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Whale War One is over! Narwhal Brewery harpooned by Big Beer • Brooklyn Paper

Whale War One is over! Narwhal Brewery harpooned by Big Beer

Narwhal no more: Brewery co-founders Basil Lee and Kevin Stafford (pictured) changed their company’s name to Finback Brewery after a dispute with Sierra Nevada over the Narwhal name.
Photo by Bess Adler

Whale War One is over.

The startup Brooklyn beer company formerly known as Narwhal Brewery has lost its epic battle over its name with one of the biggest fish of the sea. The local brewers struck their colors and surrendered to California macro-microbrewers Sierra Nevada, who will continue to make their own Narwhal beer.

The brewers behind the Brooklyn startup, which hopes to open in Bushwick later this year, sought to avoid a lengthy legal duel with the Chico, Calif.-based company, instead remembering that there are always other fish — and whales — in the sea.

The company’s name is now Finback Brewery, after the whale that washed up on a Queens shore and died in late December 2012.

“We finally just decided to bite the bullet,” said co-founder Basil Lee of the decision to toss their original name overboard. “We came to the conclusion that if we changed our name, we could put this behind us and get back to trying to open our brewery.”

Narwhal Brewery had registered in the state as a limited liability corporation in 2011 — but Sierra Nevada created a beer called Narwhal Imperial Stout a year later, and filed for the federal trademark that the Brooklyn brewers had forgotten to secure, thus leading to the dispute.

Lee said that after a series of contacts between the two companies, Sierra Nevada finally agreed to chat with them, brewer to brewer. But the conversations with Sierra Nevada head of operations Brian Grossman, son of company founder and micro-brewing pioneer Ken Grossman, failed to resolve the situation.

“They were not interested in any kind of solution, where everyone would get to distribute [with the name],” said Lee. “We told them that all we wanted to do was sell our beer under this name and that as long as they let us do it and say they wouldn’t pursue any legal action, it would have been fine. But they were basically like, ‘No.’”

Sierra Nevada said that the conversations “didn’t turn up a reasonable alternative to us moving forward with the Narwhal brand.”

“Kevin and Basil can open a brewery with their new name, and we don’t doubt craft fans would be excited to drink their beers,” said spokesman Ryan Arnold.

For his part, Lee said that after the whale war turned ugly, he didn’t think too long about trying to hold onto the name.

“With all the other stuff we’re working on with our brewery, we weren’t going to waste time and money doing that,” said Lee.

The two-person company has lost some capital that it sunk into merchandise and marketing under the Narwhal name — but it was able to amend its existing logo, subbing the whales to make it work.

Lee said there was no doubt in his mind that their libation had to be a leviathan.

“We definitely wanted to stick with a whale,” said Lee.

Finbacks, an endangered species under federal law, may not evoke the same mythical lore as narwhals, but they are the second largest animals on Earth, after blue whales.

“Starting out, a beer’s name has less to do with success,” said Joe Tracy, the cellar manager at Bierkraft, who has been following the dispute. “If the beer’s good, it will sell, whatever the name is.”

Reach reporter Eli Rosenberg at erosenberg@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-2531. And follow him at twitter.com/emrosenberg.

An ale like any other: Finback Brewery’s new, repurposed logo.
Courtesy of Finback Brewery

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