The novelist and one-time Missoulian Chris Offutt once made a keen observation about what makes Missoula tick. In most Western cities, he said, culture is shaped by the automobile. In Missoula, it is shaped by booze. Alcohol is our cultural coin of the realm, he said, the common currency that flows through our city’s society, character, and collective psyche. For sure, the Garden City has richly earned its reputation as the deep-draught watering hole of the Northern Rockies, what with its long, cold nights, blue-collar roots, and famously high bar-to-street corner ratio. So it’s no wonder that everyone’s up in arms these days about the fate of one of Missoula’s best-selling local beers.
In case you have not yet heard, local beersmiths Big Sky Brewing have been locked in battle for years with their competitors across the northern border, Moosehead Breweries, Ltd. Moosehead, it seems, has taken exception to the fact that Big Sky uses the word “moose” in it’s No. 1-selling brew, Moose Drool. Mere mention of the ungulate on the beer’s label, they maintain, creates confusion in the marketplace, while also causing an unwelcome case of “dilution of trademark.”
Last week, four years of legal wrangling reached a bureaucratic plateau as Moosehead’s lawyers from Washington, D.C., came to Missoula to inspect Big Sky’s documentation. The aim, says Big Sky vice president and co-founder Brad Robinson, was for the local brewers to demonstrate their right to trademark their beer, and for the Canucks to find proof to the contrary. So far, Robinson says, he thinks time has been on his side.
“Moosehead in my opinion has made a mistake in that they have given me a lot of time to do research,” he says.
Since his rivals first attempted to block registration of the Moose Drool moniker in 1996, Robinson explains, he has been scouring the storehouses of American brewing history for the telltale tracks of moose that have come before him. He has already found at least two breweries called Moose Brewing (one of which was founded 30 years before Moosehead itself was trademarked), and a wealth of historic brews bearing the “M” word. Robinson has devoted so much time to documenting moose-themed beers, in fact, that he has erected a kind of altar to the topic at his Hickory Street brewery. “I’ve got a whole shrine,” he says. “Moose has been used so generically with respect to beer for so long, to my mind it’s impossible to lay any claim on it.”
That’s not the sum total of his case, of course, and there’s no word on what Moosehead’s attorneys have to say (they are under orders not to speak to the media about the matter). But Robinson remains resolute. “It’s really bizarre,” he says. “They’re not the only ones using the name; they never have been the only ones using the name. We have to see it out to the end.” As evidence of their determination, Big Sky is proceeding with a $2.5 million expansion of their brewery, planned to begin next year, complete with bottling plant, boosted production and an increase in staffing.
Next week, Big Sky’s lawyers will head to D.C. to have a look at Moosehead’s documentation. Then all of the paperwork will be presented to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for a ruling, which will be some two years in the making. So it seems safe that Missoula culture will not be screeching to a halt anytime soon. Try to resist the urge to hoard.