Left Hand Brewing in Longmont has been looking to get control of the word "Nitro" since 2011, first by wresting the trademark away from a small Canadian brewer that had never used it and then by filing a trademark claim of its own on the word as it relates to beer.
But that effort bubbled over last week when three much larger breweries -- Boston Beer Corp. (which makes Sam Adams), Diageo (which brews Guinness) and Anheuser Busch -- all filed motions with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office protesting the effort.
And on Thursday, Left Hand's Longmont neighbor, Oskar Blues Brewing, revealed that it plans to market one of its own beers using the word Nitro starting next week.
On Wednesday, Left Hand posted a statement on its website saying that its goals in trademarking the term "Nitro" have been misunderstood.
"We are seeking to protect the name of our best selling products that we have spent a significant amount of time and resources to develop, not the style -- not nitrogenated beers. Unfortunately, much of what we are seeing being picked up by media and shared recently is to the contrary," the statement read. "We do not wish to halt craft innovation or stop nitro-style beers from being produced or poured. We are simply trademarking the name our bottled beer has become so well known for. We believe another beer named simply, 'Nitro' or 'Milk Stout Nitro', would confuse the public and dilute the strength of the brand we have worked so hard to build."
Representatives of Diageo and Boston Beer didn't immediately return calls seeking comment; we'll add them to this story if they do.
Left Hand altered the beer-drinking landscape in October 2011 when it announced during the Great American Beer Festival that it had come up with a way to inject nitrogen into its bottled Milk Stout so that it pours smooth and creamy, like a draft beer.
Milk Stout Nitro quickly became the Longmont company's best-selling beer brand, and a year later, the brewery began selling two more nitrogenated beers: Sawtooth, a version of its flagship ESB, and Wake Up Dead, a Russian Imperial Stout.
Although Left Hand didn't patent its process because it didn't want other breweries to be able to see the science involved, it did try to trademark the word "Milk Stout Nitro" at the same time that it released the beer in 2012. But the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office denied the application, saying the term "Nitro" had been protected more than a decade earlier by Eli Gershkovitch, who owns Steamworks Brewery in Vancouver.
After doing some research, Left Hand decided to challenge Gershkovitch's claim to the word, saying that he had never used the mark. The two companies later settled the dispute out of court; details of that settlement weren't released, but Left Hand filed its trademark application again in September 2013, for both "Nitro" and "Milk Stout Nitro."
The trademark was granted in February, but the three breweries mentioned above have since filed motions asking that they be given until June to investigate and potentially oppose the claim.
Guinness also makes a nitrogenated beer, but it uses a device known as a "widget" to create that effect in the bottle. Left Hand, which spent three years and hundreds of thousands of dollars on its technology, is the first U.S. craft brewer to make a bottled beer on nitro -- and so far, it is still the only brewery to do so
Many other breweries distribute versions of their beers that are designed to be served on nitro, meaning they are mixed with nitrogen rather than Co2 when they are served. Breckenridge Brewery, for instance, recently began focusing on a nitro version of its Vanilla Porter, and Oskar Blues has been distributing its Old Chub on nitro as well.
On Tuesday, Oskar Blues said it would start distributing a canned version of Old Chub, a Scotch ale, on nitro, one that would be made with a widget, like Guinness. The beer will be widely available this spring in four-packs of sixteen-ounce cans.
The brewery had intended to make a big reveal of the beer during the Craft Brewers Conference, a national trade show taking place in Denver in early April.
"This is something we've been working on for a while. You want to do it the right way," says Oskar Blues spokesman Chad Melis.
Left Hand co-founder Eric Wallace didn't return a call seeking comment, but company spokeswoman Emily Armstrong said Left Hand is "100 percent motivated in protecting our own brand and investment and employees." She said the company doesn't want to halt innovation in the craft-brewing industry but acknowledged that Left Hand would have to protect the word "Nitro" if it is granted the trademark.
That could mean suing Oskar Blues if the company uses the word Nitro on its can, but Left Hand said it would not to do that in this Facebook post:
"Left Hand will continue to be supportive of our craft brew brethren. In fact, we just returned from Oskar Blues, also in Longmont, Colorado and famous for revolutionizing craft beer in cans, where our two founders and employees celebrated the innovation of Oskar Blues' Old Chub Nitro in the can. Left Hand Brewing will not be pursuing any action against Oskar Blues (who has filed for their own trademark for Old Chub Nitro) and is congratulatory for this major craft accomplishment -- nitro in the can."
Melis confirmed that since Oskar Blues isn't planning to bottle its nitro beer, but will instead can it, that Left Hand had been supportive.
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