In a crowded craft beer market, the name's the thing -- and the wackier the better

Sample a PsycHOPpathy or Punch You in the EyePA
In a crowded craft beer market, the name's the thing -- and the wackier the better
Posted at 7:00 AM, Nov 30, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-30 07:00:09-05

CINCINNATI -- What's in a name? Apparently, in the world of craft beer, quite a lot.

Just ask MadTree Brewing about Gnarly Brown.

There are more than 4,600 breweries currently operating in the United States, according to the Brewers Association. As more beers flood the market, the well for such creative connotations, once considered a distinguishing stroke of marketing genius, is starting to run dry. And disputes over trademarks are becoming increasingly common.

Columbia Township brewery MadTree, which holds the registered trademark on core beers such as PsycHOPpathy, Happy Amber, PSA and Lift, ran into a brick wall in 2014 when trying to apply the same mark to a brown ale by the name Gnarly Brown, one of its most popular beers. Other breweries have seen similar struggles.

"With so many beers (on the market) now, you do have to be careful," said Mike Stuart, director of people and social strategy at MadTree. "It's a little more difficult. The nice thing is, working in the craft beer industry, most of the breweries are pretty decent to each other. Generally, these (disputes) will solve themselves without involving attorneys -- generally just an email or call. Other times, you run into issues."

When MadTree filed its petition to trademark Gnarly Brown, California's Delicato Vineyards, the maker of Gnarly Head wine, filed a notice of opposition to that request in April 2015. Delicato said it would be "damaged" by such registration and that similarities would "likely cause confusion, mistake or deception," since both beverages are sold to consumers in the "same trade channels."

Delicato said the parties had engaged in "good faith settlement discussions" surrounding the dispute since October 2014; it wasn't until earlier this year, in February, that MadTree announced it would cease production of Gnarly Brown. However, in a Tumblr post announcing the decision, the brewery did not directly reference the filings.

Stuart, in an interview earlier this month, said the parties ultimately avoided going to court. As per the settlement, he said, MadTree agreed to stop using the Gnarly Brown name effective Jan. 1, 2017, giving the brewery time to deplete its inventory.

But don't fret: The brewery, which says it has settled the naming dispute, plans on bringing the beer back -- albeit under a different name.

Since MadTree retains the recipe -- it can even still technically use the original gnarled-tree logo -- Gnarly Brown will return in kegs, at least, and soon, Stuart said, although he doesn’t yet know what the new name will be. It could debut in time for MadTree 2.0, the brewery's new taproom/beer garden/production facility currently under construction in Oakley. Stuart is projecting a February grand opening.

How to pick a creative name

So how exactly will the MadTree team decide the beer’s new name?

Every brewery approaches that process differently.

Sometimes it's easy, dictated by the beer -- its flavor profile, the ingredients or brewing process. MadTree’s Tart the Red Sea, for example, is a tart red ale.

Sometimes it’s a spreadsheet shared around the office, and everyone throws their idea in the ring.

Among the most notable names: Another One, a pale ale named in honor of DJ Khaled, who puts the phrase on repeat in a YouTube video that has garnered 2 million-plus views; and Thundersnow, a MadTree seasonal, inspired by the Weather Channel's Jim Cantore, who flips at the sight of thunder and lightning.

"A lot of times they're terrible, and sometimes they're good, but it's pretty cool that anybody working here can have a hand in naming a beer," Stuart said. "It shows your personality and as a brand, and as a brewery, what you're about."

At Fifty West Brewing in Columbia Township, there's Bonbon Voyage, a chocolate stout, Going Plaid, a Scottish ale, and Punch You in the EyePA.

Fifty West Brewing in Columbia Township has a few popular names for its beer, including Bonbon Voyage, a chocolate stout, Going Plaid, a Scottish ale, and Punch You in the EyePA.

"With craft beer in particular, the whole idea is to be creative. You're creating a product that's never been created before," said Tommy Hemmer, Fifty West’s director of marketing and communications. "You're so stoked that you made this awesome (thing), it deserves an awesome name to go along with it. That's why you see different breweries focusing on clever names. You're also trying to stand out in a crowded marketplace."

Fifty West has never had a trademark dispute; its 10 & 2 Barley Wine and Doom Pedal White Ale are currently in the midst of the trademarking process. "But it has become a much more difficult (process) over the last two years," Hemmer said.

Hemmer said he starts with an initial list of five or six ideas. That list is almost immediately halved because the name already exists elsewhere. Research -- usually via Google or sites such as and Untapped -- is increasingly important.

"There's more breweries than there's ever been before," he said. "The research phase is probably the most important part now -- even more important, I would say, than trademarking itself."

There are only so many words

So, are breweries close to tapped out?


"There's only so many puns for hop," Stuart said. (PsycHOPpathy, he said, is one of his favorites. At Fifty West, there's the Hopyard 500 DIPA.)

"I don't know if you've heard this analogy, but there's only so many notes on the guitar, so at some point, everybody's going to start playing the same ones," said Hemmer. "It's the same with us. There's only so many names before you start to string together random words.

"That could even be your strategy," he added with a laugh.

At Streetside Brewery, which opened in October in Columbia Tusculum, simply naming itself was a challenge.

"We (originally) chose a name that was also the name of a winery in Virginia, I think," said co-owner Kathie Hickey. "We had to go through a trademark lawyer. Streetside is probably the seventh that we went far enough with to do research."

Bad Tom Smith Brewing knows all about that, too. The neighboring Linwood crafter originally opened as Double Barrel Brewery -- that was until it received a cease-and-desist letter in 2013 from California's Firestone Walker Brewing Co., which brews a so-called Double Barrel Ale. Apparently it’s a popular name: A Double Barrel Brewing Co. in Syracuse, N.Y., received a similar correspondence from Firestone Walker just a few months later.

Still, Stuart doesn't think breweries will completely exhaust the list. It will just make them get a lot more creative.

"I think it just forces people to think outside the box," he said. "I think it's actually kind of a positive thing. If you really care about the quality of the beer, likewise, you'll try to have some fun with it, market it (well) and put some effort behind it."