CODY, Wyo.—The Wild West legend who founded this town is widely honored—and marketed—here.
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Tony Demin for The Wall Street Journal
A bottle of Buffalo Bill Cody Beer, as marketed by Eric Bischoff.
Several hotels bear Buffalo Bill Cody's name. There's a Buffalo Bill museum, of course, and Buffalo Bill souvenirs at every turn, down to a decorative tissue box printed with the frontiersman's weathered image. A river-rafting outfit boasts, on a big sign out front, that it was founded by Buffalo Bill's great-grandson.
Yet there has never been a Buffalo Bill beer here—until now.
This summer, two local businessmen each launched a brew named after their hometown hero. Now it looks like the town isn't big enough for both.
The two entrepreneurs are fighting in court for the exclusive right to sell beer that trades on the musky aura of adventure surrounding Army-scout-turned-bison-hunter-turned-sharpshooting-showman William F. Cody.
In one corner: Former professional wrestling icon Eric Bischoff. Mr. Bischoff runs an entertainment company that produces television shows such as "Bear Swamp Recovery," described as being about three "bulky Sicilians" who repossess yachts at the Jersey Shore "with a repo order in one hand and a slice of pizza in the other."
Yearning to diversify, Mr. Bischoff hired a microbrewery to create a light, spicy rye that he is marketing as Buffalo Bill Cody Beer, "the spirit of the wild wild West."
His chief rival: Mike Darby, whose family owns and operates Buffalo Bill's Irma Hotel, a historic landmark built by Buffalo Bill in 1902 and decorated with truly enormous big-game trophies. The hotel has been selling drinks in Buffalo Bill glasses from Buffalo Bill's Bar for years, until it finally occurred to Mr. Darby, he says, that he needed a branded beverage to carry the theme to its logical end. He arranged for a craft brewer to ship him crates of lager in blank bottles, slapped on his own labels and presto, Buffalo Bill Beer was born.
The fight between Mr. Bischoff and Mr. Darby has grown increasingly nasty. Legal claims and counter claims are piling high, and neither man is giving an inch.
"There's only one Buffalo Bill, so there's only one Buffalo Bill Beer," Mr. Darby says.
BUFFALO BILL CODY'
"Just because I don't like to fight doesn't mean I'm not good at it," says Mr. Bischoff.
A state judge who tried to sort out the dispute at a hearing in July threw up his hands in frustration. Mr. Darby, he noted, got his beer to market first, by two days.
But Mr. Darby failed to get federal approval of his label, as required by the law. (Mr. Darby says he thought the brewer and distributor had taken care of that.)
Mr. Bischoff did get his label approved, and also applied for a federal trademark. Mr. Darby didn't—yet he insists that his hotel's long association with Buffalo Bill makes him the rightful owner of the brand.
With so many factors in play, Judge David Park declined to impose a cease-and-desist order on either party. Instead, the case will go to a full trial, on a date not yet scheduled.
Even that trial, however, may not be the final word: The owner of Buffalo Bill's Brewery in Hayward, Calif., may jump into the fray as well.
The California brewery wasn't actually named for Buffalo Bill Cody; it was named for its founder, a guy named Bill who liked buffalo.
What's more, that brew pub, now owned by Geoff Harries, doesn't have a Western theme; its brews have names like Orange Blossom Cream Ale and Blueberry Oatmeal Stout. ("California," Mr. Harries says.) Still, Mr. Harries worries that the Wyoming brouhaha may confuse his customers and ruin the Buffalo Bill name. "We do have a trademark attorney looking into it," he says.
The pub founder, the bison-loving Bill Owens, pronounces all the wrangling a waste of time. He's still fond of buffalo but has moved on from beer, he says; he now runs a trade group for craft distillers.
"It's much more fun to be involved with people making whiskey, vodka and absinthe," he says.
The beer brawl doesn't surprise fans of Buffalo Bill Cody. They say the sharpshooter with the droopy moustache had a knack for attracting controversy.
In the 1860s, he grew annoyed by a hunter named William Comstock, who was swaggering around calling himself Buffalo Bill. To settle matters, Mr. Cody proposed a wager: Whoever could kill the most buffalo in eight hours would keep the name. Mr. Comstock, needless to say, didn't prevail.
Years later, Buffalo Bill sued a Wild West performer who had adopted the stage name Capt. Cody and pretended to be a relative.
"He was always going to court for something," says Bruce Eldredge, executive director of the Buffalo Bill Historic Center in Cody. "He was an entrepreneur. He liked to have fun."
Mr. Bischoff, the former wrestler, says it's this rough-and-tumble zest for life that makes Buffalo Bill such a perfect brand icon. "Everyone likes a good beer," he says. "If you can find a good beer with a good story, all the better." He plans to expand sales to Colorado this fall.
Mr. Darby, meanwhile, had to pull his beer from the market while he awaits federal approval of his label.
But he expects to bring it back within weeks—and perhaps expand the brand. He envisions Buffalo Bill steaks, Buffalo Bill bison burgers "and Buffalo Bill... Lord knows what," he says. "We're just into Buffalo Bill here."