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Braxton Brewing Company started in a garage; now takes its place on horse racing’s biggest stage

By Mark Hansel
NKytribune managing editor

When guests order the official beer of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Churchill Downs in a few weeks, it won’t be a Budweiser, or a Miller Lite.

Co-founder of Braxton Brewing Company Jake Rouse at the Tap Room on West Seventh Street in Covington. The family refers to the space as “The Garage,” an homage to the place where the fuse for the successful business was lit (photo by Mark Hansel).

The official beer partner of the 2018 Breeders’ Cup World Championships is Covington’s own Braxton Brewing Company.

The story of how the Covington brewing company went from being a trendy spot in Northern Kentucky to becoming a key player on horse racing’s biggest stage in just three years is nothing short of remarkable.

It is the culmination of several leaps of faith that began when the Rouse brothers believed that the beers brewed in the family garage on Braxton Drive in Union, Kentucky, could find an audience in an industry that includes more than 7,000 breweries.

The story of how Evan Rouse’s passion for brewing beer, which included developing the first IPL in the 400 year history of Hofbrauhaus, combined with his brother Jake’s entrepreneurial spirit, launched the successful Braxton Brewing Company has been told often in the last few years.

The senior leadership team, which also includes founding members Greg Rouse, the chief operating officer and Brewmaster Richard Dube, has never been afraid to take those big leaps, including the unlikely marriage of beer with ice cream.

Still, believing they could wrestle the Breeders’ Cup beer sponsorship from the large national brands seemed like a herculean task, even for this team.

Jake Rouse explained how they managed that coup and also talked about where Braxton Brewing Company has been and where it’s headed.

“When we heard the Breeders’ Cup was coming back to Churchill Downs, we reached out and were really intrigued to figure out how we could work together to make the official beer a Kentucky beer, because typically it is a massive domestic brand,” Rouse said. “Fortunately the Breeders’ Cup folks were really interested in telling that story as well. Kentucky is the birthplace of (North American) thoroughbred racing and from our end, I think it just had a ton to do with, ‘how do we tell our story better?’”

Braxton Brewing Company Co-founder Evan Rouse, whose penchant for brewing beer was the inspiration for the brand that was chosen as the Official Beer Partner of the 2018 Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs (provided photo).

Associating Braxton Brewing Company with an event that features the finest-quality thoroughbred horses in the world, they believed, would demonstrate that its products occupy a similar place on the international beer stage. It’s a message the company really wants to share in the coming year and the Breeders’ Cup seemed as good a place as any to start.

“We reached out to them,” Rouse said. “We basically said, ‘We know this is typically a really big domestic brewer’s event, but if you’re open to hearing our (proposal), we’re interested in making it a Kentucky local event and telling that story. Fortunately, they were.”

Braxton has developed a limited specialty beer, Breeders’ Cup Golden Ale, for the event. It is described as being inspired by the passion, energy and determination of the talented thoroughbreds competing in the 2018 Breeders’ Cup.

“The beer is a really beautiful golden ale,” Rouse said. We wanted something that was really approachable and easy to drink and that’s what we created in this beer – it’s crisp, it’s clean, it’s refreshing. It’s a low (alcohol by volume), so it comes in at 4.8 percent and it just celebrates everything about high-quality beer and that’s the story we’re trying to tell.”

While the cost associated with the partnership is not insignificant, Rouse believes the return will make it worth it.

“The investment wasn’t terribly bad, for us, from a marketing perspective,” Rouse said. “We get to put our brand in front of 150,000 people from across the globe onsite and there’s a ton of promotional value in this partnership.”

That’s in addition to the estimated 2 million television viewers likely to catch a glimpse of Braxton Brewing Company in the paddock between races.

“We are building a beer garden in the paddock for the Breeders’ Cup and we plan to activate that in a really big way,” Rouse said. “I think that ultimately, for us, the spend wasn’t too crazy, especially for what we are getting. We are getting the brand in front of so many people on race days and all of the events leading up to it, will help to drive a really unique story line as well.”

Braxton developed Breeders’ Cup Golden Ale, a limited specialty beer, to serve at events during Breeders’ Cup week and on race days. It is available now in Northern Kentucky and other select markets

Other vents where Golden Ale will be served include the Post-Position Draw on October 29, the Breeders’ Cup Welcome Party at Tavern on Fourth on November 1, and Taste of the World, Breeders’ Cup’s annual culinary extravaganza that celebrates the international appeal of the World Championships.

“Taste of the World is an incredible event and I’ve never been, but I’m certainly looking forward to that this year,” Rouse said.

The team at Braxton has been working on the partnership and the idea of a signature beer for about four months, but momentum really picked up in the last few weeks.

Breeders’ Cup Golden Ale was announced in late September and it will be available in Louisville, Lexington and Northern Kentucky in the weeks leading up to the racing weekend.

Braxton Brewing Company’s distribution reach is from Columbus, Ohio to Nashville, so the goal of the partnership is not to immediately expand into new areas, but increase exposure in existing markets and create name recognition in other regions.

Rouse explains how his brother’s penchant for making beer in the garage led them to the Tap Room on West Seventh Street in Covington.

“We chose this area because we fell in love with Covington’s growth story,” Rouse said. “That was easy to do because this city has undergone an incredible transformation in just five years. We’re very fortunate that we played a role in that and this street has really become a hub of downtown Covington since we’ve been here. We’re really proud of that.”

For a couple of guys who grew up in Northern Kentucky, the business was about creating successful craft beers, but it was also about helping Northern Kentucky, and especially Covington, continue to develop an identity. Because of that, being a strong community partner is a critical part of the company’s business model.

“Covington has embraced us and we have spent a lot of time embracing them and donating our space to organizations,” Rouse said. “It’s a key tenet of who we are and a big tent pole to the company as a whole.”

Being a strong community partner has been a cornerstone of the Braxton Brewing Company business model from the beginning. This Global Entrepreneurship event is one of many the Tap room has hosted in recent years (provided photo)

For those who frequent downtown Covington, the Tap Room, referred to by its founders as the garage, is a space that has become a common meeting place for everybody.

“That’s why we open at 8 a.m. and serve coffee,” Rouse said. “You get all walks of life come in here – the mayor has meetings here, different business and community leaders meet here. We try to be that good steward for the community because it’s all about making this a great place to live work and play.”

Of course as with any successful business, delivering a quality product makes everything else possible. Braxton Brewing Company does a lot of limited releases, partly to find out what works.

“Right now we have 20 different beers on tap here at Covington headquarters, but then we have the innovation facility in the back of the Party Source called Braxton Labs,” Rouse said. “That has, at any given time, 20 products that we do in small batches. With any of those we look to hear from our customers whether it’s something they want us to scale up.”

At any given time Braxton could have 40 different beers, but usually no more than nine in package.

“What it comes down to is creating products that really matter and for us, we want to create a product that really does a great job of bringing a new flavor to life,” Rouse said.

That’s a big reason why the now famous ice cream and beer partnership was developed.

“The Graeter’s Black Raspberry Chip Ice Cream Stout and Pumpkin Pie Ale really are two players that we felt could play well in the beer space,” Rouse said. “Partnering with the Grater’ family in using the highest-quality ingredients and learning from them, we were able to create brands that get people really excited. That’s what it’s all about, creating products that get people excited to come in and try a beer and hopefully gain a connection to what we are doing here at the brewery.”

Braxton Brewing Company is also about to undertake an expansion that will include a significant investment in Covington.

“I’m incredibly fired up about that and we’ll be able to announce that in November,” Rouse said. “It’s going to really solidify our brewery as a place for beer tourism and that’s really important. At the end of the day, we see close to 100,000 people come through this brewery every year and that’s really special.”

The goal is to continue to build on the company’s successful business model, but also to help grow the area.

“We’ve got some amazing restaurants right here,” Rouse said. “We’ve got Alto (Pizza Kitchen + Bar) right next door, Agave & Rye, Pepe Cucina right across the street and all of these people are making an investment to create an amazing downtown atmosphere. We think we are at a great tipping point and we hope our announcement later this year will really push us over the top and we’re going to have something really special.”

Braxton Brewing Company has come a long way in a short time but co-founder Jake Rouse said the company will announce another expansion in the next few weeks (provided photo).

The more immediate focus, however is to maximize the opportunity presented by the Breeders’ Cup partnership.

“In the paddock, you will see our big sprinter van down there pouring five or six different beers, you’ll see our Breeders’ Cup Golden Ale on tap and in cans all throughout the grounds at Churchill,” Rouse said. “It’s just going to be an amazing 25 races (14 Breeders’ Cup contests) across two days and I’m just really excited to see everything come to life with the thrill of horse racing and we’re just honored to be a part of it.”

Braxton Brewing also plans to activate the Tap Room with a Breeders’ Cup event for people who can’t make it to Louisville.

“We’ve partnered up with Maker’s Mark, the official bourbon of Breeders’ Cup, and they are going to be doing some cocktails here,” Rouse said. “We think the Kentucky Home is probably going to make a surprise visit as well.”

The Kentucky Home is Braxton’s annual ode to the Kentucky Derby. It’s a popular bourbon-barrel-aged imperial golden ale with mint that tastes like a mint julep.

“It’s delicious and we’ll probably be bringing that back just for the Breeders’ Cup,” Rouse said.

While the Rouse brothers are thrilled with the company’s success, they are not patting themselves on the back just yet, because there is more work to be done.

“The coolest part about Braxton for Evan and me is just the impact we have had on the city,” Rouse said. “We never thought when we launched the business that it would be so impactful, we’re really fortunate that it has been and we don’t take it lightly. We continually, in our leadership meetings, ask how we make sure we are doing right for Covington and our neighbors and what can we do to amplify the message.”

Contact Mark Hansel at mark.hansel@nkytrib.com

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