Industry Watch

Left: Elliot Ginsburg, Hop Law. Right: Jim Watkins,Co-founder, Sociable Cider Werks.

Hopping legal barriers

Beer lovers who practice law find niche in the formation of Hop Law, making for some very hoppy lawyers

By Erica Rivera
06-02-2015

Breweries are all the rage in Minnesota these days. From taprooms to growlers to booze-funded block parties, the Twin Cities drinking scene is experiencing a renaissance.

But behind the fun and (drinking) games is Hop Law, a law firm founded in 2013, making sure that proprietors are protected in the brewing industry. The name comes from the traditional beer ingredient: hops. At the helm of Hop Law is Elliot Ginsburg, a Massachusetts native who fell in love with Minnesota while attending Carleton College.

“It’s a really interesting field,” Ginsburg says. “Some attorneys will say it’s just general business law, and to a degree it is, but there’s something unique and fun about the industry.”

Craft Law

Distribution in the alcohol industry is what initially piqued Ginsburg’s interest in working with breweries. In 2013, Ginsburg co-wrote an article with fellow attorney Erin Conway about a law that brewpubs wanted passed that would allow them to distribute their beer through wholesalers. After publishing the article on MNBeer.com, he knew he wanted to delve deeper into breweries.

Hop Law counts Ginsburg, Conway and Evan Sallee among its attorneys. Sallee happens to be the CEO of Minnesota’s first cooperatively-owned brewery. That firsthand experience has proven to be invaluable to shaping Hop Law’s approach with clients because Sallee has been through the process and knows what it’s like to sit on the other side of the table.

Breweries are subject to many regulations, including an application with the Federal Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) for a Brewer’s Notice as well as federal, state and city licensing requirements. “There are a lot of regulatory hoops to jump through in the alcohol industry, for brewers and distillers, that aren’t the same for a lot of other businesses,” Ginsburg says.

Trademarks are also a major issue for breweries because of the rapidly expanding industry. “It’s harder and harder to find names that are not trademarked,” he says. “Some businesses will have a marketing plan and logo all set up, only to find that they have trouble registering with the trademark office.”

Ridiculously Dissimilar

Sociable Cider Werks, a cider and beer manufacturer and taproom in Northeast Minneapolis, was the first business in the industry that Ginsburg represented. Co-founder Jim Watkins, who had done much of the initial licensing paperwork on his own, turned to Ginsburg in 2013 to help him register the trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (PTO). 

“There are aspects of [starting a brewery] that you could certainly do yourself, but the way the PTO is structured, they’re incentivized to deny an application,” says Watkins. He believes attorneys at the PTO don’t want to put themselves in a situation where they approve a trademark too quickly only to encounter problems with another — too similar — trademark down the road.

Ginsburg filed an application with the PTO on Sociable Cider Werk’s behalf, but the trademark was denied. The PTO claimed “Sociable Cider Werks” was too close to “Ridiculously Sociable.”

“It seems to me that the marching orders of the PTO is ‘Deny, deny, deny,’” Watkins says. “You can abandon the registration or respond and argue that they’re not too similar.”

Ginsburg prepared a substantial response, but the PTO again denied the application. Because the trademark was so important to Watkins, Ginsburg submitted yet another response with 33 exhibits and 16 pages of single-space type. The third time was the charm, and the trademark was registered. “That was a huge deal, because it wasn’t just the name of a single product, it was the name of their entire brand,” says Ginsburg.

Distribution Dilemma

One of the pitfalls Ginsburg sees in the brewing industry is the desire to grow too quickly, which results in the need for a distributor. “There are some dangers when a brewery is no longer able to self-distribute,” he says. A distributor will often find out about a new brewery that is doing well in the tap room, or in keg sales or can sales, and will want to pick up that brewer’s beer to sell. “What brewers don’t know is that it can be very difficult — if not impossible — to make a break from a distributor. You want to make sure you’ve put a lot of thought into who your distributor is, and how that relationship will be governed.”

Sociable Cider Werks is still self-distributing, but “it’s something we talk about,” Watkins says. “Distribution is the set of handcuffs, so you want to be protected when you strike an agreement with a potential distributor. It’s a dirty game and having someone that’s able to navigate those waters is really important.”

The Word Spreads

Marketing for Hop Law’s legal services has consisted primarily of networking and word-of-mouth. As an Allied Trade Member of the Minnesota Craft Brewer’s Guild, Ginsburg attends that organization’s events often. Conway is also part of Barley’s Angels, a woman’s organization that hosts tastings and information sessions about the brewing process. “Just getting our name out there has built up some of that recognition and driven some referrals,” says Ginsburg. A blog on the website has also driven traffic to the site.

Talking to people with more experience, as well as communicating with colleagues, have been key strategies for success in Hop Law’s growth. The attorneys also tweet peer reviews and inject humor into their blog posts. “There are so many ridiculous issues that come up in the industry, and we’re able to have a sense of humor about it,” Ginsburg says. “I think that attracts people in the industry who have a sense of humor but are looking to take business seriously, as are we.”

“Elliot’s a really thoughtful guy,” says Watkins. “He’s smart. He thinks of a lot of different angles. He’s someone I trust and I take his recommendations seriously.”

Thus far, Hop Law has worked with Minnesotan breweries like Sociable Cider Werks, Fair State Brewing, and Goat Ridge Brewing. Out of state, Hop Law counts Old Line Spirits in Baltimore and Tomoka Brewery in Florida as clients.

“We are one of two firms that actively market to this industry,” Ginsburg says. “There are plenty of large firms that have an attorney or two, and they do great work, [but] as a smaller firm, we’re able to give a personal touch that others may not.”

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