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Nitro Battle Bursts Craft Beer's Bubble

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- In the beer world, "nitro" typically refers to using nitrogen -- or, more specifically, a combination of nitrogen and carbon dioxide -- to both soften the bitterness of certain beers and build a foamy, creamy head atop a pint of it.

You see nitrogenation in action whenever a bartender pours a pint of Guinness or whenever he or she is pouring the stout, porter, red ale, IPA or whatever their bar chooses to put on tap at the time. It's a fairly common term brewers have long considered simply a description of the nitrogenation process.

Which is why several brewers -- including Guinness importer Diageo -- freaked out when Longmont, Colo.-based Left Hand was granted exclusive trademark rights to the term "nitro" and "milk stout nitro." It's an argument that the craft beer industry is just going to keep having as more brewers push their way onto the scene and names are protected through legal channels to preserve a brewer's competitive advantage.

In Left Hand's case, it's trying to protect the method it's using to put nitrogenated beer into glass bottles without using the same nitrogen "widget" that Guinness and other brewers have used to jettison nitrogen into their own bottled and canned brews. The brewery spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on research and development before releasing the bottled "nitro" version of its milk stout in 2011 and following up with Nitro versions of its Sawtooth Ale and Wake Up Dead Imperial Stout. Left Hand insists that its filing intends only to dislodge the "nitro" trademark from a brewery in British Columbia that held it until January and to protect the names of its "nitro" line -- not to discourage nitrogenated beer in general.

A lengthy response letter from Left Hand insists the brewery's "motivation is not to hinder competition but to protect the future of our brand, our employees and the integrity of products." It also notes that it is not pursuing legal action against fellow brewer and Longmont neighbor Oskar Blues, which is releasing Old Chub Nitro -- a nitrogenated version of its Scotch ale -- in cans in the near future.

That wasn't good enough for Anheuser-Busch InBev, which produces several nitrogenated versions of its Goose Island brands. That brewer was granted an extension until June 18 to oppose Left Hand's trademark application, while spokeswoman Terri Vogt issued the following statement to The Denver Post:

As a brewer, we have produced our own nitrogenated beers and, like many other brewers, large and small, we need to maintain the ability to identify them to consumers. We have not formally opposed the trademark application, but the extension lengthens our window to do so.

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