The word shaking up the seltzer industry
A local company prides itself on being the nation's first and only "seltzery" — so much so, that it has threatened to sue other businesses that try to use the term.
Why it matters: Other companies question whether San Juan Seltzer should be allowed to assert trademark rights for the word "seltzery," which competitors argue is commonly used to describe places that serve spiked sparkling water.
What's happening: San Juan Seltzer, which operates a tasting room and production facility in South Seattle, has sent cease-and-desist letters to at least three hard seltzer companies, telling them they can't call themselves a "seltzery" because San Juan has trademarked the word.
- One business owner who spoke to Axios said she knows at least one additional seltzer maker who received a letter, too.
Plus: San Juan also sent a cease-and-desist letter to a local news website in North Carolina in 2020, saying the website couldn't use "seltzery" to describe a business featured in an article.
- That website, Charlotte Agenda, ended up replacing the word "seltzery" with "seltzer brewery." (Of note: Axios later acquired Charlotte Agenda.)
What they're saying: Hunter Wood, the co-founder and CEO of Elevated Seltzer in Arvada, Colorado, said it never occurred to him that someone would try to trademark the word "seltzery," as it seemed like the obvious way to describe his and others' business.
- "It would be like Budweiser trademarking the word 'brewery,'" Wood said.
- After receiving a cease-and-desist letter from San Juan in 2020, Wood redesigned Elevated's product packaging to remove "seltzery."
Of note: Wood and his brother opened their business in July 2019, a few months after San Juan Seltzer submitted a federal trademark application for the term "seltzery," but before the trademark was approved and registered.
The other side: Ron Lloyd, president and CEO of San Juan Seltzer, told Axios the company believes it pioneered craft seltzer manufacturing — and the use of the word "seltzery."
- In an email this week, he noted San Juan began serving its hard seltzers in 2018, before Elevated opened in Colorado.
- "Candidly, there was a lot of risk for us at the time, to invest time, money and energy to come up with a concept," Lloyd said in an earlier interview last year, explaining why the company sought the trademark.
- This week, he again declined to share how many cease-and-desist letters San Juan has sent to other companies, or whether the company has taken additional legal actions.
One company changed its name after receiving a letter from San Juan Seltzer, one of its founders told Axios.
- "We didn't have the means to fight them in court," Veronica Camp of California Seltzer Company — formerly The Seltzery — wrote in an email.
- Kristen Cagney, owner-operator of Summit Seltzer in Charlotte, North Carolina, said her company also scaled back use of the word, wanting to avoid a costly legal fight.
The intrigue: Garrett Graff, a Denver-based lawyer who sometimes deals with intellectual property issues, told Axios there may be "a legitimate argument" that the word "seltzery" is a descriptive word that falls under fair use.
- "They chose a term that, arguably, is capable of near descriptiveness," Graff told Axios.
- He said the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has sometimes canceled registered trademarks, later deciding they should never have been issued — but added it's unclear how a judge would rule on this issue.
What we're watching: Whether anyone decides to challenge San Juan Seltzer's trademark in the future — or, conversely, if San Juan decides to take someone to court.
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