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August 02, 2022

Rival brewer claims Cape May Brewing Co. violated his trademark for 'Shore Tea'

Wawa partnered on the hard beverage this summer. Now the former owner of Asbury Park Brewery alleges the name was stolen after he pitched it

Food & Drink Breweries
Shore Tea Wawa Lawsuit Courtesy/Wawa

Shore Tea, the hard beverage released this summer by Wawa and Cape May Brewing Co., is the subject of a trademark infringement lawsuit filed by Jeff Plate, the former owner of Asbury Park Brewing.

Last month, Wawa and Cape May Brewing Co. debuted a peach-flavored hard tea collaboration to much fanfare, continuing the convenience chain's track record of regional partnerships on specialty alcoholic beverages.

Shore Tea has now been available at stores throughout the region for a few weeks. It's a summer sequel to last year's Sunfest Strawberry Lemonade Shandy, which Wawa developed in partnership with 2SP Brewing Co. in Delaware County.

But in a hyper-competitive beverage market, the Jersey Shore-themed drink could soon be caught in choppy legal surf.

Jeff Plate, the co-founder and former owner of Asbury Park Brewery, announced this week he's filing a trademark infringement lawsuit over the use of the "Shore Tea" name. He claims he developed and trademarked it as a stand-alone hard tea product before the COVID-19 pandemic. After pitching it unsuccessfully to Cape May Brewing this spring, Plate said he was blindsided by the company's collaboration with Wawa in July.

In an Instagram post over the weekend, Plate shared side-by-side images of the hard tea can he says he created in 2020 and the one released by Wawa and Cape May Brewing last month.

Wawa Shore Tea CompsCourtesy/Jeff Plate

Jeff Plate, former owner of Asbury Park Brewery, compared the Shore Tea can concept he developed to the one released in July by Cape May Brewing Co. and Wawa.

"I brought it to @capemaybrewco in May this year bc I thought it could fit in their portfolio and might be a cool partnership," Plate wrote. "They passed after a while (I trademarked it and had them sign an NDA) but then released SHORE TEA a week ago!"

By Monday afternoon, as Plate's claim of trademark infringement spread online, Cape May Brewing issued a statement calling the claims about Shore Tea "groundless." The brewery said it had been developing the hard tea for more than six months, and had selected the name and branding before Plate pitched his beverage to them.

"Like all Cape May products, the recipe and look of Peach Shore Tea have been in development for more than six months, with the name and branding selected well in advance of their release to the public, in this case finalized in March 2022," the brewery wrote. 

Cape May Brewing did not respond to a request for an interview when contacted Monday. A spokesperson for the brewery disputed Plate's contentions on Tuesday, claiming that any trademark for Shore Tea would only be enforceable if a brand had been established based on actual use in the marketplace. 

Wawa spokesperson Lori Bruce said in an email that Cape May Brewing has "exclusive ownership rights" to the Shore Tea artwork and name. 

The defendants named in Plate's pending lawsuit are Cape May Brewing and its CEO, Ryan Krill. Wawa is not a party in the lawsuit.

"I started working on this hard tea right around 2018-19," Plate said Monday. "I came up with a snappy name, Shore Tea. I liked that it kind of phonetically sounds like 'shorty,' and being from the Jersey Shore, it felt like a good idea."

Plate is an attorney and musician who founded Asbury Park Brewery with a group of business partners in 2016. The brand has a growing presence in New Jersey and had opened a tasting room that was shut down during the pandemic.

Over the past few years, Plate said he felt a desire to pivot away from the beer industry. He wanted to focus on a new product in the exploding hard tea and seltzer market in the U.S., which grew from $500 million in sales in 2018 to more than $4 billion just two years later.

"I saw an opportunity in a section of the market that's growing and I wanted to be there," said Plate, who maintains his law license, but doesn't practice full-time.

Before the pandemic, Plate said he worked with a flavoring company to develop the recipe for two hard beverages — a lemon tea and a New Jersey cranberry tea. Both of the recipes were 5% ABV, compared to the 4.5% product released by Wawa and Cape May Brewing.

"The big distinction between the two would be that mine was significantly sugar-reduced," Plate said. "I was using a natural tea flavoring with less than half of the added sugar, post-fermentation, than most of the market leaders. I was really going for something sugar-reduced and less sweet, crafted at the Jersey Shore."

In February 2019, Plate registered the "Shore Tea" trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, ostensibly protecting the name from another competitor specifically in the alcoholic beverage market. At the time, the trademark was registered with Asbury Park Brewery, but it was abandoned in November 2018. 

Shore Tea Trade OneCourtesy/USTPO

A trademark for Shore Tea was registered by Asbury Park Brewery in February 2019.

As of May 2022 — around the time Plate says he pitched his concept to Cape May Brewing — the Shore Tea trademark is instead listed as belonging to Plate as an individual. The USPTO website doesn't list Cape May Brewing or Wawa — or any others — as owners of the trademark. The "Peach Shore Tea" language used in Cape May Brewing's Instagram post also is not registered with the USPTO. 

Shore Tea Trade TwoCourtesy/USTPO

The current trademark for Shore Tea is held by Jeffrey Plate, who sold Asbury Park Brewery in early 2022.

Plate said he registered the individual trademark in May before he pitched it to Cape May Brewing, since he wanted to protect his idea. He also said he secured a website for the future product.

In fact, Plate has a history of getting ahead of legal obstacles for business ideas he wants to pursue in the future. He made a point of securing the intellectual property rights and website for "Asbury Park Brewery" in 2005, nine years before the brewery actually came into existence. Over the years, he had been playing in bands like Low Flying Jets, Sikamor Rooney and The Parlor Mob as he decided on his career path. He got his law degree from Rutgers University Newark in 2012. 

"Like many other people, I thought it was a good idea for Asbury Park to have a brewery," Plate told in 2016. "I definitely wasn't the first or the last. But I figured that if I'm going to open a brewery, I might as well learn how to brew beer."

Despite developing his hard teas a few years ago, Plate explained that the challenges of the pandemic forced him to focus more on keeping Asbury Park Brewery running through a difficult time. He found a "satisfying exit" from the company this year and also welcomed his first child into the world, with plans to make big strides on Shore Tea in 2022.

"For me, that was sort of my next venture and what I'd be doing for the next couple years of my life," Plate said.

In May, Plate claims he had approached Krill about pursuing a potential co-packing and distribution partnership for his own Shore Tea brand.

"I had those conversations with Cape May and after a few weeks, I kind of was unceremoniously told they would not be proceeding with it," Plate said. "And that was fine with me, because they said they had a similar product. I figured we could compete in the marketplace, no big deal."

Plate thanked Krill for the consideration, wished Cape May Brewing good luck and resumed raising capital as he looked for other distributors.

He never pursued a partnership with his former business, Asbury Park Brewery, because they had different visions and he wanted to explore the relationships he'd built elsewhere in the craft beer industry during his time with the company, he said. His relationships with his former business partners in Asbury Park remain strong, he added, but the hard tea concept was something he considered his own.

Cape May Brewing, which has thrived as a Jersey Shore brewery since it was founded in 2011, initially had seemed like an ideal partner for Plate because he noticed the company was starting to branch out into hard seltzers.

"They didn't have a hard tea brand, so I decided to reach out to (Krill) because I kind of knew him professionally through the (Brewers Guild of New Jersey)," Plate said. "He agreed to receive confidential information from me and not exploit it."

Plate declined to go into specifics about the nature of the non-disclosure agreement that he referenced in his Instagram post above, but he said that all relevant documents will be included as exhibits in his civil complaint. 

As founder of Shore Tea LLC, Plate has issued a cease-and-desist letter to both companies. He received a brief letter in response from Cape May Brewing, which warned it would prevent him from trying to launch any similar product, Plate claimed. 

"It essentially said, 'We didn't steal this from you. We think maybe you stole it from us,' or something to that effect," Plate said. "The timeline for that just doesn't work out, in terms of the facts."

Speaking with the customary caution of an attorney, Plate stressed that he's only able to address his own experience of the events that took place. He also has secured the representation of another attorney who specializes in intellectual property law, whom he declined to identify.

Plate readily acknowledges that Cape May Brewing and Wawa may have been developing a hard tea for some period of time prior to the launch of their Shore Tea. Still, he considers the use of that name more than a mere coincidence or clever bit of cross-branding for Wawa's famed Shorty hoagies.

“I was shocked," Plate said. "I can’t speak to what Cape May did or why they did it. I just know I’ve been developing this idea for years, presented it to them, and then they released what appears to be an identical product months after cutting me loose."

As discussion about the pending lawsuit surfaced online over the weekend, including on Reddit, Plate defended himself against some critics who think he's reaching with his lawsuit. Some believe there's nothing particularly unique about a hard tea, and that if the crux of the issue is the name "Shore Tea," that's not especially original, either.

"I didn't reinvent the wheel. I certainly didn't invent hard iced tea. But this was my idea. I registered it," Plate said. "No one else had come out with it before. What I really want is for justice to prevail. I feel like I was wronged, and what I really want is for Wawa and Cape May to make it right."

In advance of filing the lawsuit, Plate wasn't specific about what he's seeking from Cape May Brewing.

"Right now, I feel like I'm being prevented from proceeding with (my hard tea) based on Cape May's presence with this," Plate said. "Certainly, it would cause confusion in the market if I came out with a Shore Tea a couple months after they released theirs. What I really want to figure out is, how do we get hard tea drinkers in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey the best product in a way that's fair for everybody involved? I'm not trying to shut anybody down, but to me, this does have the ring of something that I should at least, at a minimum, be a part of."

Plate said he's passionate about beverages and being an entrepreneur. He's not overly concerned with what people are going to think of him for taking legal action over the Shore Tea name. It's a bit like Kramer taking on Calvin Klein after he was rebuffed on "Seinfeld" for his beach-scented cologne. There's humor in it. 

"Whenever you put yourself out there on the internet, there are people that come out of the woodwork to defame you or describe you as any number of things," Plate said. "And it's already happened, you know, people saying that I'm a baby."

Plate knows that he could press forward with his sugar-reduced hard tea concept using a different name, but the principle of the matter is that he wants to defend the name he trademarked and the story that his version of the Shore Tea brand would tell.

If he wants to win in court, Plate may have to prove that the Shore Tea on the market got its name as a result of his failed pitch to Cape May Brewing.

"Whether it's extremely novel or not doesn't necessarily foreclose on the idea that I created something, registered something and brought it to them," Plate said.

This story was updated to include a response from a spokesperson from Cape May Brewing Co.