When Left Hand Brewing introduced its Nitro brand in 2011, the beer maker's top brass wanted things to run smoothly -- both in how the beers poured and with control of the brand itself. The former worked out perfectly. The latter, not so much.
While the creamy beers, especially Milk Stout Nitro, quickly gathered a huge fan base and became some of the brewery's best-selling beers, the Longmont company's attempts to trademark the word "Nitro" met with anger, blowback and legal challenges. So last summer, Left Hand quietly dropped its efforts to trademark both the word "Nitro" as it relates to beer and the more specific "Nitro Milk Stout" in order to focus on building the brand across the country and on rebuilding goodwill among customers and competitors.
"It was never meant to piss anybody off, but to protect a ton of money and time that we had spent on it," says Left Hand spokesman Chris Lennert of both the process of packaging a nitrogenated beer and the efforts to trademark the name. "We were trying to protect ourselves from having one of the big guys come out with a package like that. But we said if we are going to get all this flak for it, then we don't want to do it. So we came back and shifted our focus. We didn't want to be negative."
This weekend Left Hand will celebrate that effort and nitrogenated beers in general (not to mention the brewery's 21st birthday) with an unprecedented festival: Nitro Fest is the first beer gathering to exclusively feature beers poured using nitrogen rather than carbon dioxide gas. Nitro beers pour smooth and creamy, with cascading bubbles; it looks similar to what many people are used to seeing when they order a Guinness on draft.
There will be 21 well-known or highly thought-of breweries in attendance, some of them with beers that have never been nitrogenated before. They include Colorado stars like Oskar Blues, Odell, Breckenridge, Elevation, Ska and Boulder Beer, along with big out-of-state names like Founders, Cigar City, Dogfish Head, Firestone Walker, Green Flash, Lagunitas, Sierra Nevada, Victory, Elysian and Deschutes.
Unlike Left Hand, which sent foamy ripples through the industry in 2011 when it figured out how to inject nitrogen into a bottled beer and released Milk Stout Nitro, most of the attending breweries don't package their nitro beers, sticking with draft-only distribution in bars and restaurants. Oskar Blues, which began canning Old Chub Nitro earlier this year, may be the only exception; the brewery is also located in Longmont. That brewery has filed for its own trademark on the words "Old Chub Nitro."
"Longmont is the center of the nitro universe," Lennert says. "So when we started thinking about it, we thought, let's invite some friends. But there are only a few breweries around the country who are doing nitrogenated beers -- some are just playing with it...Still, we are excited that they are playing and bringing attention to the category."
Lennert says he's heard rumbling about other breweries that are planning to package a nitro beer, but so far he hasn't seen anything on the shelves.
Left Hand debuted Milk Stout Nitro during the 2011 Great American Beer Festival and introduced two other nitro beers -- Wake Up Dead, a Russian imperial stout, and Sawtooth, an English-style ESB -- the following year. Milk Stout Nitro has since become "far and away our number one-selling package," he says.
At the same time, the brewery began trying to protect the name with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Its first attempt was denied because the term "Nitro" had been trademarked more than a decade earlier by Eli Gershkovitch, who owns Steamworks Brewery in Vancouver, Canada. Left Hand decided to challenge that claim, saying that Gershkovitch had never used the mark. The two companies settled out of court, and in 2013 Left Hand filed trademark applications for both "Nitro" and "Milk Stout Nitro."
The trademark was granted in February, but immediately challenged by Boston Beer Corp. (which makes Sam Adams), Diageo (which brews Guinness) and Anheuser Busch.
Worse, though, was the public reaction to the story: Beer drinkers were angry that a brewery would try to control a word like "Nitro," which equates to a process or style rather than a specific name. Left Hand attempted to defend and explain its actions on Facebook, telling people that it wasn't trying to keep the word for itself but to protect it from being trademarked by one of the big beer conglomerates.
But Left Hand abandoned its trademarking effort in August, according to court records. Now it will focus on simply celebrating nitro beers.
Nitro Fest will run from 3 to 7 p.m. on Saturday, November 15 at Left Hand's campus in Longmont. Tickets, $50, are available at Ticketfly.com. There will also be food and circus-like entertainment, including stilt-walkers, fire-spinners and sword jugglers.
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