A couple weeks ago, John Rowley, head brewer of Sub Rosa Cellars, which, as you now know, is the new brewery opening soon in Santa Fe, contacted me to let me know that he had some big news. It wasn’t good news, but it wasn’t devastating, either. It was news of a roadblock that happens to thousands of breweries and a lesson that many have had to learn in the opening process. A couple days ago, we sat down over a beer, and I listened to a cautionary tale of what it is to open a new brewery and got a good understanding of what breweries can face along their journey from dream to reality.
Let this story serve as a lesson, or several lessons (if you read carefully), for all new breweries opening up in the coming months and years.
DSBC: You said you had a big announcement about Sub Rosa Cellars. Tell us a little about it.
Rowley: We found out recently that the name “Sub Rosa” is taken by a trademark that is owned by a small distillery in Portland. We found out about that in a roundabout sort of way.
DSBC: How did that happen?
Rowley: So, James Warren (head brewer of Blue Corn Brewery in Santa Fe), he was at a local liquor store, looking at stuff to buy, and he came across a vodka that was distilled by a company called Sub Rosa Spirits. I was like, whoa! He immediately sent me the pictures.
You know, I freaked out a little bit. It’s not really something we had heard about. I think someone had said something about it in passing, but since I didn’t see it in the initial trademark search, I wasn’t really worried about it. People can differentiate between beer and spirits and as we see with Santa Fe Brewing and Santa Fe Spirits, they’re totally unconnected businesses. And the consumer is smart enough to know, this is whiskey and this is beer. There’s not a whole lot of overlap, in my experience. I had talked to Nick Jones, after he moved to Santa Fe Spirits, and he had told me just that. Before he left, he was saying that it was a totally different group of people. There was very little crossover between the whiskey and beer worlds. I think that there is some, but that was something he said there really just wasn’t a lot of.
Regardless, I went back into the trademark database and did some searching. I had a trademark attorney help me out a little bit. And, they did find it. I didn’t see it in my initial search, but it turns out it was there. So, it was either my mistake or just lack of attention. I didn’t see anything related to beer. There was one (brewery) in North Carolina that was called Sub Rosa Brewing, but they were out of business. I called the North Carolina Brewers Guild and they had confirmed that that company went out of business or changed their name. So, I didn’t think that it was going to be an issue. It is, sadly.
DSBC: How big of an issue is it?
Rowley: So, the attorney I had talked to, they told me that the best course of action was to approach the guy on my own, without any lawyers involved.
DSBC: So, then you went and contacted the Sub Rosa Distillery. What did they have to say?
Rowley: Well, I explained to them what we’re doing. I sent him a letter, describing our project, the fact that we wouldn’t be distilling, that maybe we could do a collaboration, we brew some beer, and you guys distill it. But, unfortunately he wasn’t going to have any of that. He said, this is my brand. I want to defend the brand. I offered to license the name, because you know we’ve already put a lot of time into this, and we have a small following, even though we aren’t open yet. We have a bit of brand recognition. And the logo’s great! I really love the logo.
DSBC: Your guys must have been really bummed by this whole thing. What did the name Sub Rosa Cellars mean to your business at this point?
Rowley: Originally, we wanted to do something along the lines of a James Bond kind theme. One name I had thought of along that path was “Tradecraft” (noun: the techniques and procedures of espionage). Spies use tradecraft. James Bond uses tradecraft. And there’s a whole spy thing you could use. You could have like a weekly movienight, where you show a spy-based movie. But, the more I thought about it, the less I liked the idea. But, I did like the idea of the cellar that we have. The cellar that we have is kind of a secret cellar.
DSBC: Not anymore.
Rowley: No, not anymore. Anyway, what Sub Rosa means is “secret” or “clandestine.” So, my original thoughts were that we have this secret cellar, not everyone knows about it. It’s kind of a fun thing. It plays off of our original spy theme, which we got over eventually. Regardless, it was kind of fun. The rose logo was something that you don’t see a whole lot of in beer. Goose Island has one, the Madame Rose. But, it’s a totally different rose. We thought it was a nice way to go about the branding.
DSBC: How has this impacted you guys so far?
Rowley: Well, we talked and agreed that this is the best time to do this, rather than later. It’s easier to change our name now before we do have a brand built up, because we may have to pay into a settlement later if we’re using the guy’s name and we’ve made any money. We haven’t made any money yet. So, at this point, it’s the best possible time for this to happen. We don’t have to write anything off at this point. We paid for the original logo, we paid for a little bit of time with the attorney. Basically we’re not over $1,000 at this point. Our branding isn’t really affected. If we were selling bottles and making money, things would be a lot different.
DSBC: Let’s talk about the new name. What is the new name and what will it mean to the company?
Rowley: So, the company name is not going to change. We’re still going to be Sub Rosa Cellars, Inc. But we’re going to be doing business as Rowley Farmhouse Ales. Names in this day and age of 4,000-plus breweries are really tough. If you’ve ever tried to name a brewery, everyone and their mothers have the same ideas. A lot of the solid names have been around. One idea we had was City Different Brewing, because we are kind of doing a different thing with the sour beer manufacturing. But, that just didn’t really stick. And there were a few trademarks, not quite in the alcohol area, but it might have been close enough to have the same problem over again.
DSBC: And why deal with that?
Rowley: We don’t want that. We want freedom to operate. We want to be able to come in and kick some ass without having to think about these little details. Choosing a brewery name is one of the hardest things you have to do. When I was looking to open a brewery with my friend Solar Steve, we couldn’t agree on a name for the life of us. If you spend any time in the trademark search database (TESS), forget it. It’s almost impossible to name a brewing company in this day and age. Everything you think might be catchy and original has issues.
DSBC: So, this doesn’t delay anything then?
Rowley: No. we’ve already filed for the DBA (Doing Business As) with the state. I have to change the Instagram. I have to change the Twitter. I have to change the Facebook pages. But, that’s easy.
DSBC: That’s small stuff. It’s changing names, logos.
Rowley: The logos are already done. Thomas (DeCaro) from Nob Hill Bar & Grill has been doing great work for us. He’s such a fantastic guy. He’s taken the reins and has been coming up with some great logos.
DSBC: OK, so, how about a quick update then with your progress? We’ll get into more when I do a special look back/look forward of your brewery in the making in January.
Rowley: So, things are moving along with the building. We have an architect. The architect has a structural engineer working for him. The structural engineer is there basically to determine placement of where we need to shore up our floor. We have a raised floor. We’re going to have some heavy equipment in three of the four corners of the building. So, the way we need to approach that is this we need to support the floor accordingly. If we just put stuff in there, we don’t think the floor can handle it. And, we don’t want the building to shift or fall, so we have to do things by the book. The structural engineer’s job is to figure out the design for how we’re going to shore that floor up, which is mostly concrete and I-beam kind of stuff.
DSBC: And, how far is he along with that?
Rowley: He’s pretty much done with that. The thing that he needed was geotechnical engineering. When you have to deal with soil, people typically can look up soil table numbers for a region; however, this guy was a firm believer, and I’ve talked to other guys, and they’re all firm believers in getting the actual number of the soil you’re going to use, not the number out of a book. An unexpected cost, but one you are better off paying than not.
DSBC: Definitely things a lot of guys don’t think about when they imagine opening up a brewery.
Rowley: Yeah, so these guys do engineering tests on the soil under our floor. So, that’s all done. That data has all been given to the structural engineer. So, he’s very close to completing his calculations. Once that’s all drawn up, it goes to the architect who’s been working on this. He’s probably a week to 10 days away from finalizing our drawings with us. And, so there may be a short edit period, where we say we need this or have to change this. But, we’re very close to the point where we’re going to submit for permits at this point. Building permits will take a month, or whatever they take. Once we have the building permits, then we can get started. We’re very close. I’m going to say six weeks away and we’re going to have permits in hand. That’s when the rubber hits the road and we actually start doing stuff. Right now, it’s all been theoretical. It’s kind of frustrating, because we really want to get going. Everyone wants us to get going.
DSBC: Us included.
Rowley: Right now we’re looking for a new contractor. We’d been working with one, he was going to work for us for an equity stake in the company. We agreed to give him shares in the company, but he’s dropped off the map. He’s not responding to texts or calls or emails. So we had to find someone else. We had a good interview with these local guys last week. They seemed pretty solid. We liked the numbers they were throwing around. We don’t have a firm quote yet, because we need the drawings to be finished, but once we get the final drawings we’ll get that bid. Right now it’s just ballpark. Once we have the final drawings in hand, we can get a quote within a week. We also have a couple other contractors to talk to for interviews and quotes.
DSBC: Are we still aiming for your previous projected date? Was it March?
Rowley: We were always hoping for March. We’re cutting it real close at this point. We’re going to say spring of 2016. That gives us a little bit of leeway. But, things are definitely moving. We’d rather open sooner than later, but I don’t know what other obstacles we’re going to have along the way. I’m sure there’s going to be some (more) roadblocks thrown up. We will have to be able to deal with those and get around them. I’m not worried about it, though. It’s just the way things are.
DSBC: Luckily this whole name change wasn’t a major setback.
Rowley: No, it wasn’t a major one. It’s disappointing, but life goes on.
DSBC: But, it’s a lesson for other people looking to open a brewery.
Rowley: It is. Come up with a good name and make sure you do your due diligence. Go to the U.S. trademark and patent office database. It’s called TESS, and it’s not hard to use. You definitely have to pay attention to the results. That was my mistake. I didn’t see exactly the one I was looking for, but the attorney found it immediately.
DSBC: It looks like things are moving ahead. And, if you’d like, we’ll follow up with your progress in January.
Rowley: Yeah, that’d be great. I think by then we’ll have some boots on the ground and actually be doing work.
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As always, I thank John Rowley for chatting with us at the Dark Side Brew Crew. We’ve heard many stories of breweries rising and falling, but it was nice to get a little bit of insight into the opening process. We know many are interested in getting into the craft beer industry, and many have the dream of opening up a brewery someday (I do), only to find that the reality of such an endeavor is plagued with countless obstacles we can’t even fathom until we’re caught reacting to them. Perhaps this article will serve as a reminder to new companies that even when you think you’ve thought of everything, there’s always more to consider. I wish all new applicants the best of luck. I still believe there’s plenty of room for more great craft beer in New Mexico, yet this business is a tough one, and will weed out the unwary if you don’t cover all your bases and have a good friend that likes vodka who will send you pictures of a distillery with your brewery’s name on it. This time, my friends, let’s cheers to progress and to the simple fact that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
— Luke (Craft Crusader)
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