Bell’s Brewery trademark battle with North Carolina Brewery intensifies on social media

Posted at 8:02 AM, Mar 13, 2015
and last updated 2015-03-13 08:02:51-04

KALAMAZOO, Mich. — After word spread of a trademark dispute between Bell’s Brewery, Inc. of Kalamazoo, and a small micro brewery named Innovation Brewing in North Carolina, both sides of the dispute are now weighing in with differing accounts of where the situation stands.

We first reported the trademark situation earlier this week.  It began with a slogan that Bell’s uses, which reads “Bottling Innovation since 1985.”  It is not used on any labeling or beer packaging, but the slogan is used on bumper stickers:

Courtesy: Bell’s Brewing

Bell’s — which produces flagship beers that include Hopslam, Two Hearted, and Oberon — argues that Innovation Brewing’s use of the term could cause confusion among customers, and asked them to withdraw their federal trademark application.  The owners of Innovation, one of whom is Chip Owen — a native of Holland, MI — disagree with the claims of brand confusion.

Courtesy: Innovation Brewing

Initially, Bell’s posted a statement on its Facebook page, stating it was in the process of working through the issue “as amicably as possible” and was hopeful to reach a mutual resolution.  The post stated that Bell’s would not be commenting further, with respect to the legal process.

However, customer outrage soon erupted, with over 1,000 comments and counting.  Many questioned why Bell’s would take this stance.  Some customers understood Bell’s position and the importance of protecting the brand in such a competitive, expanding industry.

As the amount of negative responses piled up, Sarah S. Bell, the Vice President and daughter of founder Larry Bell, posted a far more detailed, numerical list of why Bell’s Brewing, Inc. was taking legal action:

To our Bell’s customers and the passionate craft beer community,

We want to clear up a few things regarding our federal trademark dispute with Innovation Brewing.

1. We have not, and are not asking them to change their name or their logo. There is no lawsuit. We are not suing them. We have not asked them for money. We have not asked them to stop selling their beer. We are asking them to withdraw their federal trademark application.

2. Our concern is with their United States trademark application and potential impact on our brand, which we have spent 30 years building.

3. I personally reached out to Innovation Brewing to try to settle this matter in February, 2014 and attempted to talk about this brewer to brewer instead of involving lawyers. Our efforts were rebuffed and Innovation Brewing choose [sic] to pursue this in the legal system.

4. Over the last year, we have offered co-existence agreements and have offered to pay for their legal fees. We tried to find solutions that would work for both of us. Their response was to ask for an exorbitant amount of money and we did not feel that was a collaborative solution.

5. All offers that we proposed were rejected and after more than a year of discussion regrettably, this matter has moved to the federal trademark office.

We have the utmost respect for Innovation Brewing and we are going to keep any comments we have regarding this matter positive, honest, and collaborative. We want them to continue to brew and do the good work they’re doing under their own name.

We hope to resolve this as swiftly as the system will allow.

The passion that we have seen over the past few days is a testament to how much the beer industry means to those who support it and why we are proud to be a part of it. We always appreciate further feedback and invite everyone to continue to share their concerns with us directly:


Laura S. Bell
Vice President
Bell’s Brewery, Inc.

This post elicited an equally-detailed response from Innovation Brewing on its own Facebook page with a differing account of how the process has played out:

To Our Wonderful Craft Beer Community:

We felt it was important to get our story out to the media because this is an important matter for the craft beer industry. We did not intend (nor do we want to) have a social media battle with Bell’s, but because of allegations posted on Bell’s Brewery’s Facebook page we now have to defend ourselves. Settlement discussions are protected communications that are not to be disclosed publicly, so out of respect to Bell’s Brewery’s rights we would never have disclosed them. Furthermore, Mr. Bell pointedly stated that he would not “play this out on social media” – and so we again respected his wishes by keeping the details to ourselves. Now, it appears they changed their mind.

We are planning to deliver a full statement of the facts and events that have brought us to this point. Until then, we feel it necessary to respond to Ms. Bell’s enumerated allegations. Thank you for continuing to support and believe in us. You keep us going through this difficult time.

1. Yes, this is a TM proceeding and not a lawsuit, although it is like a lawsuit, requiring legal representation, being personally deposed, and including a trial. They are asking us to withdraw our federal trademark application for our brand name.

2. We do not believe that any human on earth would confuse Innovation Brewing with Bell’s Brewery, despite their slogans.

3. Laura Bell did contact me at 7:00 pm the night before their opposition filing was due. They had already hired attorneys to represent them and file for their extension to file the opposition. We had not hired an attorney. After she advised us that she would “let us” keep using the name in NC only, and never expand beyond it, she said that we had until the next day at 5:00 PM to respond. That is 22 hours to find an attorney and decide on the future of our business. That was the one and only attempt Ms. Bell made to contact me. From there their attorneys took over.

4. Not a single co-existence agreement has ever been presented to us by Bell’s. In fact it was we who submitted a written co-existence agreement – subsequently declined by Bell’s. The only monetary compensation they have ever offered us was $2,500 which was to cover the inconvenience of being forced to abandon our trademark and go register a different one. The “legal fees”, as Ms. Bell puts it, brought on by their legal action against us, may exceed $50,000. We did not feel like being bought off.

5. This matter was before the TM office one day after she began talking to us. No offer has ever been presented to us other than the offer to limit our business to NC or take $2,500 to start over and build a new brand. We believe in our business, so those are not really offers at all.

6. In regards to Laura Bell stating “we hope to resolve this as swiftly as the system will allow” we suggested the accelerated trademark opposition process that would have brought this to a legal end much sooner and with far less expense, but Bell’s denied it.

You great people don’t deserve to be peppered with sides of the story. So we will give you a full account of the facts so you can decide for yourself. We are good people and we know we have your support. Stay tuned.

-Chip and Nicole

It goes without saying that this dispute has become extremely divisive among Bell’s customers.  It is apparently having a positive effect on Innovation, however, as the micro brewery posted on its Facebook page that they simply do not have enough beer to distribute.  While Bell’s has grown to have a multi-state distribution footprint, putting out hundreds of thousands of barrels per year, Innovation reportedly put out only 500 total barrels last year.