At some tailgates, college football fans crack open an ice-cold Bud Light or Corona before the game.
University-licensed beers—usually ales developed by a local brewery, sponsored by a college or university and sold on tap in community restaurants and in cans at local stores—are not an entirely new concept. Colleges have a history of licensing their mascots and logos—including, increasingly, to breweries, which can provide a helpful, if relatively small, revenue stream while also creating excitement around the institution’s brand and strengthening community partnerships. Just this year, Kansas State University; Pittsburg State University, also in Kansas; and the University of North Dakota have launched branded beers.
One athletic director, Mario Moccia of New Mexico State University, estimates that about 45 institutions have established a branded beer; he has been collecting collegiate beer cans since NMSU launched Pistol Pete’s 1888 Ale in 2017.
Despite some benefits, not every institution has jumped at the opportunity to sell its own beer. In some cases, the sale of alcohol is still prohibited at university events, making it impossible to peddle the product to a key market. In others, critics have raised concerns about an institution lending its name to beer given the prevalence of underaged drinking and alcohol abuse.
Such concerns recently came to a head at Virginia Commonwealth University, the latest institution to attempt to roll out a branded brew.
VCU launched its golden pale ale, Ram Bam, Oct. 26, despite an outcry from some campus community members. A day later, the university decided to stop production of the beer.
Critics argued that the university was being insensitive by licensing a beer so soon after the death of Adam Oakes, a student who died of alcohol poisoning on campus during fraternity hazing in 2021. Some faculty, staff and students also pointed out that it contradicted the values of the university, which houses the Institute for Drug and Alcohol Studies, a research institute dedicated to studying addiction and substance abuse.
VCU had to change its trademark policy to allow the licensing of an alcoholic beverage—which it did even though the University Council–Academic Affairs and University Policies committee, a group of faculty, students, staff and administrators that provides policy guidance to administrators, voted unanimously against making the change, according to Everett Carpenter, a VCU chemistry professor and president of the university’s American Association of University Professors chapter.
Carpenter said he understands why some people might not consider it a problem for the university to license an alcoholic product. In fact, he himself didn’t go into the committee meeting feeling strongly about the matter.
“There were several like myself who, at the time—I didn’t really care. I like beer, beer is fine, we have other universities in the state doing it,” he said.
But as the group discussed the policy, several people brought up Oakes’s death and concerns about what the beer would communicate to the student body about VCU’s views on alcohol usage. Carpenter said that made him realize the policy wasn’t appropriate—certainly not right now, and possibly ever.
“Since then, I’ve been looking at this more from a bigger lens,” he said. “I don’t think it’s necessarily in the best interest of universities to brand alcohol.”
Substance abuse–prevention advocates agree. Rick Birt, president and CEO of Students Against Destructive Decisions, a nonprofit with campus chapters across the United States that advocates for student health and safety, said that university-branded beers serve to embed alcohol into an institution’s culture, often while the institution does little or nothing to discourage dangerous drinking habits.
“I worry about this message when we start branding alcohol the same way we brand T-shirts,” he said. “It really takes the culture to the next level.”
VCU spokesman Michael Porter said that the branded beer was originally intended to help—not hurt—students by funding scholarships. Nevertheless, the university heard the negative feedback and shut down production a day after it began.
“VCU’s branded beer initiative was created with the best intentions: to fund student scholarships,” Porter’s statement read. “After hearing from members of our university community, including the family of Adam Oakes on Wednesday, we have paused this initiative. Although product is in market already, we will work with our partner to stop production, effective immediately. We value our community and have taken this action based on their concerns.”
Hopping Off Shelves
Still, many colleges have rolled out beers without much, if any, backlash and, in some cases, have successfully sold the product for many years.
The University of California, Davis, was a collegiate beer pioneer, launching its first brew in the summer of 2011. The product, Aggie Lager, was intended to produce $25,000 each year to go toward student scholarships, according to a press release put out at the time.
Production of the beer, in partnership with local Sudwerk Brewing Co., was paused after a few years. But UC Davis and Sudwerk teamed up once again in 2017 to produce Gunrock American Lager—so named, as many of these beers are, for the institution’s mascot, a blue mustang—which is currently available at sports games as well as at retail locations throughout the county.
According to Rocko DeLuca, athletics director at UC Davis, sales of the product at sporting events rival those of national beer companies.
While the extra revenue is beneficial, DeLuca said that when UC Davis relaunched the beer in 2017, the university was more focused on strengthening its existing partnership with Sudwerk, which hosts the brewing concentration within the university’s undergraduate and graduate food science and technology programs. It also hoped to bolster the university’s brand, in part by having an alum create the recipe using locally farmed rice.
“The main goal was to find a win-win, not just to roll out a beer to make money,” DeLuca said. “The financial piece was basically third place.”
Beth Cianfrone, a professor of sports administration at Georgia State University and co-author of the book Branding in Higher Education: Every University Tells a Story (Carolina Academic Press, 2021), said that although most universities will face some opposition to a branded beer, some campuses are more likely than others to embrace the product.
“Like any marketing partnership that you do have, the school should know the culture of their campus and their community, and they should probably read the room. Be aware of what’s happening on campus,” she said. “What might work at a big football program–type school might not work at a smaller school, and vice versa.”
If institutions want a new alcohol product to be successful, they need to do market research to ensure it will be accepted by stakeholders, she said. Putting a portion of the revenue toward something that would benefit the community, like health programs, could also benefit the university’s image if it decides to brand an alcohol product.
UC Davis now puts revenue from its beer toward its agriculture department, while sales of NMSU’s Pistol Pete’s benefit athletics. According to Moccia, NMSU’s branded beer has been especially successful; the Collegiate Licensing Company, which provides licensing services to 200 institutions nationally, told the university it had the second-highest sales of consumable merchandise last year.
DeLuca said that he hasn’t gotten any negative feedback on UC Davis’s beer, while Moccia said he’s received about three negative emails on the topic since the beer was launched five years ago—a minuscule number, he said, considering he regularly gets angry messages from fans complaining about things like cold popcorn.
Both UC Davis and NMSU have made efforts to divorce their branded brews from underage and irresponsible drinking. DeLuca said that when UC Davis first started licensing beer, officials made sure it was not marketed directly to students. And NMSU tries to give all its products—which include wine, whiskey and some nonalcoholic consumables like pecans and coffee—a story that connects it to the university or to the history of New Mexico, in an effort to make the product about alumni pride rather than about alcohol and drinking.
“We try to weave all this stuff into Aggies and how they came to Las Cruces in the ’30s. We have a story on the back of our wine bottle about how New Mexico was one of the first places to have wine brought over by Spanish monks,” Moccia said. “I understand that the alcohol thing kind of dominates the thinking … but I think it you look a little deeper, it’s about the connectivity to the alums.”