universal at this point, but the way it looked.
Though Magee dropped the lawsuit a day later after social media backlash over the volley, the case marked one of the first times that two major craft brewers fought each other in court. It also signaled a growing trend of bouts between brewers over branding and naming rights.
“It can feel like we’ve run out of clever wordplay,” Gordon Biersch co-founder and San Jose native Dan Gordon said in an interview about a drink he’s dubbed No Name Cider until its release this fall. “We’re not, of course, but it’s much more competitive to come up with something original.”
Hops-related puns seem all but played out: Hop Drop ‘n Roll, Rye of the Tiger, Hopportunity Knocks, Hopscotch, Hoptical Illusion. Bock, a type of strong dark beer, has inspired its own forever-long list of ciphers: Pandora’s Bock, Men in Bock, Bock to the Future. Lagers, pilsners, ales, sours and all else between hold a wealth of branding possibilities. But with an ever-increasing number of brewers drawing from a similar well of letters and phrases, overlap becomes inevitable.
“Everyone thinks they’re really creative,” said Candace Moon, a bartender-turned-sought-after craft beer attorney who works with clients up and down the West Coast. “But, not to knock them or anything, they don’t realize how many other people are out there playing with the same words and similar phrasing.”
Complicating the matter is the breakneck growth of the industry, Moon said. California has reached a clip that spawns a new brewery every 16 hours, according to industry groups, bringing the statewide total to upward of 600. Nationwide, that number has topped 3,000, according to the Craft Beverage Association. And when it comes to branding, brewers compete with wineries and distilleries for trademarks.
Tom Clark, who founded Santa Clara Valley Brewing Company after a West Coast microbrewery tour a few years back, has sidestepped litigation by opting for hyper-local names. The company’s signature beer, Electric Tower IPA, takes its name from a former San Jose landmark. New Almaden Red, one of his year-round ales, pays homage to the quicksilver-rich cinnabar once mined in the South Bay hills. Even with trademarked names particular to the region, Clark has resigned himself to the likelihood of a legal dust-up.
“We’re just waiting for our first cease and desist letter,” he said with a laugh during a tour of his just-opened San Jose taproom in May.
San Jose’s Strike Brewing Co. took the tack of sticking to a theme meaningful to the founders, but not necessarily dependent on run-of-the-mill puns. “All the normal things you can think of to name a beer have been taken,” Strike co-founder Jenny Lewis said. “Even if it’s a tiny little brewery in Rhode Island that will never sell anything over here, you have to go back to the drawing board.”
As a nod to fellow co-founder Drew Ehrlich’s stint in minor league baseball, they named the brewery Strike. Initially, they kept things simple by eschewing individual beer names, christening early beers only by type: Strike IPA, Strike Lager, and so on.
“But we wanted to have a little more fun with it, so we started riffing off of baseball slang terms,” Lewis said. “We like that it tells more of a story, that we’re the underdog, we’re the little guy trying to make it in the big leagues.”
The resulting monikers resonated with Strike’s overall theme. Lumber Busters American Brown, Screwball Blonde and, her favorite, Horn Rounder IPA. Strike trademarked scores more they have yet to use.
A good name, Lewis noted, has to tell a story.
“Ours do,” she said. “It has to be simple, it has to get people talking.”
Ultimately, of course, it has to be original. As Strike found, that may require dispensing with worn-out puns in favor of something more authentic. Or, as Moon advises, resisting the urge to name every single beer.
“That’s what I would do if I had a brewery,” she said. “One name, one trademark.”