When a California brewery threatened a trademark lawsuit against his Astoria distillery, Larry Cary opted to change the name of his growing business rather than go to court.
Formerly North Coast Distilling, Cary’s downtown Astoria storefront and tasting room in Seaside now sport the name Pilot House Spirits. The rebranding cost him more than $10,000, a price that included legal fees as well as changing signage and printing new bottle labels.
North Coast Brewing, a Fort Bragg, California, brewery that opened in 1988, is known for craft beer, not spirits like Cary’s hand-crafted vodka and gin. But the trademark challenge shows how zealously entrepreneurs in the emerging craft beer and distillery markets guard their brands.
“It just feels like a bigger guy coming after a smaller startup,” said Cary, who opened on Duane Street in February 2014 and expanded into Seaside this fall. “Other than that, why would you take someone to federal court?”
The Brewers Association, a trade group, reported in September that the number of breweries in the United States topped 4,000, rivaling the beer boom of the 1870s. The explosion of breweries has led to competition over territory and names.
Locking down place names, even generic ones like “North Coast,” can be important to carve out market identity, but trademark spats have also occurred over words, phrases and logos.
Earlier this year, Drop Anchor Brewery in Cathlamet, Washington, switched to River Mile 38 Brewing Co. after a legal threat from Anchor Brewing Co., which owns the venerable Anchor Steam brand in San Francisco.
Cary was aware of North Coast Brewing when he first opened North Coast Distilling, he said, but was told by his lawyers that the similar names would not cause a problem.
Cary first heard from the brewery in February, according to case documents, but at the time his lawyers told him the challenge would not be an issue because his distillery falls under a different classification than North Coast Brewing, he said.
Under that advice, Cary opted not to act on the brewery’s request to change the name of his distillery.
At the time, representatives of North Coast Brewing had asked Cary to stop using North Coast Distilling, claiming that Cary’s continued use of the “North Coast” portion of the distillery’s name would cause damage to the brewery’s business and reputation, according to case documents.
Then, in July, Cary heard from North Coast Brewing again and, about a month later, the brewery filed suit in federal district court in San Francisco. The lawsuit alleged trademark infringement and unfair competition. North Coast Brewing owns multiple trademarks relating to the phrases “North Coast” and “North Coast Brewing.”
Representatives of North Coast Brewing could not be reached for comment.
Cary officially changed the name of his business to Pilot House Spirits in October, ending the threat of a trademark suit from the brewery.
This time around, Cary said, he researched each name option to find one that would not leave him at risk of another lawsuit. That meant vetoing multiple options before deciding on Pilot House Spirits.
“We had other names in mind, but we were advised from a different law firm not to use any of the names we picked because they would lead to the same complications, possibly,” he said.
Cary added the extra precaution of trademarking Pilot House Spirits.
The transition has forced Cary to reach out to customers to let them know that North Coast Distilling and Pilot House Spirits are one and the same. That effort has largely consisted of word of mouth and using the Pilot House social media platforms to keep customers informed and direct them to the distillery’s new website.
The words “North Coast” can still be found in small print on all the distillery’s bottles, despite the name and logo change.
“We have such a nice following that it’s not an issue,” Cary said. “We are a household brand, not just a branded house.”