Written by Dale Neal for Citizen-Times.com
ASHEVILLE — After living and working in sweltering Miami, Brad and Sarah Pearsall were eager to move with their children to the Western North Carolina mountains back in 2008. The former lawyers just weren’t sure what they would do to pay the bills.
Beer turned out to be their best bet.
The Pearsalls didn’t join the growing number of craft breweries that have earned the city the reputation of Beer City USA. If the beer is better here, they thought: Why not use that better ingredient for an organic shampoo?
Lather, rinse, repeat. But success didn’t come that easily.
“We thought we would brew our own special brew just for shampoo. It turned out to be a disaster,” Brad laughed.
Meanwhile, Sarah was pouring plenty of beer on her dark hair, trying out different brands. “Beer doesn’t really clean your hair. It softens it, but it’s expensive, and it’s cold.”
But persistence paid off, and after a couple of years of experimentation, they finally found the right formula. Their startup company, Broo, with its signature line of shampoo using Highland Brewing Co.’s St. Terese’s Pale Ale as the prime ingredient, is catching on nationwide. After a year on the shelves of Earth Fare and now Whole Foods stores from the East Coast to Honolulu, the Pearsalls have seen their shampoo ranked as one of the top products at the Natural Products Expo West in March, and their company ranked as one of the top firms shaping the future of natural and organic industry.
This summer, they plan to announce more deals with national distributors that will double the number of stores carrying Broo products.Their latest marketing scheme showcases a “Six-Pack of Beautiful,” half a dozen little bottles in their own cardboard case.
Saloon to Salon
Getting from the idea of beer for your hair to a real product in a bottle proved a long undertaking with lots of research and development, the Pearsalls said. They lived off savings from their previous careers as lawyers until they hit on beer for their new business.
Brad is the son of Mack Pearsall, an Asheville entrepreneur who has been a mainstay of the HUB Alliance, encouraging new businessventures building on Asheville’s strengths.
When they first moved to town, Brad was intrigued by the HUB’s white paper on the wellness cluster, a group of businesses springing up around Asheville as a mecca for health and alternative healing, including natural products.
Recuperating from a nasty dog bite that nearly cost Brad his thumb had also convinced the family that natural was the way to go with their diets and personal grooming.
Unfortunately, their daughter hated all the expensive, natural product shampoos that Sarah brought home. Brad’s mom suggested they try beer.
Beer has been a beauty secret of women for generation, including former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who wowed America with her Camelot bouffant back in the 1960s. Jackie confessed that beer added body to her signature curls.
That’s when Sarah began experimenting with washing her hair with beer, but Brad wanted to know where the lather was.
After they settled on the Highland Brewing ale, they took their beer to the Natural Products Lab at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College’s Enka campus, trying to find the right blend of organic ingredients. They soon discovered that brewing beer was tricky enough — mixing up a shampoo without any of the silicone and other chemicals that give expensive salon treatments their performance was beyond their expertise.
“Something kept telling us that the craft beer movement was growing in the U.S. A natural product using beer made in Asheville would have instant recognition, but we were out on a limb. There was no guarantee,” Brad said.
“That was stressful,” Sarah agreed. “But it had to be a best-quality product to work.”
Finding the Formula
Looking for an expert, Brad drove to the Marriott hotel near the Charlotte airport in December 2009 to crash the Christmas party of the Carolinas chapter of Society of Cosmetic Chemists.
He found a Kannapolis chemist with a long background in conventional salon products.
Sarah admits to being a perfectionist. She handed over a list of 400 different ingredients that could not be used in the shampoo, if they had any hope of landing on the shelves of Whole Foods, Earth Fare and other organic grocers.
“By late 2010, we knew we had the right formula,” Brad said.
But what went on the outside the bottle would be as important as what went inside. They relied on friends and family to help dream up the whole marketing plan, design and look of Broo.
Earth Fare, the Asheville-based chain of organic grocery stores, took a chance on the Pearsalls’ Broo, placing their product in four stores in August 2011.
The product soon took off with contracts in Whole Foods and other retailers.
They fill up kegs at Highland Brewing and drive them down to Kannapolis to be manufactured into shampoo, conditioner — even body wash — and then bottled.
Even though Broo is made mostly out of beer, you wouldn’t want to drink the stuff.
“Unless you like the taste of soap,” Sarah said.
Asheville has been a great selling point for Broo, winning recognition from customers as far away as California, many of whom recognize the city’s growing reputation for craft beers.
Broo is adding staff. The Pearsalls plan to hire up to three workers locally, along with salesmen and distributors nationwide.
The dream is to bring the manufacturing to Asheville someday, creating even more jobs.
“What’s been really cool for me is being able to take a product made in Asheville and sell it across the country,” Brad said. “Second, it’s starting a company and creating jobs.”
Now, the Pearsalls are talking with other Asheville businesses, such as Selena Naturally with Celtic Sea Salt, Riverbend Malt House, even Troy & Sons with the locally made moonshine, coming up with new ingredients for new products.
“We’re taking every vice and making it nice,” Brad quipped.