Last week I wrote a post about the PR problem Steamworks currently has with the craft beer aficionados of BC. I got into a discussion with Steamworks’ PR firm, who eventually put me in touch with Walter Cosman, President of Steamworks Brewing Company.
Let’s just set this straight right off the bat, I’m not trying to kick up another fuss over Cascadia. This topic has already been well covered by three comprehensive posts over at Barley Mowat and I’m not intending a rehash (side note: I talked to Chuck last week and he was super helpful and informative in regards to this topic). My angle is this, why is Steamworks doing (admittedly good) PR when there’s a massive other problem to deal with? They gave me the opportunity to ask questions so I asked them, what do you plan to do next?
Walter Cosman, President
As I mentioned, Walter is the President of Steamworks Brewing Company. He called me last Monday and we had a really good chat over twenty or so minutes. My impressions of Walter are that he’s a really nice guy and that he really cares about craft beer. He emphasized that he used to be on the board of the BC Craft Brewers Association. All of my industry contacts echoed my impressions of Walter, though I couldn’t find anyone willing to say anything nice about Steamworks owner Eli Gershkovitch. Throughout the conversation, I got the sense that Walter and Eli don’t completely agree on how to handle the Cascadia Trademark situation. It should also be noted that Walter used to work for Molson and then for Granville Island Brewing (his tenure at GIB overlapped with the trademark dispute parent company Cascadia Brands had with Steamworks over Cascadia from 1999-2006).
Walter admitted that Steamworks didn’t handle the Cascadia-gate situation well, by deleting Facebook posts off their wall and not responding to the community right away. He said their initial reaction was to do nothing and see what happened, which admittedly didn’t work out too well.
Cease and Desist
According to Walter, three breweries were actually contacted to stop using Cascadia in their beer names, those being Coal Harbour, Howe Sound, and Phillips. Phillips was the only brewery to receive an actual cease and desist notification. He said he wished they hadn’t sent a cease and desist to Phillips and wouldn’t have done so if it was his call. Coal Harbour and Howe Sound received friendly calls and were allowed to use up their product, and I’ve heard that Granville Island also received a call, though he didn’t speak to this.
License for a dollar
Steamworks intends to offer a $1 lifetime license of the Cascadia trademark to any Canadian craft brewery, or American craft brewery wishing to sell in Canada, wanting to use the descriptor. He hopes that this can be sorted out soon, at which point Steamworks will host a Free Cascadia party. One brewery that will definitely not be offered the $1 license is GIB/Molson. The whole $1 lifetime license deal is dependant on how GIB/Molson reacts. My question: reacts to what and by when?
Steamworks vs Molson
It sounds like Steamworks has a serious dislike and/or mistrust of GIB/Molson. I’ve heard that Eli considered the recent GIB Cascadian Dark Ale a deliberate provocation, based on the previous trademark challenge, and that’s why he decided to get all litigious. Walter definitely billed this as a little guy vs big guy fight, stating that he didn’t want Molson to water down or tarnish the term Cascadia. He also mentioned that Steamworks wanted to defend the integrity of trademarks and preserve their brand. As most beer lovers in Vancouver would say, what brand?
Cascadia Cream Ale
If you don’t know much about trademarks, have a read of this excellent post over at hoplog. Basically, a trademark, when applied to something like beer, should be distinct and recognizable in a specific geographic area. Meaning that if the Steamworks Cascadia trademark were to be defended, people like us in Vancouver should automatically think of Cascadia Cream Ale when Cascadia is talked about in terms of beer. For me, and I think for most of us, this isn’t the case. I was surprised when I found out Steamworks ever even brewed a Cascadia beer, thinking only of Cascadian Dark Ale or Cascadian hopped beers when the term is bandied about.
Looks like, if the beer rating websites are to be believed, Cascadia Cream Ale hasn’t been rated since May 2010. Thing is, with a trademark, you have to use or lose it. Funny thing, six weeks after this whole deal blew up, Steamworks Brewpub now has Cascadia Cream Ale on tap. Turns out that’s just enough time to brew a beer. Steamworks still hasn’t updated the hastily patched Cascadia Cream Ale entry on their website, which still describes a nut brown.
Craft over Brand
Walter actually said that the craft was more important than the brand, which is definitely contradictory to what’s been going on. He told me that Steamworks has relented to the point that only beers containing Cascadia in the brand name are now infringing, which means beers using Cascadia as a descriptor are free and clear. I asked him this directly, and he indicated that Howe Sound Gathering Storm and Phillips Skookum are now okay, whereas these breweries were previously warned to stop using Cascadia. So there you have it, you can call your beer a Cascadian Dark Ale, or Cascadian whatever else, without worrying about legal action from Steamworks. I’m guessing Steamworks relented here for two reasons, because of the reaction from the community and because they couldn’t legally stop anyone from using Cascadia as a descriptor.
I asked Walter what kind of relationship Steamworks now has with their fellow craft brewers. He said things were initially pretty awkward, but that they’ve patched things up with Howe Sound, Phillips and others. I also asked about Storm’s Cease and Desist CDA, apparently he’s all for it, and thinks it quite clever.
I reached out to a few brewers for comment and only heard back from Matt Phillips. He did indicate that he’s now on better terms with Steamworks, but also offered up this poignant quote:
I hate all this trademark stuff, it is the kind of thing that tears apart beer communities, and while I understand the need to protect brands, it still sucks that this seems to be the new normal.
I hear that. Note that Matt has previously had trouble with Red Truck over Blue Truck (now Blue Buck) and is now rumoured to have Labatt breathing down his neck over Blue. Yikes, that can’t be fun for a small business owner to deal with.
The Bottom Line
When I asked Steamworks if this Cascadia affair had affected business it all, he said it hadn’t. Their pub is still busy and their bottles are selling well. Steamworks also recently hired a new brewmaster and are opening their own brewery, production from which will replace what’s currently contracted to Dead Frog.
Steamworks still hasn’t released details about their proposed license deal, but have assured me they are working on it. Seems to me that Steamworks is relenting a bit as they are figuring things out. I’m guessing they don’t want to get into any actual legal battles and are also finding out what they can and can’t legally protect, hence why style descriptors containing Cascadia are now apparently okay.
Personally, I don’t really care what a beer is called, as long as it tastes good. I’d drink Driftwood Dog Rapist if it tasted like Fat Tug.
Do the right thing
What I don’t get, also why I wanted to talk to Walter in the first place, is how Steamworks plans to win this situation? They now have a community of brewers and craft beer fans who don’t look too kindly on them, who aren’t going to forget this for years. Their biggest worry is Molson, who could probably crush them with legal strength. And Cascadia Cream Ale isn’t even a very strong brand, so is it worth protecting? What does victory look like for Steamworks? I was hoping to figure this out when researching this post, but I still don’t see it.
If I was them, I’d give up the trademark right now and throw the Free Cascadia party. Even doing that isn’t going to win the craft beer community back, but it’s really all they can do to limit damage.
Here’s hoping these sorts of legal actions don’t become the norm in craft beer. Craft beer in Vancouver is booming and we don’t need this shit ruining the party.