After an email in late 2015, it appeared Loowit Brewing Company’s flagship beer, Shadow Ninja IPA, might vanish in a puff of smoke.
The Vancouver brewery was told to rename the beer because a North Carolina brewery had trademarked the word “ninja” in relation to beer. U.S. Patent & Trademark Office records show it was trademarked in 2009 by Asheville Pizza and Brewery in Asheville, N.C.
Loowit co-owners Devon Bray and Thomas Poffenroth consulted a copyright attorney who advised them to cut their losses, even if they are on opposite corners of the country.
“We’re in it for the long haul, and we didn’t want that insecurity,” Bray said, adding that they didn’t hold it against the other brewery for protecting the trademark. “We don’t want to be investing in a brand that’s effectively dead at that point. The longer we sat with Shadow Ninja, the bigger hole we’re digging.”
Bray and Poffenroth settled on a new name, Shadow Shinobi IPA, and decided they’d better get the word out to curb any confusion. Shadow Ninja IPA was Loowit’s most popular beer. They crafted it first as hobbyists and then it became the foundation for their brewery, which opened downtown in 2012.
“We need to make sure people know that it’s the same beer. The beer hasn’t changed, it’s just the name change,” he said. “We didn’t want someone to ask for a Shadow Ninja IPA and the server says ‘We don’t have it, but we have Shadow Shinobi,’ and the customer doesn’t know what it is.”
The result is a brief, four-page comic book transposing the legal rigmarole into a clash between two rival ninja clans. Shadow Ninja, hero of the nondescript metro city Couve City, clashes with the Eastern Ale Clan after its kingpin reveals it had exclusive rights to the word “ninja.” Vancouver artist Kyle Shold wrote and illustrated the comic.
If it’s possible to spoil a four-page comic, here goes: Shadow Ninja shellacs everyone and changes his name.
Bray said people have enjoyed the move and lauded its creativity.
“We’ve had a lot of compliments from customers and people in the beer industry (who said) they really liked how we handled the name change,” he said.
Another Loowit-made beer with the name “ninja” will have to change, and the brewery hasn’t ruled out commissioning more comic books. The medium’s style lends itself well to Loowit’s character-driven beer names, such as a stout called War Tortoise, Tiger Squadron Pale Ale or Moon Knight Porter.
Though Bray said they were “panicked” at first to learn of the trademark experience, he considered it part of the learning curve in the beer industry.
“We never considered at the time that there could be a trademark conflict,” he said. “Unfortunately, these conflicts are becoming all the more common in the brewing industry as the number of breweries continues to grow and name-space gets more crowded.”
According to the Brewers Association, craft brewers grew from 2,400 in the U.S. in 2012 to 5,200 in 2016. Julia Herz, program director with the organization, said trademark clashes are no more prevalent in beer than any other industry.
“Trademark disputes in craft brewing are definitely not en masse, but amongst small-business owners, it does happen just like in other comparable industries,” she said.
She added that it’s not uncommon for hobby brewers to go professional without doing all of their homework, and that can lead to some trademarked toes being stepped on.
“Yes, many craft brewers should be more savvy in researching their business and name options, but the bottom line is they have to have a lot of business experience to do that,” she said. “And many small, craft brewers are small, entrepreneurial businesses still learning the ropes.”