After a long lull following the Prohibition era during which mega-breweries dominated the American beer market for decades, local microbreweries have steadily grown in popularity recently, with thousands of newly operating breweries joining the ranks each year.
However, such microbreweries still only satisfy a modest portion of the American appetite for beer. Consequently, thousands of struggling microbrewers are trying to capture this highly competitive segment of the aggregate marketplace.
The increasing pressure on this marketplace has made brand differentiation a key concern. Some commentators have called this conundrum "standing out in a sea of beer."
Consequently, publicized legal conflicts over brands in the microbrewery marketplace have recently arisen.
For example, in April 2013, a Grand Rapids, Michigan-based brewery called Brewery Vivant sent a legal cease and desist letter to Tired Hands Brewing Company of Ardmore, Pennsylvania, demanding that the small brewery cease using the name "FARMHANDS" for one of its Belgian ales.
"FARMHAND" is an as-yet unregistered trademark claimed by Brewery Vivant for a French farmhouse-style ale that is very popular in Michigan. Brewery Vivant owners claims to have experienced an instance of actual confusion at a trade show, leading to the need for legal threats.
The FARMHAND brand has been used by a British Columbia-based microbrewer called Driftwood Brewery, leading to the possibility of international trademark issues down the line.
But the conflict over FARMHAND is not an isolated incident.
In June 2013, West Sixth Brewing of Kentucky and Magic Hat Brewing of Vermont settled a trademark-related dispute that quickly got ugly when it was described as "frivolous," and which escalated to a full-blown federal lawsuit until it was settled by the parties after mediation.
Similarly, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company had a trademark dispute over the "NARWHAL" trademark when it launched "Narwhal Imperial Stout," a move that the Narwhal Brewery apparently opposed.
And when Mother Earth Brewing Co., a craft beer maker in Vista, California, discovered another company in North Carolina with virtually the same name, Mother Earth Brewing Co., LLC, it was forced into filing trademark litigation in the Trademark Office.
Those with long ties to the microbrewery industry lament the need for ongoing legal conflicts over trademarks, citing comparisons to the less collegial tech industry.
According to one attorney who specializes in the alcohol and brewery industries, the craft beer industry "has become swollen," leading to a need for market participants to be more proactive with a coherent and aggressive branding and trademark strategy.