Alterra (er, Colectivo Coffee) is in the difficult position today of explaining its release from an agreement that few people understood properly in the first place.

Here are the basics: In 2010, after refusing overtures from the Mars company to buy the Riverwest-based coffee roaster, the two entities inked an agreement that gave Mars control of the brand (it later applied for and received the trademark) whilst netting Alterra some new income that helped it receive financing for a major new project in Bay View.

Mars began using the brand and related imagery on single-serving coffee packets that are used in offices around the world, including those of The New Yorker, we are assuming from this web post. A single logo arose from the two companies, the gold Alterra star emblem, and it came to dominate the t-shirts, coffee mugs and other paraphernalia sold at the coffee shops, as well as the labels and marketing materials used by Mars.

Here is what never happened: Mars never purchased Alterra’s coffee-making or coffee-shop business, as many people came to believe. The former never owned any Alterra assets, other than intellectual property, i.e., a number of the coffee roaster’s trademarks.

Last year, speculation was percolating that Alterra might somehow back out of the agreement — and Lincoln Fowler, one of the company’s three founders, hinted as much — but one insider I spoke with expressed disbelief at the possibility of Mars’s lawyers ever allowing the Milwaukee company to duck out after years of planning and investment. Alterra was one of multiple coffee companies around the country considered for partnership.

Mars’s plan, apparently, called for co-opting an independent brand to spice up the Flavia line, which was relatively staid in presentation, and this was perhaps not as easy as the leaders of the heavyweight food and drink corporation had hoped. What they ended up with was the three-year alliance with Alterra that ended with Mars walking away with the name entirely.

Whether the Milwaukee outfit is coming out ahead in all of this depends on how much revenue they’ve made from Mars (never released) and how feelings of confusion and perceived betrayal have affected business, though today’s confusion could in some ways cancel out the old confusion … and … well, it’s hard to say.

To recapture a little clarity, here’s a timeline of recent Alterra/Colectivo history. Note the highlighted steps, beginning in 2011, that lead up to Sunday’s announcement.

Also see our 2012 feature “Coffee Wars” here.

Alterra applies to trademark its name, in use since 1993.

The popular Alterra at the Lake café opens on the Lakefront.

The coffee maker expands: New cafés open in the Third Ward, Grafton, Wauwatosa and Riverwest.

2008 (approx.)
Mars first approaches Alterra with an offer to buy the company.

Alterra files for a trademark relative to its bakery operations. (Mars later gains ownership of the bakery trademark.)

Negotiations are happening off-and-on between Alterra and Mars over a possible deal.

Alterra announces the deal allowing Mars to use the Milwaukee company’s name on single-serving coffee packets.

Mars applies for the “Alterra” trademark.

Mars registers the “Alterra Coffee Roasters” star logo, now the brand’s central emblem. It also applies for an “Alterra: Good Quality Hard Working Coffee That You Feel Good About Drinking” trademark but later abandons it.

Construction begins on a new Alterra café and bakery headquarters in Bay View. The Mars deal helped the company finance the project.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office grants Mars official control of the “Alterra” trademark.

Paul Miller, an Alterra founder, registers El Camino Partners LLC, which will later be used to launch Collectivo.

Alterra hints at a major announcement to come in 2013 but releases no details.

Bay View café opens to the public.

Alterra, through the new entity El Camino Partners, applies for the “Colectivo” trademark.

The Trademark Office publishes the application, allowing for any legal objections to arise.

Sunday, July 28
During a company-wide meeting at the Pabst Theater, Alterra’s founders announce the change to “Colectivo Coffee.”

Café and product transitions will be complete, according to the announcement.

Many of the early reactions have been wistful, including a post from Mary Louise Schumacher at the Journal Sentinel.

“Alterra” — the brand, the name, the logo, the marketing presence — is now wholly owned and controlled by Mars, where the word and images are no longer a part of Milwaukee life, only another light in a constellation of past acquisitions, as this graphic shows.

(image from

What’s next, Colectivo?

UPDATE: Note that “el camino” translates to “the way,” and we can assume that the Fowlers and Paul Miller have, at this point, at least a rough familiarity with Spanish. A sly hint at a path out of the Mars/Alterra union?