Beer Man

In an era of trademark battles, would Avery and Russian River still collaborate, not litigate?

Ten years ago, after Avery Brewing founder Adam Avery and Russian River co-owner Vinny Cilurzo discovered that they were each making a beer called Salvation, the two decided to shake hands and brew a collaboration beer rather than fight in court.

The result of that Colorado-to-California handshake was Collaboration Not Litigation -- a blend of both beers that was first brewed in 2006 and has been made almost every year since: The 2014 version, now on tap at Avery, will hit store shelves soon. And the story has been told countless times on bar stools, at beer festivals and in the media.

See also: Loveland's Verboten Brewing tells a craft-beer trademark story with a happy ending

But a lot has changed in the past decade, both for the two breweries and for the craft-beer industry as a whole: Trademark disputes have become commonplace as more and more beer makers open across the country, while lawsuits and cease-and-desist letters regularly make headlines as breweries, old and new, try to protect their brands.

In Colorado, Strange, Ska, Left Hand, Oskar Blues, Dry Dock, River North, Renegade and several other breweries have been embroiled in naming disputes. Others, like Fate, Verboten, De Steeg and Former Future have all changed names or made compromises.

And if the same problem -- a dispute over a beer name -- arose today between Avery and Russian River, the result could have been very different, Adam Avery says.

"At the time, we were two much younger people, hitting it off, and that is what the craft-brewing industry is really about," he says of his ten-year-old talk with Cilurzo. "Back then, I don't remember anyone really talking about copyright infringement and trademarks. It's only become a big issue in the last few years....and my attitude is changing when it comes to that."

Cilurzo agrees, saying he now consults the two big beer-rating web sites, RateBeer and Beer Advocate, before naming a new beer. "If it's not there, it probably isn't being used. If it is there, and it's already being used, then that's it: I scratch it off the list. When we do come up with a name, though, we trademark it. We trademark anything and everything."

Avery, on the other hand, still hasn't trademarked most of his beer names, but he'll protect them if he has to, for the sake of the business. "We're not just five people anymore," he says. "I have to think about the livelihoods of 92 people and their families."

In fact, Avery is currently considering how to approach a couple of breweries -- he won't identify which ones -- that are using names similar to his.

"It depends on how big the brand is for us," says Avery, whose company distributes in 26 states and Washington, D.C. "There are so many names out there, but if you have been calling something a certain name for ten or twelve years, you have to protect that. People need to have some creativity, and they should probably at least do a Google search."

Trademark disputes between larger, existing breweries and tiny upstarts sometimes upset people the most, he adds, "because they see it as David versus Goliath and they get very emotional. But in craft beer, we're all kind of the same size. We are all small businesses." Avery points out that if a brewery, or any company, doesn't protect one of its brands, it stands the chance of losing the name, even if it is trademarked.

"That is the unfortunate side of this," says Cilurzo, adding that breweries also have to worry about trademark infringement with wine-makers. "But even though you don't have as much sharing of trademarks, the spirit of craft brewing is still there."

As for the spirit behind Collaboration Not Litigation, Cilurzo says it got its start ten or eleven years ago at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver.

Cilurzo and his wife, Natalie, didn't know Avery, but they knew of him. "So we went to their booth and saw that they had a beer called Salvation, which we also had. We tasted theirs, and I said, 'That's a really good beer,'" he recalls.

"I approached him and said, 'Hey, we both have a beer named Salvation. Do you have a problem with that?' And he said, 'No, do you?' And when I said I didn't think so, he said, 'Good, because I just ordered a hundred thousand labels.' Which is just a funny small-business thing. To us then, the cost of a hundred thousand labels was a big deal."

It's "a good story that resonates with a lot of people in the industry," Avery says, but he adds that the two brewers continue to make the beer now more because they are friends than because of any message they are trying to send to other craft brewers.

"It's a good reminder to me of where we were and how far we've come," he says. "And I like to think back to a time when I wasn't worrying about that side of the business."

Follow Westword's Beer Man on Twitter at @ColoBeerMan and on Facebook at Colo BeerMan

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes