Featured JUNE 2011 – by Patrick Sauer
TailGate Beer’s Wesley Keegan: Brewing Up Success
Wesley Keegan’s father gave him the idea to start a brewery. His passing gave him the inspiration to make it succeed.
Father’s Day is the day we trumpet all things Dad — and beers and barbecues are often central to the celebration. But that wasn’t always the point. The original Father’s Day, held on July 5, 1908, in West Virginia, honored the roughly 360 men who perished in the Monogah Mine Disaster, 210 of whom were fathers, leaving behind more than 1,000 children.
For Wesley Keegan, the combination of the original and modern Father’s Day traditions — reflecting on a father’s passing while drinking some suds — makes perfect sense. He’s the young owner of TailGate Beer, a San Diego-based brewery he started in 2007, while in college. His father, Tim, inspired him to get into the business, before passing away unexpectedly in the spring of 2010. Tim was, in many ways, Wesley’s mentor, sounding board and right-hand man. In other words, a father.
Tim’s legacy lives on at TailGate Beer, where Wesley honors his father’s memory by doing exactly as he did. And also, by doing the exact opposite.
At 25, you’re running a successful beer company. How did you get started?
Like a lot of people, I never sat down when I was young and said “I’m going to start my own business!” I’d always had odds-and-ends jobs. In high school, I ran a pool-cleaning business. While attending San Diego State University, I was part-owner of a bar, worked my way up from bar-back to running the place, and I was an ocean lifeguard. It all factors into me having my own company somehow.
So you’ve always been driven.
Hard work has never been an issue for me. I was always looking for ways to earn extra cash because we didn’t grow up with money. At one point we were on welfare and collecting food stamps. I was younger than 10, so it’s not like I could go out and help the family, but I remember my parents struggling. I let them know early on that they wouldn’t have to worry about me. I committed myself to education. I was the first in our immediate family to graduate college. I did my own thing to make ends meet.
When did craft beer become a part of your life?
In high school, some of my friends had boats — and there’s always beer on boats. I was never a heavy drinker, but I’ve always enjoyed the taste. I grew up near Chico and Sierra Nevada was the beer that was around. The Sierra wheat was my first beer. I started out drinking craft beer, which I didn’t realize wasn’t normal. When I started working at the bar, I changed up the tap handles to feature more craft beers. SDSU has a reputation as a party school, but we had a bland, watery selection. I was also a casual home-brewer, but if you had told me during my sophomore year that I would go into the craft beer business, I would have laughed.
When did you decide there was a future in it?
We brewed some beer and took it to the Great American Beer Fest. I was too dumb to know what I was getting into. I brewed beer that I liked and that other people enjoyed. In the world of craft beer, everyone has an opinion, but I stuck with what I liked. It wasn’t even a huge priority. We brewed in small batches. It was only a couple of hours of work, just for fun. I like intricate beers like Double Hops, but we kept it to the basics, wheat and pale ale. To me it was cooking, not chemistry. All I’ve ever cared about is making beer that can be enjoyed by everyone.
For a lot of entrepreneurs, college goes by the wayside when they find their niche, but that wasn’t your path.
I’ve always been a motivated guy. I don’t need people to tell me what to do and when to do it. In my teens, my dad turned his economic prospects around and became a very successful pool salesman in Southern California. He worked seven days a week, and I guess that’s where I get my work ethic from. Working kept me out of trouble. I was committed to graduating in four years because I paid for it. There wasn’t time to be a beach bum.
Entrepreneurs also frequently belittle what they learned in college. Is there anything you took from school that influences the business?
I have a successful uncle who was a Ford executive. At 19, I took a vacation to China to see him. He told me majoring in marketing or management didn’t make sense because I was good at those things. He said to focus on something I wasn’t good at, like math, so I majored in finance. It was the worst and best decision I ever made. Every day was really hard. I lived in the library my senior year, but what I got out of it is applicable every day.
Where did the idea for TailGate Beer come from?
It came about because of my dad. He was always an “idea guy,” and he came to me in college and asked what kind of job I thought I was going to get. I wasn’t really thinking about it. My dad said he had a name for a beer company. He was one of those dudes who had a new plan for a million-dollar business every week. I was like, “Sure, dad.” He said, “Trust me, Boy” — that was my name, “Boy” — “if you want the trademark, you can see what you can do with it.”
Wait, so your dad just went out and trademarked TailGate Beer on his own?
My dad was one of the greatest salesmen who ever lived, but he didn’t have the will to sit down, crunch numbers and do the paperwork, and he thought I could do it. So I did. When my dad applied for the TailGate trademark, Anheuser-Busch contested it. Eventually, the USPTO [United States Patent and Trademark Office] said the big boys didn’t have a leg to stand on, and we won the trademark. From a business standpoint, that stuck in my mind.
So then you had to come up with a beer to match the trademark?
I knew we had something with the name TailGate, but at the end of the day, the beer had to taste good. Getting recognition at the Great American Beer Festival and other competitions let us know we were there. People were wide-eyed that someone who had basically just started out was brewing such great beer. And everyone loved the name. In 2007, it was still easy to get credit, so we were off and running. I’m glad I kept my bar job, though. Right when I got serious about it, the economy tanked. I ultimately ended up putting in a couple hundred thousand dollars of my own money. I cut back expenses, paid bills at the beginning of the month and poured whatever I made back into TailGate. My good friends Visa and American Express really helped me out.
Where did you do your brewing?
Initially, we had a contract brewing arrangement with a place in Orange County, but we quickly had to expand. We were looking into building our own place when a friend of mine in the beer industry said, “It’s going to cost you $5 million and it’ll take a year to see if it works.” He owned a production facility in [Cold Spring] Minnesota, and told me I could go there and brew it all myself. The first time I flew up there was in December. I live in San Diego — I’m not made for that stuff. But we’re still in a partnership to this day. We’ve gone from 30 kegs to 200-plus. The demand is high and we’re selling everything we brew. It’s a dream come true. Plus, it put TailGate in markets like Minnesota and Wisconsin that I wouldn’t have gone after right away.
How did you originally get bars interested in TailGate?
Having worked in the industry, I knew a lot of people in town, so I would bartend at night and knock on doors during the day. In the beginning, it was tough because so many places were going under. We’d literally show up to places that were going to sell TailGate and they were closed. So we’d sell batch by batch. I knew what clicked because I could bring a keg into my bar and use the drinkers as a test market. Bars always want to know what other bars are carrying and since the kids at SDSU liked it, we had buzz. We got into a lot of great places likeLahaina Beach House, a famous San Diego beach bar where the Hell’s Angels used to hang out.
Talk about the significance of the name TailGate.
From the beginning, I was focused on creating a great brand. People in Wisconsin may not know what TailGate Beer is, but they know what tailgating is. My dad and I loved sports and we loved to tailgate. Even when we were poor and couldn’t afford to go to the games, we’d have a pre-party at our house before games. These days, tailgates serve cuisine, not grub. Tailgaters are preparing lobster and prime rib — we include a recipe with every six-pack, like our Beer Can Chicken — but too often, wash it down with watery beer. We position ourselves between typical domestics and the avant garde craft makers like Stone Brewing. Our beers are flavorful, but simple and not heavy like a Russian Imperial Stout, so you can have a few without filling up.
Is it true you have a relationship with “professional” tailgaters?
People don’t realize how enormous tailgating is. Tailgating celebrities like Jay the Tailgate Guy reached out to me to say, “You’ve got something here.” Jay has traveled the world and tailgated at every major stadium, so when he gave us a stamp of approval, it really meant something. There’s an American Tailgaters Association, a self-proclaimed “Commissioner of Tailgating,” Food Network spots, radio talk shows. Tailgating and craft beer are both billion-dollar industries, and we’re the only ones specifically combining them.
Why did you decide to bring out your beer in cans this year?
Even a year ago, the association with canned beer was either hipster or hillbilly, but people are catching on that a can is the best package for a craft beer, because it’s essentially a mini keg. Cans are better for the environment and it’s important to me that TailGate be as green as it can be, but the biggest factor is accessibility. Cans are more portable, better for golf courses, hiking, fishing and for parking lots. We’re not the trailblazers in the industry, but we’re on the newer side of the trend.
Can you put your dad’s influence into perspective?
He taught me, “No matter what, get up and go back to work.” Like I said, he was an idea guy, but nothing would ever stick. [Yet with his sales job] he went from being impoverished to making a couple hundred grand a year. He was trustworthy, and he was great with personal relationships. He knew how to treat people and he could talk to anybody, from the inner-city to Bel Air.
But the life lessons weren’t all positive?
No. If he were still alive, I would have no problem telling him that in certain situations, “You’re a great example of what not to do.” I used to tease him about that. I learned how to value a dollar because as fast as he made money, he spent it. He had his demons, liked playing poker. But he also had a big heart and took care of everyone by paying their bills. In the end, that $200K a year? He had nothing to show for it. He died broke at 56 from internal bleeding. He had no health insurance and never got it treated correctly. He was too young — it was shocking.
Has it been hard running TailGate since his passing in early 2010?
Sure. He was my confidante. He wanted to be hands-on, but I learned quickly how destructive he could be when I issued him a company credit card. But he was still the guy I leaned on. We spoke five times a day every day. He was there for me emotionally, like the time a bar owner told me it was the worst beer he’d ever tasted. Dad said, “Walk outside to the closest spot and sell TailGate to that guy by telling that exact story. Use it.” I think about him all the time. It’s like I got my right arm cut off. The cool thing is, TailGate Beer was the dream he could never fulfill. He kept saying, “This is the one, Boy. This is it.” We’re a company that can’t keep up with demand, selling beer in multiple states, and we’re rolling. He is at the root of our success.
Can you tell us about the recent “Can Cancer” charity event you held?
Our first TailGate tailgate charity event was actually to honor my mom, who is suffering from breast cancer. We held a “Can Cancer” party at Petco Park before the Padres game on Mother’s Day. We had brunch, Jay the Tailgate Guy, and we even raffled off a custom Padres tailgate grill, all to raise money for City of Hope. It was a huge success. The best part of the event was mom’s reaction. She was touched by the outpouring of support. For a lady who doesn’t get out much these days, that made it all worth it. After eight weeks of chemo, it was pretty special to see her glowing with happiness.
Any plans to honor your dad?
I would love to create a foundation, and name a beer after him. I’m going to do something for sure. Being able to give back is a big part of what we want to do at TailGate. We’re expecting to have our next charity tailgate in the fall at a Chargers game.
Any last thing you want to say about your dad this Father’s Day…
In his memory, I’m going to do it up Dad’s way. I’ll have ice cream for dinner and wash it down with a TailGate.