When Craig McBay, who owns Florida Keys Brewing Co. with his wife Cheryl, saw the email from Dogfish Head Brewery founder Sam Calagione regarding his Hogfish Amber, he was ecstatic. "I thought that Sam had tasted it. I was obviously excited. This is a beer that I'm proud of."
By the time McBay got to the second sentence, the tone had changed. "I realized he probably never had the beer."
Calagione wasn't writing to congratulate the co-owner of the small brewery, located in Islamorada's growing Morada Way Arts & Cultural District.
He was notifying the McBays that they would face legal action if they didn't change the name of their Hogfish Amber ale.
The first email, which arrived in August 2016, came as a shock to McBay, who named his ale after his favorite hobby — spearing hogfish in the Keys. "We love it so much I wanted to name a beer after it." In fact, most of the beers the McBays brew are named for Keys references.
McBay, who began brewing Hogfish Amber years before the taproom and brewery were even in existence, tried to persuade Calagione that the name was a tribute to his Florida Keys lifestyle. "We actually sent Sam pictures of us holding up a hogfish to let him know how unique the name is."
Ultimately, Dogfish Head won this battle. "We went back and forth, but in the end, unless lawyers were going to get involved, the only thing to do was to drop our trademark application and change the name."
As of last Friday, Hogfish Amber was no more. The brew is now known as Spearfish Amber.
"We've been dragging our feet on the name change. We didn't want to do it, to be honest," McBay says. But the Islamorada brewers didn't have the funds to engage in a legal battle, and they came to an agreement with the larger brewing company. "We agreed to the name change, and we made it happen."
McBay's main concern is that consumers would be confused by the name change. The beer, along with other Florida Keys Brewing Co. beers, is now available at almost 70 locations in the Keys after beginning distribution in September 2016. Before that, they were available only at the brewery. Hogfish Amber was one of his best sellers, and he's hoping the change to Spearfish Amber doesn't affect sales.
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Though McBay says Calagione and the people at Dogfish Head were very nice about everything, he was reminded that the Delaware company began as a small brewery frowning upon corporate bullies in the industry. Indeed, in the trailer for the 2009 documentary Beer Wars, Calagione says of his brewery's battle for market share with giants such as Budweiser and Coors: "They have weapons and we have weapons, and ours might seem like slingshots and theirs seem like giant missiles."
McBay says of Calagione: “We are both beer men and fishermen, but I guess they have long lines and we use spearguns.” All the better to enjoy a pint of Spearfish Amber.
Florida Keys Brewing Co.
200 Morada Way, Islamorada; 305-916-5206; floridakeysbrewingco.com.