Left Hand Brewing wages a trademark battle for the word "Nitro"
On September 29, 2011, after the first night of the annual Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Left Hand Brewing publicly revealed a bottled beer that its owners and brewers had spent two years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to create.
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With Milk Stout Nitro, the Longmont company became the first craft brewer in the nation to gas one of its beers with a blend of carbon dioxide and nitrogen. As a result, the rich stout pours creamy and thick out of the bottle, with bubbles that cascade up from the bottom, just like it would if it were being drawn from a nitrogen-infused tap at a bar.
Left Hand had been fiercely secretive about Nitro beforehand, so much so that it didn't even file for a patent of its process, fearing that the beer could then be copied. The brewery did, however, apply for a trademark on the words "Milk Stout Nitro," hoping, like any good business, that it could protect the name of its invention.
But the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office denied Left Hand's application that November, saying the term "Nitro" -- as it applies to beer -- had already been protected more than a decade earlier by a man named Eli Gershkovitch, who owns Vancouver, Canada's Steamworks Brewery (no relation to Steamworks Brewing in Durango).
The news was a blow to Left Hand, which was expanding rapidly, led now by Milk Stout Nitro, which quickly became a top-seller. Even worse, Gershkovitch and Steamworks didn't appear from its website to be making a beer with the word "nitro" in it, either in Canada or in the U.S. -- something it needed to do in order to protect the mark.
So, after doing some research, Left Hand decided to challenge Gershkovitch's claim to the word, and last July, it filed a petition to cancel his trademark.
Even more dramatically, Left Hand accused Gershkovitch of having outright lied to the government about its use of the word "nitro," insisting that he had never used the mark and that its registration "was obtained fraudulently."