Sometimes I get so wrapped up in all the good and fun in the craft beer world that it slips my mind for a few seconds that it is above all else, a business. And although I would put forth that within the heart of this craft beer world sits an air of cooperation and fellowship that rivals any other profession, sometimes the realities of operating companies worth huge bucks hits you like a salt water rinse after a chainsaw shave.
When Brooklyn brewers Kevin and Basil started brewing and marketing their brand as Narwhal Brewery in 2010 with the hopes of opening a full fledged brewery in 2013, I’m sure they had the same dreams as many brewers currently out there. And over the past two years they’ve worked hard to make that dream come true. But one thing I’m pretty sure they never dreamed of, becoming involved in a legal dispute with one of the major players in the craft beer world – Sierra Nevada.
When Sierra Nevada announced its release of Narwhal Imperial Stout, Narwhal Brewing contacted them to inform them that they had been using the word “Narwhal” in their branding and were worried that Sierra Nevada’s pending trademark application would severally limit (if not down right halt) the use of the brand label that they’d worked so hard to build. According to Kevin and Basil, an agreement was reached with SN, in which Narwhal Brewery agreed not to take any action against Sierra Nevada that would postpone the release of Narwhal IS, and in return Sierra Nevada would drop its trademark application allowing Narwhal Brewing to continue to use the word in their brand and file their own Trademark application.
However, according to Narwhal Brewing all that changed when SN released their beer. From Narwhal Brewing’s website and Facebook page:
After they released their imperial stout, we received a letter from a trademark attorney hired by Sierra Nevada basically stating they were changing their minds and that they would fight us on this. We don’t fault them for taking this position or for anyone to want to protect their trademarks. However, in this case we clearly were using the name first and will explore all our options to protect our brand and identity.
Sierra Nevada has responded in kind:
In the case of Narwhal Imperial Stout—like all of the beers we’ve launched before it— we did extensive searches on the TTB labeling database, the patent & trademark office, state liquor boards, and even went as far as to search consumer-focused sites like Beeradvocate.com and RateBeer.com to see if there are any other products—beer or wine—of which we might run afoul.
In the searches for Narwhal, we found no other beers based or sold in the United States.
Hopefully the two breweries can come to an amicable solution to this issue that works for both breweries. [NOTE: Since I wrote the bulk of this a couple of weeks ago, Narwhal has stated several times on their social media sites that they’ve had very positive talks with Sierra Nevada and that SN has stated that they support small breweries] In the meantime, is the beer that started all this who-struck-John worth it? Let’s taste.
THEM: Narwhal is crafted on a grain bill of Two-row Pale, Caramel & chocolate, honey, carafa & Roasted barley. Magnum & Challenger hops are used to balance the beer out at 60IBUs, and Challenger gives the beers aroma. The beer is fermented to 10.2% alcohol.
ME: Narwhal pours….oh, do I really have to say it? It’s black. Intensely black. Black hole black. I was afraid my TV, my couch and my editor were going to get sucked into this thing (OK, I wasn’t really to worried about my editor).
The aroma is roasty grains, bitter chocolate, and a resiny pine. The first sip caught me buy surprise. I knew this beer was going to be big in the normal SN fashion but this was like a slap in the face. Big grains, roast and more of those piny hops predominate. After my palette got accustomed to all this aggressive pimp handing, it was greeted by a more subtle dose of sweet malt, coffee tones, and maybe some molasses. The finish is a bitter mix of chocolate and sticky pine that lingers for quite a while. Yeah, this one stays with you for a bit.
I really liked Narwhal (although North Coast’s Old Rasputin is still my favorite), it’s a pretty straight forward Imperial Stout with that expected infusion of Sierra Nevada you’ve come to know and love.
Time for another beer.