When most drinks lovers think of hard seltzer, our minds immediately go to skinny cans filled with sweet, fruit-flavored fizz. This image is exactly what Katie Beal Brown is trying to dismantle.
A Texas native, Beal Brown grew up drinking Ranch Water, a simple yet iconic Texas cocktail made up of tequila, lime, and Topo Chico. In keeping with the no-frills, rugged spirit of her home state, Beal Brown set out to create a product that reflected the values of her Texas roots. From there, she left her job in branding and advertising to start Lone River Beverage Co. — producing a Ranch Water-hard seltzer hybrid in a standard, non-skinny 12-ounce can.
Hitting shelves for the first time in April 2020, Lone River Ranch Water has already made its mark on the drinks industry, becoming the best-selling independent hard seltzer in the United States, according to Craft Brew News. The brand now offers three products: Original, Spicy, and Rio Red Grapefruit Ranch Water.
VinePair spoke to Beal Brown about the impetus behind and future of Lone River Ranch Water, as well as how she has managed a new brand in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
[Editor’s note: The interview has been edited for clarity.]
1. What led to your decision to change your career path and start Lone River Beverage Co.?
I grew up in West Texas, and my family has been out there for almost 100 years. My grandparents have a working ranch in far West Texas as well, which, if you can imagine, is even more remote than West Texas. We have been drinking a drink called Ranch Water out there for as long as I can remember. I would say it’s obviously gained a lot of popularity in the past few years, but before that, if you heard someone order Ranch Water at a bar, you immediately knew that they were from West Texas, or connected to it in some way. It was this cool cultural thing that was really embedded out there.
Right after we got married, my husband got a job in New York, we moved up there, and I felt homesick for West Texas. It was just such a cultural shift for me, going to such a big city with a different pace of life. As I introduced myself to people, I was trying to find ways to connect with them … and I started to get creative in how I told my story. Ranch Water, over time, became woven into that, and it became part of my identity in association with West Texas.
At the time, I was working in branding and advertising — I spent most of my career doing that — and I came across this legend of how the drink originated. It was concocted by a wild-haired rancher in far West Texas, and after drinking it, he followed miles of Texas stars until he was found asleep under a pinyon tree. After reading that story, I felt like there was this huge opportunity to celebrate the drink’s roots in far West Texas, tell that story to a bigger audience, and build a brand around the value set that is associated with far West Texas.
2. How would you describe that value set?
It’s really driven by a lot of industries that are very essential businesses in West Texas — farming, ranching, energy. Those industries instilled a certain perspective and value set in people — a no-frills, get-the-job-done attitude. I felt like there was this way to use that as the foundation of a brand. So that’s where it started.
As we got into it and were looking at how to create the product, we saw the hard seltzer category emerging, and as we were looking at where the growth was coming from, we realized that it was almost this sea of sameness. A lot of these brands looked and felt and tasted the same, with skinny cans and fruity flavors. So we saw this opportunity to carve out a point of differentiation by leaning into that rugged masculinity value set that’s associated with where the drink comes from.
The simplicity of Ranch Water lends itself nicely to the hard seltzer category, so that’s what it was born from. The drink is my go-to in a lot of different scenarios, but there wasn’t really a conveniently packaged way to have it around while engaging in a lot of the activities that we do in West Texas. When you’re spending 90 percent of your time outdoors, you’re not going to lug around a glass bottle of tequila and all of these complicated things to make the drink. You want something you can crack open and grab on the go.
3. What is the mission of Lone River Beverage Co.?
It’s about being proud of where I come from and celebrating the values associated with West Texas. In that way, it’s a lot more universal than just our small place on the map, and that has been the driving force behind everything that we’ve done.
We went to market in April in the peak of a global pandemic, and a lot of the chaos that ensued out of that really forced us to ask questions about what our brand stands for at a much earlier stage than I think a lot of brands typically do. It’s helped us crystallize that point of view and lean into that value set.
4. What’s the best part of your job?
A lot of it has been the community that we’ve built, and I have just loved connecting with a lot of people that have organically come across our brand. It’s been really fun for me to learn about a lot of these different people in the community that we’re building, and in some ways, let them influence our trajectory. It’s been a very interesting conversation.
We put this brand out there, and we positioned it a specific way, but a lot of the customers also have their own interpretations of that. It has been fun to see people taking our brand and making it their own, and having that one-to-one conversation with them through social media has been really powerful for us.
5. In what ways has your business changed in the last six months as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic?
It has definitely forced us to work with a lot of agility and be very flexible. I think the biggest impact is the rapid growth that we’ve seen, and having to support that on the supply chain side at a time when the supply chain across the industry has been disrupted by the global aluminum shortage. We’ve had to be resourceful in how we think about everything, not just saying, “OK, this is the way that it’s always been done. We need to follow these steps.” If there are limitations, there are limitations.
Being first-timers to the industry, it was a very steep learning curve, and there are likely places that we could have been more efficient. But I also think we have a completely different perspective that has allowed us to think out of the box and figure out solutions at a time when sometimes, it feels impossible.
For us, the challenge now will be that we’ve only operated in this very chaotic, out-of-the-norm environment. Next year will be very interesting as things start to normalize and we start to evolve as a business. Everybody says it’s going to be a “new normal,” that it’s never going to be like it was before. So maybe we’re just benefiting from the fact that we never really experienced the way it was before, and we’re already adapting to that new normal.
6. As a woman-owned business, have you experienced any negative pushback within the drinks space? If so, how have you handled these challenges?
A lot of my experience has been very positive. All of our partners have always empowered me, and I’ve never felt like they have underestimated me because of my gender. While maybe there’s a different picture painted in certain instances, so far, my experience has been really good on that side of things.
7. What is your long-term vision for Lone River?
I get really excited when I think about the Lone River platform that we’re building. We obviously will continue to grow in the hard seltzer category, but we’re also exploring some innovation around that. While there’s not a lot that I can reveal yet, we have such a strong vision and mission for our brand. That creates really nice guiding principles as we look at growth outside of our immediate offering and start to tap into new categories.
I love the idea of creating an experiential element of our brand and giving people a way to experience the “Lone River.” What does that mean? Where is that? What experiences come with that? And so I think even getting beyond alcohol, there’s a whole other element to our business that is obviously further down the line, but it’s a really interesting piece of it.
8. What opportunities are there for up-and-coming talent in your area of the industry?
In times of disruption that we’re living in now, the silver lining is that there is a lot of opportunity for talent that maybe wouldn’t normally exist. There are a lot of [new] businesses similar to ours that have benefitted from rapid growth during this period and are looking to build out their teams with the right talent. I’m sure that also on the more traditional side, because of the disruption that’s happened, there are a lot of opportunities that maybe didn’t exist there.
I think this environment has made a lot of people really stop and think about what they want to do with their career paths. And a lot of people have said similar things to what I said a few years ago: “I really want to build something myself, and this has given me the time to think about that and to get comfortable with exploring that.” That’s another angle that I think is driving a lot of that entrepreneurial spirit and helping people pursue the American dream.