Stop me if you’ve heard this craft beer origin story: A couple friends begin homebrewing and pals praise each batch, extending empty glasses for another glug from the growler. “That’s pretty good beer! You guys should open a brewery!”
In two decades of beer journalism, I’ve heard endless iterations of that tale. Maybe there’s a basement, a garage, work buddies, wild microbes plucked from some overgrown orchard. But homebrewing brothers-in-law Gino Graul and Jensen Ackles, who opened Family Business Beer Company in Dripping Spring, Texas, in 2018, added a new narrative twist: At the time, actor Ackles starred as monster hunter Dean Winchester on the CW show “Supernatural.”
Serving a Blood Red Ale and filling walls with Supernatural memorabilia was a limiting tie-in. “We recognized the importance of making a distinction between the brewery and its ownership,” says Graul, the CEO. Instead, Family Business hired a respected veteran of Austin’s (512) Brewing to help create beers like Cosmic Cowboy IPA and the Grackle imperial stout, the bright taproom complemented by a patio and playground. (The head brewer is currently Cosimo Sorrentino, a San Diego legend.)
Supernatural ended in 2020; Family Business endures. “If you make a great product, people will seek it out regardless of who sits at the head of the table,” Graul says. (His sister is the actress Danneel Ackles, Jensen’s wife.) “More often than not, celebrity-owned businesses are in name or ownership only. We take pride in being 100 percent hands-on.”
At liquor stores, it’s tough to fling a copy of “Us Weekly” without hitting a celebrity-owned wine or spirit. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson hawks Teremana Tequila. Jennifer Lopez peddles Delola bottled cocktails. Retired NBA star Dwyane Wade sells the Wade Cellars line of Napa Valley wines. There are plenty of collaborative celebrity beers, like wrestler Steve Austin’s line of Broken Skull beers made with El Segundo Brewing, but celebrity-run breweries are rarer than an adjunct-free stout.
For good reason. Opening a brewery isn’t a get-rich-quick gambit. Beer is a volume business with lower margins than spirits or wine, increasingly expensive raw materials, fragmented distribution partners, slow-to-develop brands, and a fickle customer base that wants brewery owners who are bought in with more than big bucks.
Craft brewing is largely a “culture- and authenticity-driven industry,” says Aaron Gore, the senior director of business development for Bevana Partners, which produces and distributes beverages for brands in Newton, N.C. By putting in hours on the brew deck, brewers can become celebrities. Can celebs flip the script?
To Succeed in Beer, Celebrities Must Contribute More Than Their Names
The recycling bin is filled with kitschy celebrity beer brands that traded mainly on name rather than marketing viability. Remember “Entourage” star Adrian Grenier’s Churchkey Can Company? Customers needed to pierce the canned pilsner with a pain-in-the-ass tool. Now-closed Hanson Brothers Beer Company created Mmmhops, a pale ale named after the siblings’ famous song that includes this prescient lyric: “Can you tell me who will still care?” A-list ownership is no guaranteed sales boost.
There are tens of thousands of beers available in today’s teeming marketplace, many of them amazing. A new one needs a solid reason for its existence. Super Bowl-winning Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, now a sportscaster for ESPN, understands the beer business better than the average celebrity or athlete. In 1986, as a college student at the University of Oklahoma, he delivered beer for a Miller distributor in Tulsa, and still retains industry ties. (Aikman later transferred to UCLA to finish his college career.)
“We absolutely have a steady flow of fans of Jensen and Supernatural that come to us from all over the world. In a way, we are their Graceland.”
As Aikman considered starting a brand, he opened his fridge for inspiration. “I’ve always been a light beer drinker,” he says. Light lager is arguably brewing’s most competitive category, but “it’s the only category that I would get involved in because it’s the only kind of beer that I drink.”
He cofounded Eight Brewing Co. in Austin, Texas, the company named after his former jersey number. Aikman contributes more than his marquee name. He helped develop the company’s flagship beer, Eight, a 4 percent ABV light lager with 90 calories and 2.6 grams of carbs per 12-ounce serving, the grains all organic.
The lager debuted in February 2022 with Texas-only distribution. Standing out amid the low-calorie scrum is tough, but Aikman is a valuable player on this new field. “They tend to take his call,” says CEO Doug Campbell, adding that beer is still fundamentally a relationship business. “You’ve got to have a partner who’s willing to step in and do the work.”
A Taproom Presence Can Benefit Celebrity Brands
Most celebrity spirit and wine brands only exist on store shelves and back bars. The craft beer industry prioritizes the brick-and-mortar experience, pouring fresh pints within view of gleaming tanks and equipment. Opening a taproom lets a celebrity-owned brewery cultivate a local clientele and serve as a pilgrimage site that, hey, happens to serve great beer.
“We absolutely have a steady flow of fans of Jensen and Supernatural that come to us from all over the world,” says Graul of Family Business. Fans will recount stories of how the show helped them through hard times, be it a cancer diagnosis or serving in the war in Afghanistan, conversations shared over rounds of Golden Age, a pilsner that won a silver medal at the Great American Beer Festival. “In a way, we are their Graceland,” Graul says.
Michael Waltrip is a NASCAR racing legend, a two-time winner of the prestigious Daytona 500. He once favored Miller Lite before tiring of beer. Been there, drank that. His friends suggested that he try more flavorful craft beers, a journey that led him to partner with pals on Michael Waltrip Brewing. The contract-brewed brand debuted in Arizona in 2020 with a trio of Two-Time beers, including a blonde ale, Mexican-style lager and coconut IPA.
Opening a taproom and brewery was never top of mind, but an opportunity in 2021 to take over a brewpub in Bristol, Va. — about a 20-minute drive from Bristol Motor Speedway, a famous NASCAR track — was too good to turn down. “That gave us the credibility of a celebrity band that’s in it for real,” says Bryan R. Sperber, the CEO and president. “This isn’t a hobby.”
“He knows his fans, and he knows the demographic that they’re targeting.”
Waltrip’s strong ties to racing have helped the brand appeal to fans of car culture. In August, the brewery hosted the Bristol Sunshine Festival that featured more than 500 cars, including hot rods and collector vehicles. Waltrip himself showed up to hang with fans drinking the brewery’s Bristol Sunshine Tangerine Ale and Talladega Light lager, classic rock and country music soundtracking the event. “I think we’ve done a nice job of capturing the flavor of a craft beer but keeping them drinkable somewhat like a Miller [Lite] always was to me,” Waltrip told Forbes.
The company is looking to expand its real-world retail presence, both with additional taprooms (“NASCAR clearly over-indexes in the Southeast,” Sperber says), and franchised locations that will serve Michael Waltrip beer. Instead of buying a bigger brewery, the company is partnering with Bevana to increase production and distribution of brands like Bristol Sunshine.
This lets the brewery place “their real focus on creating these consumer experiences,” says Gore of Bevana. “He knows his fans, and he knows the demographic that they’re targeting.”
Every brewery must meet a need, be it a town’s first taproom or a tangerine-flavored blonde ale that racing fans can crush. Rap group Nappy Roots opened Atlanta’s Atlantucky Brewing in 2022, and the Black-owned brewery is introducing pale ales and hefeweizens to a broader audience. Contrast that to Kelsey Grammer’s Faith American Brewing in New York State’s mountainous Catskills region, slinging yet another IPA to minor league baseball fans.
Celebrity involvement will entice journalists to write about a brand once. But star wattage eventually dims as a selling point. “Someday we will not be new news anymore,” says Eight’s Campbell. Any fermented liquid must stand on its own merits, hitting that sweet spot of price point and pleasure. Convincing customers that they should shoehorn another beer into their crowded drinking calendar takes effort, a long play in a world that celebrates the fast windfall.
“Even though you have somebody with a big mouthpiece, you still have to build a brand,” Campbell says. “There’s got to be a meaningful connection.”