Preface: Today I’m going to take a bit of a break from the never-ending stream of BC Seasonal Reviews to publish an actual article. Yes, what follows is a carefully researched BarleyMowat.com original. I even called people and conducted interviews for this one, although sadly I could not locate my fedora & “press” tag in time to wear it.
Pop quiz time: If I were to say “Cascadia” to you, what sort of beer would I be describing? Odds are that the vast majority of you just thought something like “Hop-forward” or “Cascadian Dark.” One of you, though, did not. One of you thought “Why, Steamworks’ Cascadia Cream Ale, of course!”
That one person is Mr. Eli Gershkovitch, or as he’s better known in beer circles, The Guy Who Owns Steamworks. Not only does Mr. Gerschkovitch feel that the word “Cascadia” is irrevocably associated with his (no longer brewed) Cascadia Cream Ale, but he feels this so strongly that he’s contacting everyone else using the term (or, more accurately, the somewhat-similar-but-not-actually-the-same term “Cascadian”).
Yup, Eli is using his trademark for the term Cascadia (Registration Number TMA669027), as applied to beer and beer-related wares, to send out a volley of calls warning of Cease & Desists to breweries that dared call their Cascadian Dark Ale a “Cascadian Dark Ale.”
Now, I don’t take issue with registering a trademark for your beers. In fact, I feel it’s a prudent step that breweries all-too-often forgo, on the basis of “everyone’s nice in the craft beer industry” or maybe more accurately “meh… seems like work.”
The reality of the matter is that not everyone in craft beer is nice, and that not all of the beer industry is craft at all. If another brewery decided tomorrow to produce a beer called “Singularity Russian Imperial Stout” there really isn’t much Driftwood could easily do about it, and almost every other craft brewery in BC is in a similar state.
So from that angle registering a trademark for your beer is a terribly good idea, however, the trick is around when you need to realize that your trademark is no longer worth fighting over.
Since 1999, when Eli first filed his trademark, the term “Cascadia” has developed another meaning entirely, and that’s the one that everyone out there parroted at the start of this article. Not only is that meaning completely incompatible with a Cream Ale (malt-forward, smooth body), but Cascadian-style ales aren’t even using the term protected in the trademark.
They’re using “CascadiaN,” not “Cascadia.” Combine that ‘N’ with the fact that the beers in question are not actually named Cascadia, but rather just described as such, and you’ve got a trademark that will be very hard to enforce in court.
So not only is Eli bullying fellow craft beers with an old trademark on a beer he no longer brews; he’s doing so without a solid argument. Why bother? Well, it’s all nice and feel-goody to be in the right with such things, but it’s another issue entirely to pay a lawyer to talk to another lawyer and convince them of just how right you are.
Sure, some of the more resource-rich breweries have consulted an IP lawyer and then held the phone away from their ears while said lawyer screamed “The fuck?!” but for most breweries, even that much lawyering is money they can ill afford to not spend on making beer.
And that’s the game plan: convince the little guys that even if they win, they’ll lose because of the finances required for that victory. I hate to admit it, but Eli’s on to something here. Small craft breweries honestly cannot afford to put up a fight, so they’ll sign off on whatever they need to in order to make this all “just go away.”
The end result will be that breweries are afraid to use the proper descriptor for a Cascadian Dark Ale, and we wind up with a Christmas Dark Ale or some such, all just to keep things less complicated.
But why? Why is he doing this? I’ve had a few talks with different brewers over the past few weeks while researching this article, and while the words used to describe Eli have varied from slightly uncomplimentary to maternally disrespectful to downright physically impossible, none of them were “stupid.”
Eli didn’t just wake up one winter’s morning and decide “What the hell, I’m bored! I think today I’ll undertake a program designed to systematically and mortally offend the craft brewing industry in British Columbia for shits and giggles. Yes, this will require large amounts of my time and make me look like a complete and utter douchebag, but why not? Gotta be better than knitting!”
Please note: When contacted to answer “What Gives?” Steamworks elected to skip the chance to explain their point of view and replied with “No Comment.” What follows is therefore my best, educated guess as to the motivation behind all this drama.
Nope, he’s got a plan, and that plan has a lot to do with Section 36 of the Trade-marks Act. Section 36, for those of you that don’t spend your spare time reading Canadian IP Law, is the “use it or lose it” clause with regard to trademarks. Basically, if you have a trademark on something, you have to use it at least once every three years, or you risk easily losing it.
Coincidentally, the last time Steamworks appears to have brewed a beer with the Cascadia name is… winter 2010, and boy is that three-year anniversary coming up fast. In short, they’re getting ready to use it.
But what will this new beer be? Will they resurrect Cascadia Cream Ale, kitshy graphics and all? Doubtful, as it’s just not commercially viable to produce a sweet, malty beer and call it “Cascadia.” Consumers will buy it, open it, and say “What the hell is this?” before angrily demanding their money back. That’s what’s called “Bad PR” in the business.
I figure they’re brewing up a proper CDA, and Eli is using his bully tactics to clear the playing field prior to its release, rather than have his CDA compete with a handful of other similarly styled beers based on, you know, actual merit.
Sure, those other beers will be there, likely labeled as “Black IPA” or even “CDA” and yes, we’ll know they’re really Cascadian Dark Ales, but sadly, not everyone reads this blog. The average beer consumer will not equate the labels, and the playing field will wind up being just a little bit tilted in Steamworks’ favour.
What can we do about this? We’re the beer buying public, and obviously we won’t stand for acute asshattery of this nature, so what actions can we take? Sure, we could simply not buy his beer, but even if all 50 of my regular readers take part in such a boycott Steamworks likely wouldn’t even notice.
What we need to do is get the word out. Eli likes to see himself as a man of the people. He’s always willing to talk to the press and get his good name out there so that we can see that, deep down, he’s just like us. It doesn’t matter the topic, be it talking about luxury waterfront real estate, affordable Ferrari ownership, or even flying your private plane to Europe, he’s your guy for fluff pieces that make him look good (or at least that make him look like a less attractive, budget version of Richard Branson).
Eli is particularly sensitive to PR, is what I’m saying here, and if only there was some sort of media that’s driven by the people… some sort of “social media,” should such a thing exist? Oh yeah, I’m doing this:
Voice your displeasure; let them know what you think. In the meantime, Eli, if you’re still reading this, please take a moment away from that Cease & Desist addressed to me that you are no doubt drafting in the next window, and think this over.
I know you figure that you’re just defending a trademark that is rightfully yours, but you have to let this one go, buddy. You’re doing serious damage to both your own and Steamworks’ reputation in the craft beer industry, and the industry is small enough that this will come back to bite you in the ass. Perhaps you think Steamworks’ can stand on its own, but look around you. Look at your staff in the brewery and brewpub. See that look on their faces? They aren’t so sure. I cannot believe that someone there hasn’t said something to you about this. Listen to them.
Besides, how does this end? There are 11 breweries in Canada making several different Cascadian beers (lager, dark, pale, IPA). I’ll even list them for you: Alley Kat, Banff Avenue, Brewsters, Flying Monkeys, Granville Island, Howe Sound, Old Stone, Phillips, Red Truck, Spinnakers, Yukon. And then there are the importers: Alameda, Boundary Bay, Hopworks, and The Commons, and more every day. Are you going to take on all of them? What happens when one of them has deep enough pockets to fight back? What then?
Don’t turn your greatest assest–the community of craft brewers–into a liability. Work with them on this one. Have a round table and discuss what your concerns are; they’ll listen. Even now, this far along, they’re willing to work with you. Free “Cascadia” and it will be a massive PR boost for Steamworks. Brew a collaboration beer to celebrate the moment. I’d buy that.
Even if collaboration isn’t your style and you really just want to make a Steamworks CDA, let the trademark go, man. Trust me on this one. Put out your CDA and make it a good one. It’ll do just fine on its merits alone. Steamworks brews great beer, the best beer in BC by some measures. When people walk into a bottle shop and see your product, let them think about that, and not about why it’s the only Cascadian Dark Ale on the shelf.
Update: And in a move that surprises pretty much no one, Steamworks has deleted all posts mentioning this issue from their Facebook page.
Update 2: I have received a response from Eli in which he reveal plans to license Cascadia to craft breweries for ~$1 ; I will update with Eli’s full response and reaction tomorrow.
Update 3: Update here, with Steamworks’ response and my take on it.