Battle brews over 'Barley Belt' trademark after Labatt buys Calgary craft brewery

Banded Peak, one of several craft breweries in a southeast Calgary, was acquired by Labatt Brewing last month. The small local companies had forged a collective identity, the Barley Belt, but now that name belongs to Labatt — at least for now.

'It's messy, it's ugly, and it's very much like a nasty divorce'

This Dutch-made contraption allows up to 15 people to ride a pedal-powered party bus between breweries, focusing on the Barley Belt in southeast Calgary. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

Calgary's Barley Belt is more than just a brand, it's a tight-knit group of breweries that say they built the scene in the Manchester Industrial area from the ground up.

But now, the ground below this group of taprooms is crumbling.

Late last month, Banded Peak, one of the breweries in the collective, was acquired by Labatt Brewing. And along with it, the Barley Belt name is now owned by "Big Beer."

The brand started as a way to drum up business and create a destination. It stitched together more than 10 taprooms in an otherwise desolate industrial area and ferried eager drinkers between locations for big events, like the Barley Belt Tap Tour.

In 2018, Banded Peak applied for a trademark — along with the help of other establishments, Annex Ale Project and Village Brewery.

"We wanted to make a little bit of a tourist destination and focus on bicycling and craft beer and to help revitalize the Manchester Industrial community," said the owner of Annex Ale, Andrew Bullied.

The Manchester Industrial area in Calgary has about a dozen breweries, including Born Colorado, pictured here. The brand 'Barley Belt' was created to promote regular tap tours and drum up businesses in the area. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Bullied says that, at the time, it made sense to protect the name since it had been commonly used by 10 listed establishments in the area.

"No one was really bothered Banded Peak owned that," he said.

"It's something that we all commonly used together under the understanding that this is a project that's meant to be community-focused and not owned by anyone and free to use for everyone."

However, this all changed when Labatt Breweries of Canada acquired Banded Peak Brewing Ltd. in late January — which gave Labatt ownership to the name, Barley Belt.

"What our big crossroads is right now is that we operate in a community of small, independent, community-focused breweries.… Having an entity like Labatt come into that, we're just having a hard time reconciling how we would work with that."

Annex and other breweries in the area have since decided they do not want to work with Labatt nor use the term Barley Belt in their marketing for the time being.

"In terms of our business ethics and our values, we don't believe that Labatt likely has the best intentions for local, community craft breweries," said Bullied.

Labatt responds

According to an emailed statement sent to CBC News, Labatt Breweries of Canada says although its has assumed the trademark temporarily, Banded Peak is actively working with the other Barley Belt breweries to create a Barley Belt association.

"Once created, Banded Peak and Labatt will transfer ownership of the trademark and relinquish all rights to the association," said a statement on behalf of Rob Legate, head of craft for Labatt Breweries of Canada, and Alex Horner, head brewer and co-founder of Banded Peak Brewing.

Potential rebrand

Throughout the past week, the breweries in the Manchester Industrial district have been meeting to discuss the future of their brand.

Bullied says nothing has been decided yet but one thing that's for sure is that the businesses want to be "fiercely independent" from Labatt in order to support the local craft beer community.

"Whether this has to be an actual incorporated co-op or whatever that's going to be, but these things take time." 

Bullied adds that they don't think a large manufacture like Labatt represents local interests.  

"I think that the best thing that could happen for the Barley Belt is if nobody owns it. If (Labatt) were interested in keeping the goodwill associated with this brand alive and making it something that everyone can use, they can easily just abandon this trademark," he said.

In a statement, Cabin Brewing Company's co-founder Haydon Dewes says he's happy for the entire Banded Peak team. But his brewery won't be working with Labatt.

"Cabin has always taken a 'beer first, profits second' approach to business," Dewes said. "We cannot, in all conscience, work with a company like Labatt whose core values are so counter to our own. For that reason, we will not be part of an organization that has Labatt at the table."

Co-owners of Outcast Brewing, Krysten Arlt and Patrick Schnarr, agree.

"It's messy, it's ugly, and it's very much like a nasty divorce," said Arlt​​​​​.

Krysten Arlt, co-owner of Outcast Brewing, says their company joined the Barley Belt in September and it feels like a community organization. (Helen Pike/CBC)

She says it feels like the brand doesn't belong to the community anymore.

"We're all trying to form our own organization knowing we all have an equal say in what we're doing.… Whether or not we stay as the Barley Belt or it's rebranded, it's going to be the same in the end."

Schnarr adds that, right now, all of the breweries except for Banded Peak have met about how to move forward. 

"We don't want to share marketing money with (Labatt) because, I mean, the reason we go into business is to compete against them," he said.

He says if a new name for the community is created, they plan on making it where every member has a vote, a share, and that the trademark would be owned by all.

"So, say anybody else was bought out in the future, that would be like their exit and then everybody else would just continue on," he said.

With files from Helen Pike


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