Bellwoods Brewery just had a nice little week.
The popular Toronto brewery opened their doors to a significant and long-awaited expansion to their brewpub on Ossington Ave on Wednesday and given their track record for both beer and food, it’s a safe bet it won’t be long before the place is established as one of Toronto’s best spots for a beer and a meal. On Saturday Bellwoods celebrated their 10th Motley Cru Day — their annual anniversary beer release — this year bottling a Lambic that was three years in the making. And on top of all that they quietly won a small victory in one of the weirdest and longest running intellectual property battles in Ontario beer [EDIT – While this information only came to my attention this week, it seems like this development is actually months old, and the blog post linked below is months old. Sorry for my journalistic faux pas. It’s a blog that makes no money. You get what you pay for, cheapskate. ~ Ben].
The battle, launched way back in 2015, has pitted the eponymous Trinity-Bellwoods brewery against the Blyth-based behemouth, Cowbell Brewery, whom Bellwoods alleges is totally copying their vibe. More specifically, they’re pissed Cowbell’s logo looks like theirs, as detailed on this very blog back in 2017 when Bellwoods formally opposed issuance of a trademark registration to Cowbell for their logo and the Opposition Board for the Registrar of Trademarks found in Bellwoods’ favour, agreeing that the Cowbell logo was “likely to be confusing.”
At that time, Cowbell then appealed the board’s decision to a Federal Court, but last week (per this intellectual property law firm’s blog) the Federal Court upheld the decision and the Cowbell logo is now thus identified as “non-registrable.”
So what the hell does all this mean?
Well it’s presumably a long-awaited vindication for Bellwoods and in short it means that Cowbell Brewery is up shit’s creek. Because the Federal Court has concurred with the opinion of the Board that “the ordinary consumer would likely be confused about the source of the goods and services marketed by [Cowbell]” they now can’t register their two dimensional, one-colour bell that they’ve spent six years plastering all over their monstrous brewery, their fleet vehicles, and myriad bar swag that fills restaurants, tap rooms, and patios across Ontario — not to mention sweatshirts, YETI tumblers, coolers, tote bags, and even actual fucking cowbells.
Now technically, this decision doesn’t mean Cowbell can’t use their logo in Canada, it just means that they can’t register it; however, if Bellwoods now files a trademark infringement action against Cowbell and requests an injunction, there is likely going to be a very expensive rebrand happening at Cowbell and a team of very busy sales reps will be speeding around the province in freshly re-painted cars recalling all the table talkers, server aprons, and chalkboards at your local Boston Pizza.
I reached out to Bellwoods’ owners for comment, but presumably they were too busy enjoying their new brew pub expansion and a glass of Motley Cru to indulge an annoying beer writer’s questions about their legal battles (again); however, I would wager a case of Bellweiser that that trademark infringement action has already been filed and next steps are under way. Co-Owners Michael Clark and Luke Pestl haven’t doggedly fought to protect their brand for the last seven years to drop this now. Get your branded cowbell while you still can, folks. I reckon they’re about to be collector’s items.
I didn’t bother reaching out to Cowbell because they haven’t answered my emails since I asked them about paying $100,000 to get their beer in the Rogers Centre, but this is another weird note in the unique brewery’s short but curious history.
The company was founded by investors led by father and son duo Steven and Grant Sparling, erstwhile propane-magnates who seem to own most of the real estate in Blyth, and to me it has always seemed like the brewery occupies a really weird space in the world of Ontario beer given that it launched with such vast resources and did so on such an insanely large scale. To put it more directly, as my favourite local publican is wont to do, “That shit’s not fucking craft beer, man.”
The Sparlings have now stepped away from the business and the place has arguably found its sweet spot as an uninitiated-beer-fan-tourist-trap and a purveyor of “Sure yeah I guess that’s pretty good” gateway beers, but for me, weird vibes still prevail there.
I recall the last time I visited.
I had stopped in on a solo trip to our family’s cottage, hoping for only a quiet sandwich and a beer and praying I wouldn’t know anyone there. On my previous and only other trip there, I had attempted a similar quick lunch, but had made the mistake of texting their then-brewmaster Stephen Rich to meet me for a beer and soon found myself swarmed by the place’s owners, who insisted on taking me away from the bar to a conference room (yes, the place has conference rooms). I thought surely I was on my way to get my head caved in thanks to some snarky thing I had said about the place on twitter, but instead I was treated to a detailed account of the facility’s steadfast commitment to accessibility, replete with a verbatim testimonial from a local blind girl who appreciated the effort. I wondered if the skull-crushing might have been the better option.
This time there were no Sparlings and no conference room and I was mercifully seated in the dining room on a relatively busy afternoon. I walked past a retail store teeming with beer to go and merchandise (I vaguely recall cycling jerseys and a Cowbell-branded watch in a display case) and a too-chipper hostess with a radio headset walked me to a table. Who was she talking to on the headset, I wondered, picturing a disgruntled blog-reading employee stuffing me into a propane tank.
I was a little shocked to see how busy the place was, but then as I sat there my thoughts turned from “Look at ALL these people” to “Dear god, would you LOOK at these people.” Swaths of mouth-breathing plebes eyeballed tasting flights and translucent white, papery-skinned seniors crowded in at all the tables around me, gumming their lunches, slobbering in their light lagers, and peppering sweating staff members with questions about the menu’s salt content. Overheard, fanny-pack wearing tourists shuffled Croc-footed and dead-eyed on the catwalks as they took a tour of the facilities. “Gee, is that tank really full of beer?”
Jesus. Had I unwittingly joined an outing from a local group home? Had these people just been ushered off a tour bus from their methadone clinic? What was happening? From somewhere deep in the bowels of the facility, I heard what sounded like a bachelorette party warming up for a night out with a raunchy Kolsch-soaked game of pin the penis on the penis while they harassed their strapping, perfect-toothed teenage server. This was not, I realized, your run-of-the mill brewery. Something nefarious was happening just below the surface and I felt ill at ease.
Don’t get me wrong, the building was and is remarkable. It’s a 26,000 square foot pantheon to beer production and it is admirable and ambitious to the point that it would give even the most cynical, geuze-swilling beer snob pause to take that same hackneyed tour. On paper, Cowbell Brewery is fucking awesome, but in person the result of all that ambition and all that attention to detail – the multiple event spaces, the closed loop water system, the carbon-neutral-commitment — is that the place goes beyond clean, wholesome, and ambitious and approaches a kind of sterility that is creepy. It feels like a Stepford Brewery. It’s like someone asked a computer to assemble a perfect brewery and the place was created in a vaccuum. It’s technically a craft brewery, but it it feels so devoid of the character or soul you find at your actual local brewery you’re certain there must be a dungeon hidden somewhere in the stone walls.
And that’s just the conclusion I was coming to, all those years ago on that last visit, sitting in the dining room and suddenly feeling like I didn’t want to sit there, when I noticed handfuls of heads start to turn and look at the wall above my head, like cattle getting spooked, spring mix falling from their vinaigrette-shiny lips. I looked up and there, 25 feet over my head in lights, flashed a series of quotes spelled out on the wall of the restaurant. They were all rave and enthusiastic reviews of Cowbell Brewery. Some were from local media, there was one from blogger Drunk Polkaroo, and then, in three-foot-high letters, it said, “Cowbell Brewery might be Ontario’s most ambitious beer venture yet. – Ben Johnson.” Yes, it was the title of my own 2017 preview of the in-construction place for this blog shining down on me. I ate my sandwich quickly and was on my way, never to return.
Never forget kids, the internet is forever.
Though it seems likely that Cowbell Brewery’s logo isn’t.