Two Colorado Breweries Release Nearly Identical Public Domain Cans | Westword

Seeing Double: Two Local Breweries Release Nearly Identical New Can Designs

When the copyright on Steamboat Willie expired, Golden City and 4 Noses both jumped at the chance to use the cartoon as inspiration.
4 Noses went with a double hazy IPA for its version of Public Domain.
4 Noses went with a double hazy IPA for its version of Public Domain. 4 Noses Brewing Instagram
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When Ryan Carroll, brewer at Golden City Brewery, recently submitted a new design to his label printer as he has done many times before, he received an interesting response. “They replied back that 4 Noses had sent pretty much the same design thirty minutes earlier,” he recalls. Not only the same design — a mouse character navigating a steamboat — but the same name, Public Domain. “It didn’t surprise me that someone else came up with the idea," he admits.

First published in 1928, Disney’s Steamboat Willie entered the public domain on January 1, creating a buzz among creatives. There’s even a slasher film in the works.

4 Noses Brewing marketing director Dustin Ramey is a big fan of John Oliver, so when he saw the Last Week Tonight host doing bits designed to piss off the parent company of his HBO show, Disney, he thought it was pretty cool. Then, when the Steamboat Willie character entered the public domain in January, he thought it was a unique opportunity. “It’s not every day that something so notable and that iconic is able to be used,” says Ramey.

Before Ramey became art director, 4 Noses received a cease-and-desist from New Balance for a label, so this time, “I wanted to make sure we didn’t step foot into the arena without knowing what we were doing,” he says. But since Disney doesn’t own the Steamboart Willie copyright anymore, there were no issues.
Billboard with steamboat willie
Comic John Oliver has been milking the Steamboat Willie situation for all it's worth.
While both beers share a name and similar logos, the special release means different things to each brewery.

4 Noses has been moving its ad hoc series beers into more branded, “brewed for adventure” type beers, according to Ramey. The new branding will give a lot of the pale ales and double IPAs a more Colorado focus, with double IPAs being named after 13ers and 14ers, and other beers taking inspiration from plants and trees. “The idea of beer taking a step further and bringing it literally into the outdoors and going down that road has been a fun journey,” says Ramey.

With this new focus, some of the team felt the brewery might lose a bit of its off-the-cuff characteristics and ability to be agile. “I wanted to prove that we can still have fun, within the boundaries that I’ve kind of set,” Ramey notes.

The brewery plans to do six different double IPAs throughout the year — three West Coast and three hazies. Public Domain ended up falling on the hazy double IPA’s turn.
click to enlarge a can of beer next to a glass of beer
Golden City's version of Public Domain is a New Zealand-hopped, export-style lager.
Golden City Brewery
Golden City’s version of Public Domain, an export lager, is something of an opportunity for Carroll. “I’ve been wanting to help build out a lager program since I first got to Golden City,” he says. “There was an opening between some core batches, so I pitched some lager ideas.”

Carroll credits head brewer Derek Sturdavant for coming up with the idea on Golden City’s end. Carroll did a paper in college about the lengths that Disney goes to to keep its copyright intact, but he didn’t realize Steamboat Willie had become available.

There was a short window to get the design taken care of, so Carroll entrusted that to his good friend and co-host of the Reel Nerds podcast, Bradley Haag of Nebulus Visions Multimedia. Haag didn’t want to take any chances with Disney’s well-funded and notoriously litigious team of lawyers, so he modified the mouse into a cat that he calls Mikey. “I think it’s easier to just change it,” says Haag.

The response has been positive so far. The beer is a base German-style export, but with New Zealand hops. “It has a little more body and maltiness from the Munich malt,” says Carroll, adding that it makes a great base for the hops to stand on.

It debuted at the UllrGrass festival in Golden. “People love it; it’s a little different than the rest of our lineup,” says Carroll. “The cans definitely get a chuckle. People like the name and the concept. Usually the next question is: Are you sure you can do that?”

Carroll says the budding lager program at Golden City will see a second beer soon, a Mexican lager. He eventually hopes the series will move more toward a cohesive brand — away from the one-off labels, but still keeping the creativity of the lineup intact. “Lagers with a communal vibe, creating approachable beer meant for everyone,” he says.

Carroll is glad that the Golden City and 4 Noses Public Domain beers are very different beer styles, because he feels it’s more complementary that way. “[We were] both pulling from the same collective zeitgeist,” he concludes. “That’s the whole point, right?”
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