Over the last week, I’ve been putting together the cover story about the current trademark dispute between Innovation Brewing in Sylva and Michigan-based Bell’s Brewery. The controversy can be boiled down to Innovation applying to register its name through the federal trademark office. Bell’s has used the word “innovation” in its marketing for several years, and feel they have the common-law ownership of the usage in terms of the craft beer industry. Innovation, a mom-and-pop business, makes upwards of 500 barrels a year, while Bell’s, a multi-million dollar company, produces around 310,000 barrels. It’s the old “David versus Goliath” story, and we, as the public, always tune in when that theme finds itself in the media spotlight.
As someone who has extensively interviewed both sides of the dispute, I find there truly are no winners. Well, maybe just Bell’s lawyers and its public relations firms, who stand to collect a big pay day when all is said and done. To me, all four of the reasons I love Western North Carolina are the same four reasons 99.9 percent of folks who work and play in craft beer had when they entered the beloved industry.
People who live and thrive in the craft beer business, from brewery owners to employees, work hard and play hard. They love being outdoors. They love live music. They love incredible beer. And, most of all, they love each other. In my years of being a journalist, I have found no industry or business or group of folks as generous, caring, supportive and full of zest for life than those involved with craft beer.
Which is why this dispute being dragged out over social media digs so deep for everyone directly — and indirectly — involved. I can promise you, from both sides of this, that neither Innovation nor Bell’s wants this controversy to get any uglier. Neither side wants to smear the storied reputation of craft beer, an industry that prides itself on the key themes of “brotherhood,” “camaraderie” and “collaboration.” I can assure you, Chip Owen and Nicole Dexter of Innovation and Larry Bell of Bell’s would trade all of this publicity and media spectacle for this whole thing to go away, or never to have happened in the first place.
Being a journalist and a levelheaded person, I, even though I have numerous friends in the craft beer industry (and consider Chip and Nicole comrades), have to, and will, take a genuine look at both sides of the coin. As “David versus Goliath” as some people may want to paint this dispute, at the end of the day it is two independent businesses that truly want what is best for their brand, and also want to protect the intellectual property of their name on the open market.
Nobody wants to see this opposition case head into October, to ultimately be decided by the federal trademark board. It is a “red button” that the industry has always known existed in the business world, but it’s also a button nobody, not one person in the craft beer world, ever thought could be close to being pushed.
So, where does that leave us? Well, October is many months away. And yet, with each passing day without a solution, both Innovation and Bell’s are becoming more and more downtrodden and emotionally traumatized. I’ve spent time with Chip and Nicole, they are bewildered and beaten down by all of this. I’ve talked to Larry Bell, and he’s is genuinely shell-shocked by the media circus swirling around his company and worried about his personal safety in a modern society where that one-in-a-million irrational person does something dangerous to make a point.
Craft beer, and all the amazing people involved in it, are some of the finest, most upstanding, salt-of-the-earth human beings you will ever meet. These folks make my job easy, and fun, in that I always look forward to writing features about craft beer, even though this column and cover story may make me feel otherwise about the whole thing.
My hope is that Innovation and Bell’s finally pour each other a beer, sit down and come to a mutual agreement that not only protects both sides, but also perpetuates the intricate business traits and respectful problem-solving tactics that this industry has relied on since its inception. Support your local craft breweries, whether it be in Western North Carolina, in Michigan or anywhere in-between, because they, in turn, support you.
Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.
1 The Trail Magic Ale #10 release party will be March 20-21 at Nantahala Brewing Company in Bryson City.
2 The film adaptation of the Ron Rash novel The World Made Straight will make its Western North Carolina big-screen premiere at 3 and 7 p.m. March 23 in the A.K. Hinds Center at Western Carolina University.
3 Screaming J’s (funk/rock) will perform at 9 p.m. March 20 at No Name Sports Pub in Sylva.
4 The Smoky Mountain Rollergirls will open the home season at 4:30 p.m. March 21 at the Swain County Recreation Center in Bryson City.
5 “Pickin’ in the Armory” (bluegrass/clogging) will be at 7 p.m. March 20 at the Canton Armory.