GRAND HAVEN — The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has identified an unlikely threat lurking in West Michigan.
At issue is Grand Armory Brewing Co.’s attempt to trademark the phrase “Coast Guard City,” which it used in the name of a signature beer brewed for the annual Grand Haven Coast Guard Festival. The label for Coast Guard City Pale Ale — which was canned last week, according to a tweet from the Grand Haven-based brewery’s account — features the likeness of a Coast Guard vessel set amid waves, barley spikes and a sunset.
The federal agency last week filed an opposition to Grand Armory’s trademark application for the beer, stating that it infringes on the department’s existing marks and that the use of the Coast Guard name is restricted under federal law.
In its opposition filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on July 21, DHS said the brewer’s use of the Coast Guard name “falsely implied an endorsement by the U.S. Coast Guard of its product” and noted that consumers were likely to believe the brewery was “the official provider of such product” to the military organization. Grand Armory, a DBA of Armory Brewing Company LLC, self-filed the trademark application on Feb. 5.
“Although (Grand Armory’s) product may be descriptive of the city in which it is brewed, the name seeks to create an implied relationship between the product and the U.S. Coast Guard,” the agency stated in its opposition filing, noting that there are 18 communities designated as a Coast Guard City.
“Such a registration would be harmful to the U.S. Coast Guard and all of the commercial businesses located in a designated ‘Coast Guard City’ who will no longer be able to use this name for advertising services to U.S. Coast Guard personnel stationed in such cities as intended by the law which authorizes the ‘Coast Guard City’ designation.”
Grand Armory cofounder Ben Tabor said his company was aware of the Coast Guard’s opposition to the trademark filing. He said he had contacted an attorney about the way forward, but was advised not to discuss the matter publicly.
The company, which produced 102.8 barrels of beer last year, brewed Coast Guard City Pale Ale for release during this year’s festival, which starts today and runs through Aug. 7.
Grand Armory has until Aug. 30 to respond to the Department of Homeland Security via the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board.
The Department of Homeland Security acknowledged MiBiz’s request for comment, but did not respond before this report was published.
In a typical situation, a brewer would not recall its product over a trademark issue after coming to some agreement to sell off the remaining inventory and never use the mark again, said Joseph Infante, the head of the alcoholic beverage regulation team at Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone PLC in Grand Rapids. But the issue in question goes deeper than just a trademark opposition, he said.
Because Grand Armory only sells beer in Michigan, it was able to avoid a requirement to file a Certificate of Label Approval with the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which likely would not have approved it, according to Infante.
The TTB’s labeling regulations, which are posted on the agency’s website, bar producers from using flags, seals, crests or other insignia associated with any state or federal government and the armed services on labels for alcoholic beverages.
“You can’t put something on an alcohol label to signify it was approved by state or federal government,” he said.
Additionally, federal law restricts the Coast Guard’s name and initials only to uses approved by the Coast Guard Commandant. Using the name in trade or advertising is a federal crime punishable by a fine of up to $10,000 and/or a year in prison, according to the statute.
“Fundamentally, you can’t use the words Coast Guard to sell anything,” Infante said. “The trademark opposition solves one problem, but it doesn’t solve the false advertising problem.”
Infante was unsure if the agency would pursue a criminal case against the brewery, noting that many companies use the “Coast Guard City” phrase for T-shirts and other products sold in Grand Haven. However, he said the department was like any other organization in seeking to protect its trademarks.
“They’re on the Department of Homeland Security’s radar now,” he said. “The Department of Homeland Security knows that they’re using it, so I’m sure they’re going follow up on it.”