Merriam-Webster’s Official SCRABBLE Players Dictionary does not consider “beerbrella” a word, which provokes the existential question: if you can’t use the name of an item in Scrabble, can you patent it?
It turns out you can, but patenting an invention does not guarantee it will become a fully fledged product, a Scrabble word, or a celebrated innovation. It also doesn’t ensure that the idea won’t be mocked in the decades that follow. Exhibit A: Patent No. 6,637,447 B2.
The Beerbrella (a miniature umbrella designed to shade a bottle of beer, as its name suggests) isn’t exactly an invention. Robert Bell remembers he was sitting by a pool one day in 2001 with two friends—Mason McMullin and Mark See—when they noticed their beers were getting hot in the sun. McMullin said they could use a little shade.
"You mean like a little umbrella?" Bell asked.
"Like a BEERBRELLA?" Bell asked again.
See quickly assembled an ad hoc prototype from duct tape, coat-hanger wire, and a cocktail umbrella. Bell, a now-retired patent attorney, had a draftsman he worked with create the necessary drawings, and filed for a patent that was finalized in 2003. “I thought it would be useful as a teaching tool,” Bell writes via email.
The Beerbrella was never intended to be serious. “I filed it as a joke,” he writes. “I wanted to be able to use the patent (and the prosecution history) as a way of illustrating, to clients, how the process works, how you draft an application, what the parts are, and so forth. I could not do that with my client's patents, as any comments I might make about the prosecution or claims could affect the validity of the patent later on (if litigated, my comments could be used against me in a deposition, for example).”
Bell received many inquiries about the Beerbella, some from entrepreneurs who suggested they wanted to make it. None did. The patent has long since expired, and the concept is now in the public domain.
Patent rights date as far back as ancient Greece, and modern patent systems have been around for more than five centuries. Patents related to beer have a history that’s almost as long. The London Patent Office opened in 1617, and the first brewing patent, recorded in 1634, was concerned with the efficient use of fuels. Similar process-related patents soon followed, according to Ian Hornsey in his 2003 book, A History of Beer and Brewing.
That said, early patents aren’t necessarily a great way to measure advances in brewing. In 2015, economists Alessandro Nuvolari and James Sumner surveyed patents dating from 1634 to 1850: a time period during which innovation helped drive expansion of the British brewing industry. Still, they found beer-related patents made up less than 1% of all patents granted.
It didn’t help that, during the time period in question, those seeking patents were generally perceived as charlatans rather than serious inventors. Inventors were more likely to keep their creations secret within their firms or guilds, to publicize them in order to enhance the status of their breweries, or to promote them and win consulting or engineering contracts (some inventors, like chemist Humphrey Jackson, even sold books with many technical details left as blank spots, and charged for lectures during which they were revealed).
On the other side of the pond, millions of patents have been granted since Congress passed the Patent Act of 1790 (at the outset, inventors were required to submit miniature models that showed how their creations worked, but warehousing the models become unmanageable). U.S. law grants patent rights for inventions that are new, not obvious, and useful. Today, Google makes it easy to find beer-related patents, and Jay Brooks has made it easier still by posting hundreds at Brookston Beer Bulletin.
Reading through them may be more fun than useful. Occasionally, as in the case of Yakima Chief Hops’ patent-pending Cryo Hops (a product that concentrates hop acids and essential oils), beer patents truly represent something innovative happening in real time. But typically, the historic impact of certain inventions only becomes obvious after their patents have expired, and the patents themselves are more like markers along a trail.
What Louis Pasteur taught brewers revolutionized beer. He was an agent of change, but his patents were not. He called US Patent No. 135,245—an invention designed to eliminate the exposure of wort to atmospheric air—“Improvement in Brewing Beer and Ale,” the same title Thomas Behan gave No. 868 in 1838. In 1938, Science magazine reported that No. 135,245 and a similar patent “were never assigned, and no record of anything having been done with them has been found. In all likelihood no attempts to commercialize the inventions were ever made.”
Most frequently, patents reflect how the process of making and selling a product changes as it evolves from the utilitarian to the commercial. Few of them will ever be more than a piece of paper; just one in 20 patents granted will end up becoming a product. The patents consumers remember and talk about are the “wacky” ones related to marketing beer, like the Beerbrella, beer-can beer goggles, and hockey-mask beer dispensers.
“Of the hundreds of patents I have written over the years, [the Beerbrella] gets the most mention (and some of those others were worth millions to their owners, too!),” Bell writes. “In addition to the sites I see on Google, it was mentioned in Reader's Digest, Smithsonian, and Newsweek, I think, and I even got a call from Conan O'Brien's people, who wanted to use it as part of a ‘bit’ on the show. Sadly, I did not have a sample product or prototype to send them. My 15 minutes of fame—wasted!”
William Painter, a member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, knew when to encourage his children to follow in his footsteps and when to suggest a pause. After his daughter, Ethel, presented him with what she thought was a better mousetrap design, he explained it was so complicated and expensive to make that it was better to let the mouse go.
Many of Painter’s 85 patents were for intricate devices, such as pumps and valves, or a counterfeit coin detector. But it was a seemingly simple one, the bottle cap, that made Crown Holdings a Fortune 500 company. By the time the government issued a patent for his “crown cork” in 1892, Painter had designed a machine to apply the caps.
In the 2017 finale of the television series Halt and Catch Fire, Joe MacMillan says, “Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.” An assortment of inventions in the latter half of the 19th century that were not designed specifically for brewing changed both beer itself and the culture around its consumption. Affordable refrigeration, the discovery of pasteurization, and bottling machines (using inexpensive, disposable closures) were among the key advances that enabled large breweries to ship their beers across a broader market.
In his history of Pabst Brewing Company, economic historian Thomas Cochran writes that the introduction of large-scale bottling for shipping purposes may well have been a pivotal development in the brewing industry. In Beer History (Number 157), Martin Stack explains that bottled beer held five major attractions for breweries: 1) It allowed them to decrease their reliance on saloons; 2) It could be shipped more readily to dry counties and states; 3) It helped build brand loyalty; 4) It could be directly targeted to affluent, middle-class consumers; and 5) It offered higher profit margins.
Looking back, we see that the breweries that conquered the American beer market during the 20th century established themselves before Prohibition. However, Stack writes, it was local producers that dominated the pre-Prohibition beer market, accounting for 85–95% of all beer sales. The speed with which brewers turned to brewing Lagers with adjuncts—a process advocated for (though never patented) by Anton Schwarz in the 1860s, and almost universally practiced by American brewers within three decades—was astonishing, but not all change occurred that quickly.
In 1878, two different New York hop growers applied for patents for picking machines, but it would be 30 years before the first mechanical picker was successfully put to use. For centuries before, and for decades after in many regions, hops were picked by hand.
Picking by hand was labor-intensive and inefficient, but modern, mechanical pickers—which first strip cones from the bines before a series of conveyor belts and fans noisily separate the leaves from the cones—have significantly changed the math on hop harvests. A few years ago, Jason Perrault, CEO of Yakima Chief Ranches, looked at the numbers: in the 1920s, it took 100 people on his great-grandfather’s farm 30 days to harvest 30 acres of hops, or 7.7 people per acre. In the 1960s, 80 workers needed 30 days to harvest 150 acres, or 0.5 people per day. By 2012, 40 people harvested 750 acres in 30 days, or 0.05 people per acre.
Only with sufficient time will it be clear which inventions will matter. In 1893, in San Francisco, Constant Harth sought a patent for an “Improvement in Devices for Drawing Steam-Beer.” Harth explained the trouble with “the old style faucet in general use is that the top bung of the keg has to be loosened to let out some of the surplus gas, thus flattening the beer, and in drawing the beer from the keg a vast amount of barm or foam passes with it into the glass. Steam beer thus drawn has a muddy appearance and a flat and yeast taste.” Instead, with the new faucet, “an expert cannot distinguish steam beer…from the best lager beer on the market.”
His claim didn’t hold up. When five steam breweries consolidated into one in 1910, they blamed dispensing problems for diminishing sales. “Investigation disclosed the fact that the fault was with bar tenders,” according to a newspaper account. “They did not like to draw steam. It takes longer and is more trouble.” The beer that Fritz Maytag resurrected in the 1960s was already near extinction before the onset of Prohibition, and no invention was going to save it.
Not surprisingly, William Painter—the man behind the crown cap—also invented a basic bottle opener. While it would seem that developing a better bottle opener is no more likely than creating an improved mousetrap, many riffs on the item have since followed, and demonstrate the goofy side of the patent game.
Some bottle openers were made to be multi-purpose. At the beginning of the 20th century, they sometimes featured square Prest-O-Lite holes, and drivers used them to turn on their acetylene-gas headlights before electric ones became common. More recent examples include a turtle-shaped bottle opener and beer separator, designed to create a black and tan; watch band-opener hybrids; and sandals with openers implanted on the straps or the sole. Similar products that failed to take off include a three-in-one belt buckle, bottle opener and can opener, as well as a bottle-opener glove.
Many devices are created both to promote beer sales and to tap into beer’s playful side. Take the beer-can helmet. While there are plenty of YouTube videos that offer instructions on how to jury-rig a hands-free drinking apparatus, Brian Miesieski, who formerly headed a group marketing AB InBev’s Canadian brands, recognized the popularity, and potential, of the idea.
“Guys love beer. Guys love gadgets. Guys love beer gadgets,” he says.
In 2004, his group designed a series of point-of-sale items for Labatt Blue. Six of the eight patents Labatt claimed were for beer dispensers, four of them attached to sports helmets or hockey masks. Think PEZ, but bigger. “They got a lot of press for us,” Miesieski says. “A nice buzz.” In a commercial featuring the iconic Labatt Blue bear, a couple is seated in a restaurant. She gives the bear a box containing a tie decorated with maple leaves, and he hands the dispenser full of cans across the table and she pops it open. A customer seated behind the bear speaks for the audience: “Awesome.”
Perhaps Labatt’s strangest patent is for a combination beer dispenser and chair, which is best understood when viewed. “We wanted to own the concept,” Miesieski says, explaining why Labatt sought the patents. “To be able to continue to leverage that as a retail promotion. We thought that it was worth protecting.”
Most patent applications—even for the quirkiest of products—make for dry reading. But Bruce Riggs’ application for party goggles made out of beer cans certainly doesn’t. It sounds more like an advertisement than a government document.
“Simply stated, the Party Goggles are the literal personification of the mythical Beer Goggles ‘worn’ by so many intoxicated adults on so many beer-fueled weekend nights all across the nation, and for that matter, the world,” it begins, and never lets up.
In a 2011 Philadelphia Inquirer article about the inventors of goofy beer gadgets, Don Russell asked Riggs, who works for a gas company in California, if he had been drinking beer when he came up with the idea for his Party Goggles. "Probably," he replied. "It's hard to say." The invention did not provide fame or fortune. Riggs told Russell he briefly had a deal with a large brewing company to produce glasses from their cans, but that fell through.
They must not have appreciated his message. “The Party Goggles present a number of distinct benefits and advantages,” he writes. “Foremost, simply putting on the Party Goggles allows the user to resurrect an otherwise lifeless party from the bowels of mediocrity, or gives the wearer the power to kick an average party into high-gear. How many times have we all been stuck at a fetid fete, marooned at the beer-stained end of a crowded couch, uncomfortably sipping a flat beer and hoping against hope that someone would do or say something interesting, something memorable. That is precisely what the Party Goggles provide, a fun, memorable evening among friends.”
Innovators will continue to reimagine how beer is made, how it is sold, and how it is enjoyed. Patents offer a peek under the hood. Like Party Goggles, they provide a lens through which to view beer’s long and unwieldy history. Also like Party Goggles, the view they offer may not be perfect—because, after all, beer is involved.