Beer maker puts can-do style into craft production

Former Auburn resident Wesley Keegan sells brews across the nation
By: Gloria Young Journal Staff Writer
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An Auburn native and Placer High graduate is brewing success in the craft beer industry. Wesley Keegan, who was also an assistant coach and then, in 2005, head coach for Auburn Recreation District’s Robalos swim team, is the CEO of San Diego-based Tailgate Beer. Keegan developed an interest in home brewing during his years as a student at San Diego State University when he also had a part-time job working at a bar. He actually had a name for his company years before he started the business. “My dad thought of the name Tailgate Beer in 2004,” Keegan said. Later, when he decided to trademark it, Anheuser, which was known as the tailgating beer, contested it. But, Keegan said, his dad succeeded in winning the name and then encouraged his son to make the most of it. In the early days, he’d make a couple of kegs, sell it to bars and restaurants and then use that money to brew more, gradually growing the brand. “I started real meager,” he said. “I did all the filing and paperwork. Nothing is easy in California. By the time we were up and running, the economy had tanked so everything changed — the way we wanted to do business and wanted to brew.” For the first three years, he sold the beer only in San Diego County. “Initially just kegs and bottles — hand bottling,” he said. “That is the cheapest way to package beer — the materials are cheap.” It soon began winning awards locally and state-wide. “We’ve won a lot of medals. We’re very blessed in that,” Keegan said. By the time he had accumulated enough of a financial base to open a tasting room, he had a bigger vision in mind. The combination of brewing technique, name, branding and interest the beer was generating made him want to take it beyond San Diego. “People in California know and understand tailgating, but getting (the beer) into the Midwest and South would really make the brand go,” he said. So he decided to take his production to a large brewing facility, choosing one in Wisconsin. “The first couple of years we made eight styles of beer,” Keegan said. “In Wisconsin we scaled back to two. … We came back with the lightest styles — our best selling products.” Those are Blacktop Blonde and Hefeweizen. It is distributed in seven states and Keegan is expanding to six more states in the next couple of months. Among retailers that carry it are BevMo, Whole Foods, Total Wines and AMPM. He’s also in talks with NASCAR to put the beer “into every racetrack in the country,” he said. He still closely monitors production. “I’m involved in every brew,” he said. This year he’s on track to brew and sell 20,000 barrels (one barrel equals two kegs), he said. Last week he signed on with Mussetter Distributing in Auburn to distribute the beer locally and throughout the region. He credits his success in part to finding a niche in the market — producing craft beer that sells at a price point between domestic labels and typical craft beers. Another unique factor is the packaging — 24-ounce cans. “Fifty percent of all beer that sells in convenience stores is in 24-ounce cans,” he said. “So having a craft beer in a 24-ounce can — the only one in the U.S. — that was just (good business sense). At concessions, it is inevitably going to be 24-ounce cans.” It’s a great idea, agrees Pete Aroz Jr. at Pistol Pete’s Brew and Cue in Downtown Auburn. During his visit to Auburn last week, Keegan met with Aroz and introduced the beer. “The idea of having craft beer in a can has been growing in popularity,” Aroz said. “Other companies have tried it. I don’t know how much success they’ve had with it.” The idea has a lot of merit because cans are recyclable and it keeps the product fresher, he said. “Normally when you do get something in 16- or 24-ounce cans, it is a Pabst or Bud Light,” Aroz said. “(Keegan’s Tailgate Beer) is a nice alternative for people into craft beers.” Pistol Pete’s will offer Tailgate Beer beginning rodeo week — the last week in April. Keegan will release two new products by next fall, with the goal of eventually having six styles of “5 percent alcohol, easy-to drink craft beers on the market at an affordable price.” “Light to dark — if you drink beer, we’ll make a beer for you,” he said. Reach Gloria Young at ------------ Tailgate Beer For more information see