Rugged cowboys riding horses in wide open spaces. A fire crackling alongside a Lone River that symbolically snakes through the high desert of Far West Texas. Assisted by “Follow It West,” a national TV advertising campaign featuring “Yellowstone” actor and Grammy-winning musician Ryan Bingham, the Texas-born and bred Lone River Beverage Co. and its lineup of agave-style hard ranch seltzers perfectly captures the pioneering spirit and tenacity of the American West.
For Lone River Beverage Co. Founder and CEO Katie Beal Brown, who was born and raised in Midland, Texas, the startup company she launched in spring of 2020 is rooted in a deeply personal way of life. The beverage company not only honors her family who have been riding the range as Texas ranchers for nearly 100 years, but also embraces the working class ideals of the Lone Star State.
“My grandparents own a working ranch in Far West Texas and we’ve been drinking a cocktail called ‘ranch water’ out there for as long as I can remember. It has even been deemed the ‘unofficial drink of West Texas’ — traditionally made with a mix of soda water, tequila and fresh lime juice,” the fourth-generation West Texan explains.
“… What I quickly learned after launching in April 2020, was that our brand resonates with people well beyond our small place on the map,” she continues. “I think because it represents a set of values that transcend our part of the country — one that is emblematic of the pioneering spirit that built the American West.”
Noting that it’s no easy feat to launch an alcohol beverage company, let alone during a pandemic, Beal Brown says the biggest challenges are centered on the company’s ability to learn how to quickly scale the business and keep up with demand during a global pandemic.
“So, as I’m sure you can imagine, in our first year we experienced disruptions across nearly every part of our supply chain,” she says. “Fortunately our lean team was very agile and resourceful, never taking no for an answer to get our product to market.”
Beal Brown also credits an incredible group of family, friends and investors for “taking a bet on us,” helping to fund the first production runs before many of them had even tasted the product itself.
“This approach worked very well for us but also came with a different kind of pressure in that it was never an option for me to let these people down,” the 35-year-old CEO says. “We originally started distributing in our home market, Texas, and Tennessee where we felt there would be a strong product-market fit. This allowed us to start small and gather valuable insights from our most likely consumers. We knew we were onto something in these markets, when we surpassed our yearly projections in the first three months.”
Founded with a trifecta of authentic taste, quality ingredients and a heavy dose of adventure while meeting the demand for low alcohol and low calorie ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktails, the company’s first product — Lone River Original Ranch Water Hard Seltzer — features simple, quality ingredients like agave nectar and lime juice with 80 calories and 4% ABV in a full-flavored, RTD 12-ounce canned cocktail.
Leaning into ranch water was a given for Lone River’s malt beverages because the cocktail originated in Far West Texas.
Folklore also served as inspiration for the new product innovation.
“While the true origins of ranch water can’t be traced, legend has it that a wild-haired rancher from Far West Texas first concocted it in the 1960s. The spirit of the drink had him following miles of Texas stars until he was found asleep under a piñon tree,” she explains. “We created Lone River Beverage Co. as a platform to package this drink to give people a taste of Far West Texas and build a brand that tells the story behind it. Having spent most of my career in advertising, I was fortunate enough to have the tools and resources to do just that.”
Authentic origins from the heart of Texas
With a Bachelor’s degree in markets and culture from Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Beal Brown and her husband, Tyler, a Houston native and seventh-generation Texan, moved to New York City in 2013 where he pursued an opportunity in private equity real estate, and she continued to grow her career in advertising. In Brown’s case, however, it eventually became crystal clear that you can take the woman out of Texas, but you can’t take Texas out of the woman.
While in New York, the seeds of creating her own company with down-home roots began to percolate. In 2019, Beal Brown left her job, returned back to her hometown and established strategic goals to not only create a company but to differentiate her RTD brand from what she calls “a sea of sameness.”
“I think growth in the hard seltzer category has been driven by what I call a ‘sea of sameness,’ commoditized products versus brands,” she explains. “We saw an opportunity to go beyond just focusing on the product attributes the category hangs their hat on (low calorie, new flavors) and build a western lifestyle brand that connects with consumers on a deeper level through a universal value set. This is the type of connection that breeds loyalty and long-term, sustainable growth.”
A year after launching her alcohol company, Beal Brown was recognized in Inc.’s 2021 Female Founders 100 list for “building a brand that sells.” In April 2021, her so-called “little brand” also caught the eye of London-based multinational beverage alcohol company Diageo, whom she calls “a world-class partner who believes in our vision to bring the spirit of Far West Texas to as many as we can.”
From ad executive to beverage founder, Beal Brown’s story, which details how Lone River went from startup to acquisition to national distribution in under 18 months, also has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Adweek, Forbes and Fox Business.
In addition to the Original Ranch Water, Lone River now has four full-flavored hard seltzers in its portfolio that are all 4% ABV and 80 calories:
- Spicy Ranch Water, a made-with-a-kick spicy seltzer featuring agave nectar, lime juice and jalapeño flavor.
- Rio Red Grapefruit Ranch Water, made with agave nectar, lime and a Texas-sized squeeze of Rio red grapefruit juice.
- Prickly Pear Ranch Water, which is inspired by the Prickly Pear cactus fruit found in the high desert of Far West Texas.
For now, one of the brand’s most requested flavors, Prickly Pear Ranch Water, can only be purchased in 12-ounce cans in a 12-pack variety pack for a suggested retail price of $17.99 at major retailers throughout the U.S., Beal Brown says.
Not only is Beal Brown grateful for the diverse communities across the United States who have embraced Lone River, she credits the distribution muscle of Diageo with the brand’s expanded distribution.
“In less than a year, we’ve expanded from four to 49 states across the U.S. Through our expansion, we’ve seen a ranch water category form around us that we are leading as the No. 1 ranch water in the U.S.,” she says, citing New York-based Nielsen.
“And we are just getting started. We see so much potential in the overall growth of the category, with agave seltzer currently representing 96% of total hard seltzer growth,” she notes, citing Nielsen. “You can see this impact as Lone River has started to become a more significant player in the hard seltzer category, now as the No. 8 hard seltzer brand in the U.S.”
While the majority of the company’s nearly $21 million in sales for the 52 weeks ending Dec. 26, 2021, originated from traditional off-premise retail channels with year-over-year growth of nearly 452% as per data from Information Resources Inc. (IRI), eCommerce also is bringing the “no-frills taste of West Texas” to more consumers at home, Beal Brown says. In fact, the brand ranked as the No. 1 craft hard seltzer sold on delivery platform Drizly, she adds. In Texas, Lone River namesake products have reached a 3.8% share, outpacing all other ranch water and agave seltzers in the state, according to Nielsen data.
A quintessential Texas portrayal
Lone River Beverage Co. also has famously boosted its presence through the aforementioned “Follow It West” TV spot, which launched in August 2021 to support the brand’s national rollout. It stars “Yellowstone’s” Ryan Bingham, who hails from Texas and plays Walker, a former prisoner and ranch hand on the Yellowstone Dutton ranch. Not only does the multi-talented Bingham star in the commercial, the singer-songwriter handles the musical score, which includes strumming the steel-string acoustic guitar and playing the mournful harmonica.
In a deep, gravelly voice, Bingham’s catchy voiceover states: “So follow the Lone River where the agave heart does beat, follow the Lone River if you can stand the heat. For you can hear the whisper, there’s a freedom that you seek. The same goes if you’re thirsty and want a cold drink. Lone River Ranch Hard Seltzer — Follow It West.”
Beal Brown enthuses that Bingham felt like such a natural, organic partner to help Lone River Beverage Co. tell its story on a grander scale. “His music has been the soundtrack that has inspired so much of our journey, and we immediately connected through our shared roots in Far West Texas,” she explains. “It was really important to me that everything we brought to life in our new campaign ‘Follow it West’ feels authentic to our way of life and there was no faking it with Ryan. He is the real deal when it comes to cowboy’ing, during the shoot he was out there roping and riding with the best of them on our ranch.”
In addition to TV spots and sporting a natural tie-in to the “Yellowstone” cowboy drama, Lone River Beverage Co. made a large investment to advertise during Paramount Network’s No. 1 blockbuster hit “Yellowstone” Season 4, which boasted more than 15 million viewers for the Season 4 finale on Jan. 2.
Besides the TV commercial running during “Yellowstone,” “Follow It West” is supported by a robust media spend and is fully integrated across digital, social, audio, out-of-home and point-of-sale, the company says. It also had a sizable presence at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas last December, where Bingham was introduced to many of the company’s original supporters.
“Our relationship with him has felt so natural and organic. Because of that we wanted to look for as many ways as possible to tie our stories together,” Beal Brown explains. “For example, you’ll notice on our TV spots the voiceover and music are both from him. We also had a great time attending the National Finals Rodeo with him last year in Las Vegas, where he was able to meet so many of our original supporters.”
Disrupting and evolving
Lone River’s easy-drinking twist to Texas’ classic cocktail continues to disrupt the beverage industry and as RTD alcohol beverages proliferate, Beal Brown and her team see great potential for the brand. She points out that the agave-inspired seltzer category in particular currently represents 96% of total hard seltzer growth as per Nielsen data.
“I think the category is still very much in its infancy and I’m excited about the growth potential in the coming years,” she says.
In the beyond beer market, Beal Brown says she’s “beyond excited” to grow its product portfolio beyond Ranch Water with a new classic cocktail scheduled to arrive at retailers this spring: Lone River Ranch Rita.
Described as a fuller flavor, higher 6% ABV Margarita-style beverage made with high-quality ingredients, Lone River Ranch Rita is formulated to give consumers the real taste of a Margarita while taking audience engagement to the next level.
“Our ambition is to grow the agave-style malt category as a whole both through our core and with innovation,” Beal Brown explains. “The Margarita is one of America’s most beloved cocktails. So it was a natural space for us to explore and one we can authentically own given that the cocktail was also originally invented in Far West Texas, which not everyone knows.
“… With such a beloved cocktail, we wanted to get as close to what people love about the real thing as possible,” she continues. “What I love most though is that there is a story here for consumers to connect with, we know we won’t win on flavor or product attributes alone. It hits shelves nationwide in a few short weeks and I can’t wait to hear what consumers think.”
While a background in branding/advertising has certainly helped Beal Brown launch a successful beverage company, she is thankful for the encouragement and support of many women and men who embraced her mission. She hopes to serve as an inspiration for others the way her fans on social media have provided inspiration and insight on new product development.
“Having a direct line to our consumers through social media has been so valuable,” she says. “I use this consistently as a tool to help shape the future of our brand and product.”
She advises people thinking about entering the beverage business to take the time to think about the brand’s value proposition to the consumer and how it differentiates the category.
“Crafting this narrative is the most important thing that you’ll do. It makes you think about why you’re doing this and if it will be worth it because it is not an easy road. But if the narrative is simple and powerful it will keep you and those around you moving forward,” Beal Brown says. “We still have a lot of opportunity in the emerging agave-style space. But we were built as a challenger brand and it wouldn’t be true to form if we didn’t continue to challenge new spaces and categories. More to come.”