Who Owns the Cascadian Dark Ale?
|Cascadia trademarked by Steamworks Brewery, Vancouver, BC|
Though the battle lines are still drawn, the field of battle has been rather quiet in the Black IPA vs. Cascadian Dark Ale debate. So, leave it to a small brewery in Vancouver, BC to stir controversy by staking its flag firmly into “Cascadia” as its own trademark. Never mind that Cascadia refers to a region that comprises Oregon, Washington, and parts of Canada and Idaho, or the fact that breweries have now been using the term for years. The resulting legal battle could be much more than an argument over style definitions; it would cross borders into trademark laws and even ask the question of whether a style of beer, like so many other famous alcoholic beverages, can become specifically and legally associated with a specific region.
Steamworks Brewing, a popular brewpub in Vancouver, says it owns the term “Cascadia,” as it was trademarked in 1996 after the brewery established a brand around its “Cascadia Cream Ale,” which has not even been produced in years. Chuck Mowat, a Canadian beer blogger, broke the news on his Barley Mowat blog that Steamworks recently began quietly contacting BC breweries warning them of their trademark infringement.
A recent spat of legal wars in the brewing industry over trademarks like the Full Sail vs Grey Sail dispute and current trouble brewing between Lagunitas and Knee Deep Brewing has left beer fans with a bad taste in their mouths. Defending a trademark is a necessary step in business that many do not understand. To keep from getting ripped off and not losing one’s trademark, it must be defended. Where it goes sour is when the power granted from said trademark is wielded with an unjust hand. A recent example is the short-lived Willamette Brewing, which was renamed as Oakshire Brewing due to the trademark of a winery using the name “Willamette,” notwithstanding the fact that both companies were located near their namesake river. Speaking of Oakshire, that brewery was the first in Oregon to package a beer officially branded on the label as a Cascadian Dark Ale, so maybe someone from Oakshire will chime in on this subject.
You could say the term “Cascadian Dark Ale” has always smacked of provincialism, as it is a term that could be construed as being attributable to the egos of the style’s purported creators in the Cascadian region. Others may argue that it’s not fair for such a small area to claim an emerging style. To this I say, why not, there are styles for “Flanders” Red, “Dortmunder” Lager, Czech Pilsners, and the like. One brewery claiming lordship over all things “Cascadia,” however, seems to be the ultimate elitist regionalism there could be. Over at the Barley Mowat blog, Chuck Mowat riled up enough Canadians to get angry about the issue that Steamworks owner Eli Gershkovitch finally issued a response over the weekend to quell the masses. To me what he had to say made it even worse:
“The concept of Cascadia was pretty novel in 1995, that’s why we chose it! I guess if a whole group of people want to use a name we came up with in 1995 because we were farsighted about the concept of Cascadia, we should be flattered.”
Now, let’s be clear, Steamworks Brewing did not come up with the concept of Cascadia. Maybe it was the first to use the term on a beer, but it certainly did not come up with the concept of the region. In fact, the beer brand in question has apparently not been brewed for years and was never packaged. However, if you go to Steamworks’ website, the brewery now seems to have renamed its Nirvana Brown Ale simply as “Cascadia” in a feeble grab to keep the name and trademark alive.
“We thought our Cascadia should not just be a name but a full brand…we built up a brand image around our idealized image of Cascadia…we hired a designer, used the imagery in artwork, printed hundreds of thousands of coasters and created a brand which fitted in really well in our brewpub,” writes Eli Gershkovitch in his response to the controversy. All I can say to that is, where is this imagery? The artwork I see shows a hot air balloon lifting up the top of a clocktower into the sky and is far more reminiscent of Victorian culture than anything fitting of Cascadia.
Eli Gershkovitch has offered to license the term for a fair price to breweries he sees fit “to preserve the integrity of the name “Cascadia” for true craft breweries not for large multinational breweries to homogenize or lay claim to the name. Our plan is to license the trademark to other true B.C. craft breweries for a very nominal fee ($1 perhaps), which is legally needed to protect the trademark for all.” Of course this sounds generous, but it’s also absurdly unrealistic. As Chuck Mowat says in his blog, he would happily cut Steamworks a check for the $56 needed to license the term to all the breweries in BC. The more likely situation is that Steamworks is going to play hardball with the term. In fact, the brewery apparently already has, with sources telling me Vancouver brewer Parallel 49 had to change its Christmas Cascadian Dark Ale to Christmas Dark Ale, and Phillips Brewing–arguably the brewer of the original CDA–settling out of court to preserve its “Skookum Cascadian Brown Ale,” a beer that has been brewed for years and is even packaged in bottles with the name “Cascadian.”
All this bullshit makes me wonder where Americans stand on this issue. Steamworks has the Canadian trademark, but it doesn’t carry over to the United States; in fact, there’s a Steamworks Brewing Company in Durango, CO. But what if a CDA is distributed to Canada, like Gigantic Brewing’s recently released Black Friday Cascadian Dark Ale has been? We have seen this happen with other segments of the beverage industry: as the industry gets bigger, producers get regulated further regarding where products are made and what processes are involved, to a point where most cannot legally produce a style of alcohol if not in the right place. Take, for instance, American Bourbon Whiskey, which is restricted in production to a small area of Kentucky by Title 27 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations; tequila, which is an exclusive product of certain regions of Mexico; or champagne, which must come from the Champagne region of France. Imagine a future where Cascadian Dark Ale was a product exclusively of Vancouver, BC, or, hopefully, of the entire Cascadia region. Would this be a good or bad thing?
Regardless, it is complete arrogance on the part of Steamworks to presume that it could own the term of an entire region’s independence movement that ironically calls for “a dedication to open source, dynamic, and associative governing models, an expansion of civil liberties, freedoms, digital privacy.”