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Citizens Brewing Company changes its name to Denizens after DC Brau challenge

A planned Silver Spring brewery has changed its name after local brewery DC Brau stepped in to defend its branding of a beer with a similar name. Citizens Brewing Company will become Denizens Brewing Company after receiving a cease-and-desist letter from DC Brau, citing the potential for confusion between its beer, "The Citizen," and the new brewery.

"There isn't a brewery named Citizens. We pursued this in good faith," Denizens co-founder Emily Bruno said. "We've obviously invested thousands of dollars. We did not believe there would be any market confusion."

Bruno, along with her co-founders, Julie Verratti and Jeff Ramirez, chose the name because it spoke to the ideals of their brewpub, which they aim to open in May 2014 at 1115 East West Hwy. in Silver Spring. "As a woman in craft beer, I feel like the [industry] marketing is not necessarily directed towards me," Bruno said. "We wanted to create an environment for all citizens to come in and learn about beer." The brewers say they had no plans to produce a beer called Citizens.

The group submitted a trademark application in March under the classification for "Brewpub services; Serving food and drinks; Taproom services featuring beer brewed on premises." The application was progressing along until last week, when a notice from the Patent and Trademark Office indicated the likelihood of confusion between the two brands. Giancarlo Castro, the examining attorney for Denizens' application, could not comment on pending trademark applications.

That same week, the group received a call from DC Brau co-owner Brandon Skall. Though both parties expressed hope of resolving the issue over the phone, they weren't able to reach a resolution, and DC Brau's legal team sent Denizens a cease-and-desist letter on Dec. 6. DC Brau's attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

"This has nothing to do with us versus them. It's simply a business operation versus any other," said Skall, who says he would be willing to collaborate with the brewpub in the future. "We have no bad intention towards these guys ... I'm sorry that this issue happened at all. We have every intention of supporting them."

Denizens' Bruno says that the worst part of the process was "Not the lost investment of our name, but that the word 'citizen' can be controlled in Washington," she said. "People want to reflect the region we live in. I think the cool thing is that people can speak to that when developing their bars and restaurants."

There are no judges or courts involved. Bruno said Denizens would rather spend its money on brewing equipment than legal fees, so the cease-and-desist was enough to induce the change. A search through the trademark database reveals that there's a Denizens registered to a liquor company, but Bruno doesn't think that will give them any problems, because it is different enough from their product.

She's even found a silver lining.

"Denizens is in some ways a better name," Bruno said. "It goes with that same local, regular-person vibe we wanted with Citizens. It's almost a little bit grittier, which is great for Silver Spring."

As area entrepreneurs look for names for their businesses and products that reflect the political character of the area, expect these conflicts to keep happening. Words that remind us of "This Town" are a popular naming convention in the area -- think of Policy, The Caucus Room, Capitol City, or the former Federalist. Some avoid infringement by coming up with creative spellings -- like CityZen or Charlotte's clever C'Ville-ian Brewery -- while others fight back.

Last month, the Oregon Brewing Co., the craft beer giant behind Rogue-branded ales and restaurants, settled its trademark infringement lawsuit against chef R.J. Cooper and his modernist restaurant, Rogue 24, in Blagden Alley. Rogue 24 was named for a tasting menu that Cooper debuted at Vidalia, where the owner quipped his chef had "gone rogue." Cooper says he has agreed to alter his logo, which features the name “Rogue” along with two vertical and four horizontal bars that visually represent “24,” the number of courses offered on the chef’s signature menu. An attorney for Oregon Brewing Co. declined to comment on the settlement.

Tim Carman contributed to this report.

A previous version of this post incorrectly stated the date of the cease-and-desist letter.