James Banuelos has his fair share of stories about starting companies. He’s seen the ups and downs of entrepreneurialism within streetwear and action sports culture. Instead of shying away from the challenges he knows lies ahead, he’s taking them head on as he delves into his latest brainchild, Beach Grease Beer Company.
The fledgling San Diego brand launched in local accounts in late 2017, but had already gained a solid following outside of its home base, with a unique aesthetic that goes beyond a typical craft brewery.
Recently, the up-and-coming company has found a new home at an old brewery location in Vista, California, where they hosted a quiet opening to friends and family in March and are ramping up for a big grand opening this summer.
Beach Grease was born in a nondescript business park just a few miles up the street. Banuelos – a seasoned vet when it comes to starting companies that live in the fashion and streetwear space – has been learning along the way as he builds a flagship tap room and undergoes the obstacles associated with this type of business, including proper permitting for brewing, licensing and distributing beer.
It’s a whole new world, but Banuelos overflows with energy when he speaks about the limitless potential the new business holds.
“I wanted to build a brewery and beer company on my own terms, do it methodically, include the right people and really embrace the community – do the right thing,” he says about his idea to start Beach Grease. “Something that is indicative of everything I grew up around: old cars, motorcycles, tattoos, art, and surfing and skateboarding. It’s all of it.”
The juxtaposition of beatnik, underground culture is now coming together with the craft brewing culture under Banuelos’ creative eye (he’s been involved in the art scene for decades, with notable showings at the Oil and Water exhibitions at LA’s Known Gallery, and at the helm of art-inspired brands Us Versus Them and City Fog, and creative agency Big Like Giants).
There’s no detail overlooked in the new space, down to custom-made tap handles inspired by car models – each with a coordinating illustration for Beach Grease’s different beers. And with names like Surf Reaper IPA, Surf Zombie Hazy IPA, Surf Mummy Pale Ale, Tears of My Enemies Lager and Pistons & Palms Pilsner, there’s certainly no lack of creativity.
Early distribution for the beer was limited to about 50 accounts in San Diego county but has since exploded out to more than 100 accounts in the zone. The team also just acquired a second Sprinter van to self-distribute to Orange County, Banuelos says.
The initial curated offering on tap at bars in the San Diego and Orange County areas will be followed by the gradual expansion of bottled beer in liquor and grocery stores, Banuelos says.
He applies the same distribution model learned from his days working in fashion, creating demand and brand value,through segmentation and initial limited quantities. Beach Grease’s tier 1 accounts that carry beer on tap will get exclusivity to limited edition beers, along with high-end tap handle designs, which Banuelos makes in house using 3D printing.
After experiencing success in the apparel business, why is Banuelos now shifting his focus to beer?
In some ways, it’s the next step – the next challenge – that is a natural progression to the other businesses he’s run.
Each had it’s own set of obstacles – learning to deal with corporate buyouts and licensing in the case of his brand Us Versus Them (which was eventually licensed by Stussy), and then facing the opposite end of the spectrum by going completely direct to consumer with a brand Trustworthy, which Banuelos built and controlled out of his own garage.
With the beer industry, a new set of roadblocks are presented – but the challenges are reminiscent of what Banuelos overcame in his other businesses.
“In the beer industry, if you didn’t come from a multi-millionaire family or know somebody, you would never be able to get into this business,” he said. “I’ve figured out a way to use my background and accomplishments in business to build this.”
He also sees the untapped potential within the market. With cookie-cutter craft breweries around every corner, especially in Southern California, Banuelos sees a huge opportunity to stand out by providing a different kind of aesthetic than the typical exposed wood and glass look seen in most spaces.
He’s drawing on the sub-cultural pockets of California lifestyle (think hot rods and graffiti artists), and he’s partnered that with a quality, drinkable beer.
“If I’m going to spend $7 on a pint, shouldn’t I be getting something different?” he wonders about the current state of craft breweries. “Shouldn’t I be getting some type of experience from it? Especially here, in California – don’t we set the pace for the rest when it comes to doing cool shit?”
It’s not just about the breweries, either.
Banuelos sees Beach Grease as the perfect segue into the hospitality market, and already has plans in place for a unique chain of boutique hotels along the California coastline in iconic surf locations, that pay tribute to surf and skate culture, and feature old car memorabilia and other one-of-a-kind pieces. After that, he sees the model expanding globally.
It’s an ambitious idea for a relatively small start-up, but that’s never stopped Banuelos in the past.
“Have you ever heard that old saying, ‘They’ve got the guns but we’ve got the numbers?’ I think with social media and everything that’s going on politically in the world, if we stick together we have a lot of power.”
Banuelos is referring to the support the brand already has from various sub-cultural communities, which embody Beach Grease’s ethos. Despite market saturation, he believes this is the answer to breaking down a door in what has historically been a challenging market.
“This is really a David and Goliath story,” Banuelos adds. “These big companies will try to box me out, and the way I’m going to build this, there is no stopping it.”
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