Succeeding in the crowded craft beer landscape requires equal parts grit, passion, luck, and showmanship. It’s almost as if brewers are on display in the middle of a large wrestling ring surrounded by a rowdy crowd whose attention they need to capture. In one corner looms big beer, the villain, with all its money and power, looking for any angle to exploit. At the same time, other threats (hard seltzers, supply chain issues, and spirits) lurk just outside the ropes, ready to leap into the fray. It can make for high drama, and too often, we see craft brewers getting KO’ed as they shut their doors and leave the fight.
Luckily, El Segundo Brewing Company, known for its award-winning West Coast IPAs, found the perfect person to bring onto their team. Someone with a bit of history on the canvas, Professional Wrestling Hall of Famer ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin. Since 2015 the two have partnered to make Steve Austin’s Broken Skull IPA and introduced Broken Skull Lager in 2022. By leaning on each of their respective strengths, this duo has thrived. Their success has helped propel El Segundo to the top of the heap in the Los Angeles market, their hometown, where they are one of the largest independent brewers.
“The partnership with Steve has been nothing short of amazing. I mean, he’s the best partner you could ever ask for,” says Rob Croxall, the founder of El Segundo. “Our arrangement is simple. We split the mark on everything from production costs, to packaging, to sales, and whatever is leftover in profits is equally split amongst El Segundo and Steve.”
When Croxall founded El Segundo in 2011, the craft beer market was entering its golden growth phase. According to the Brewers Association, there were 2252 craft breweries in the United States in 2011; that number sat at 9247 by 2021. Even though California was a hot spot for craft breweries, Los Angeles was a bit of a ‘beer wasteland’ according to Croxall. San Diego and San Francisco were where all the action was at for drinkers. LA, known for its endless beaches and laid-back vibe, only had five independent breweries.
Setting up shop not far from the beach in the South Bay region of the city, Croxall focused on turning out the hop-forward West Coast IPAs that were starting to garner attention across the country. Business was good, selling fresh pints over the counter. El Segundo might have stayed on the sidelines if Austin hadn’t come visiting one day in 2014 with a friend of Croxall’s. Little did either know that they were about to form a fascinating tandem. One that would pair a self-professed surfing beer geek with a larger-than-life wrestling superstar known for smashing beers together and chugging them in the ring. Even the WWF couldn’t come up with a storyline this strange.
“So, Steve came to the brewery and spent the day with us and had a ton of great questions in terms of flavors and what he liked in a craft beer,” says Croxall. “Towards the end of the day, he told me that he was thinking about doing a beer with a brewery in Texas, where he’s from, but it wasn’t a good fit for him. So he asked me if we wanted to take a shot at doing a beer. My first reaction was I didn’t know how craft beer and wrestling would go together; they seemed so different. But I saw his passion for making a great beer and thought, ‘Why Not’? Let’s give it a try.”
It turned out that Austin had been thinking about launching a beer for decades. According to him, in 1998, he was close to launching one, Stone Cold Beer, during the heart of his professional wrestling career, but that fell apart at the last minute. A beer lover himself, Austin’s matches were infamously rowdy affairs where numerous brews were cracked open, and the liquid would end up soaking the canvas, fans, and other wrestlers in the ring. One would have thought that a major brewer would have reached out to partner with one of the most popular wrestlers on television, but he was a bit too rowdy back then, according to Austin.
When he retired from wrestling in 2004, Austin stayed in the public’s eye, appearing in numerous television and movie projects. During a trip to Los Angeles, he stopped in El Segundo and was impressed with what he sipped and knew that he had finally found the right person to partner with at last.
“It’s the perfect IPA for my tastes, and it stands on its own in any blind taste testing. That was most important to me, if I was going to attach my name to it had to be great, and it is, in my opinion,” says Austin. “That’s why I have always been happy with my arrangement with El Segundo. I love the beer business and am happy to have a presence in it. This is a passion project for me that makes both myself and El Segundo some money. It’s a win-win partnership for both of us.”
Riding on the positive momentum that Broken Skull generated from day one, El Segundo has steadily increased their presence in their home market and across the country. They brew 11,000 barrels annually, almost half of which is Broken Skull, and have distribution in 35 states. The revenue and name recognition that Broken Skull brings to the brewery has been crucial to its continued success. It has insulated them from recent market changes that have adversely affected the craft beer industry.
“I think the reality of selling craft beer is hitting right now in some places, so many smaller brands are being completely shut out of shelf space,” says Croxall. “The craft wall in stores that used to be so big is shrinking pretty quickly as corporately owned craft brands, hard seltzers, and RTD are taking space. It’s a tougher market these days than just a few years ago, but the demand for Broken Skull, along with our reputation, has set us up to succeed. Thank goodness for that because I love brewing beer and don’t want to do anything else.”
While other craft beers navigate their way forward in an increasingly competitive market, it seems that the tag team duo of Stone Cold and El Segundo will continue to be kings of the ring.