MOREHEAD For three Morehead malt makers, opening a craft beer brewery was first an idea, a little fantasy they’d discuss while enjoying their homemade hops.
Lifelong friends Derek Caskey, Blake Nickell and Nick Hollan had all moved back to Morehead after attending college, traveling and working. What first started as a hobby led them to explore the craft beer scene across the state — a “nascent scene” compared to other states, but a scene nonetheless, according to Caskey. But as Nickell described it, they were unintentionally doing market research.
“We were seeing things that fit with what we would be doing,” Nickell said. “We had no plans on doing a brewery; we just really liked craft beer. We were passionate about that.”
That little idea turned into a dream — then after a business plan was jotted down to paper and the stars lined up — the dream turned into reality.
Sawstone Brewery opened its doors in August 2019, providing the small college town a taste of pre-prohibition style ales and lagers. It was after removing “three million layers” of plaster, Caskey said they came up with the name. The bare wall was comprised of limestone, mined from a quarry down the road back in 1915.
“It’s a novel way of building because the stone was hand-cut, right out of the quarry,” Caskey said. “It’s pretty amazing, but a really inefficient way of building something. There’s not very many of them in the country.”
Added Hollan: “Everything we do here, we do by hand. We lean into all the historical elements of the building and the beer we make. That’s where our identity came from, in appreciation of old things that are hard to do.”
The dream-turned-reality became a nightmare.
COVID-19 hit, with restrictions rolling out across the Commonwealth — that hurt business bad, with the owner estimating an 80% drop in revenues — definitely not the sort of spiral anyone wants, especially in their first year of business.
On March 10, days prior to the announcement of pandemic regulations, the Stone Brewing Company in California filed a petition to cancel the small-town upstart’s trademark at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The basis is one word: Stone.
In a petition that reads less like a government filing and more like Madison Avenue ad copy, the company explained that founders Steve Wagner and Greg Koch “first crossed paths in the effervescent Los Angeles rock and roll music scene of the 1980s” then founded the company after “a few years commiserating on the bleak state of the American beer market.” They subsequently trademarked “Stone” in the beer market and have gone on to become the ninth-largest craft beer brewery in the world.
“We’re a three-barrel brew house … it’s barely enough to keep our tap full,” Caskey said. “We’re not distributing. We’re not sure why the ninth-largest craft brewery would complain about a small brewhouse in eastern Kentucky.”
Now with attorney fees and the possibility of having to rebrand the brewhouse — it costs money (which isn’t coming in) to change over signs, shirts, cups and tap handles — Nickell said it’s like being “stuck between a stone and a hard place.”
“Alone, we can’t fight this thing. How do we do it? We don’t want to give our name up. It’s very difficult for us, not only because of the pandemic but it takes money to rebrand. We’re in a tough spot,” Nickell said.
The local community, the regional community and hops heads across the country have rallied behind the Bluegrass brewery, donating more than $13,000 to its gofundme page it set up to help cover the attorney fees. The owners only asked for $10,000.
“That was amazing,” Caskey said. “It definitely made us feel good that we’re not alone and that we have support. More folks than just us think it’s out of line that Stone would do such a thing.”
However, that support may have gone overboard at some point — Koch, one of the Stone Brewing founders, took to his company’s blog recently to say that fans of the Morehead brewhouse have taken to harassing his company and employees online and by phone. Koch condemned the attacks, stating he hadn’t even heard about Sawstone until they started, then went on to imply that the three friends in Morehead intentionally picked the name because of Stone Brewing’s name recognition.
Sawstone issued a Facebook statement last week publicly condemning the harassment and telling its customers to stop.
While distributing beer at stores isn’t out of the cards for the company, the owners said they aren’t intent on starting that any time soon.
“We never asked to be at the big boy table, we still want to be at the kid’s table,” Caskey said. “We just want to make beer and try to revitalize downtown.”
More than 100 beer, wine and liquor makers have had petitions filed against them by Stone Brewing, according to the U.S. Patent Office database. Some have agreed to change their name, while others have setteled for different terms.
Nickel said one of the patterns he’s seen from the cases is that the booze brewers in question tend to be small, local operations.
“That’s really our main message and the reason we wanted to bring this to people’s attention is that we feel like it is out of line,” Nickell said. “We want people to know. Being on this side of it, it’s not fun.”
However, with the timing of the petition amidst the global pandemic, Nickell said it feels like being kicked while they’re down.
“I don’t think it was Stone’s intent to do this to us in the middle of this pandemic, to kick us while we were down. It’s all the events happened at the same time and that’s caused a lot of stress for us,” he said.
Despite the hard times, there are some silver linings — the city of Morehead has allowed the brewery to use the side street as an outdoor seating area for customers to taste some local suds. The case is still pending with the patent office.
In the meantime, and in the future, Sawstone Brewery is focusing on what it does best: making beer.
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