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The first few emails from 888 Lucky Beer seemed like spam. But when another one arrived in late September, I finally clicked the link to its website, paugustin.com.
“Drink & Enjoy 888 Lucky Beers: Shipping Worldwide!!!” it reads in infomercial-like type. Below are photos of bottles, some with photoshopped labels, and a six-pack whose packaging depicts the White House and Washington Monument.
Scroll down and you’ll see the beer’s founder, Pierre Richard Augustin, in front of an American flag. Scroll further. There’s an ode to a tai chi teacher in China, an open letter to Barack Obama, and a promotion for shipping containers—20 pallets each—full of beer. The company behind the beer calls itself AdMerk Corp., and there’s a photo of an imposing glass building at 20 F St. NW, labeled as its headquarters. Translate buttons are available for Chinese, French, Spanish, and Haitian Creole.
“888 Lucky Beer to be Sent Off Out to Space and Back to Earth,” reads another section of the website.
I emailed back to find out where the beer was available.
“Hello Mam Jessica,” began the robotic response, which included tidbits like “How to enjoy 888 Lucky Beer? Just pour 888 Lucky Beer a bit into a glass and let it settles. Then breathe in the aroma of the finest ingredients and take your first sip of the exotic flavor.”
Then a few hours later, after 3 a.m., a response in another email: “This is Pierre Richard Augustin, the owner of the brand 888 Lucky Beer,” it read. This one seemed real. “I am available to answer any questions.”
* * *
Augustin showed up at a Starbucks on K Street wearing a beige knit vest over a blue button-up and carrying a large bottle opener on his keychain. It turned out that my initial communications were not with him, but with one of his three virtual assistants in the Philippines. The Haitian-born 48-year-old man in front of me was apparently a former exporter and private detective who unsuccessfully ran for public office before going to China, where he was inspired to start a beer company.
Augustin tells me he left Haiti for boarding school in Paris when he was 10 years old, then moved to Brooklyn, New York in 1981. He says he has a Masters in Public Administration from Suffolk University in Boston and an MBA from the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He says he ran an export business bringing fabrics and computer products from the U.S. to Haiti from 2002 to 2005 but stopped because of the country’s rash of kidnappings.
Augustin says his other past businesses included a security company that didn’t take off and a private detective company—both of which were licensed in D.C. as AdMerk Corp. In 2014, Augustin, a father of four who lives in Upper Marlboro, ran as a Democrat for a seat on Prince George’s County Council, but he earned only 613 votes and lost.
And now… beer?
Whereas most D.C.-area beer companies try to bolster their local cred, Augustin initially planned to sell his beer exclusively to China. “In 2017, that’s going to be the biggest beer market in the world,” he explains. The logistics haven’t exactly worked out yet, so Augustin decided to enter the local market. The company’s “headquarters” are actually a Capitol Hill conference center where he rents space for meetings.
Peabody Heights Brewery, a contract brewer in Baltimore, produces the beer based on a recipe that Augustin says he developed as a homebrewer. Right now, 888 Lucky Beer has just one style, an IPA, which launched in August. Future releases have names like Victory, Wealthy, Prosperity, and Dynasty.
A couple of weeks before meeting Augustin, I picked up a six-pack for $11.99 at Imperial Liquors near Farragut Square. The beer is available in a total of four D.C. liquor stores as well as three bars or restaurants. Augustin says he’s invested close to $100,000 in the company and will be looking for investors for future expansion.
Augustin spent a month in the Sichuan province of China last February and decided to launch 888 Lucky beer after experiencing the beer culture there. “They like Americana, so I wanted to offer something from the United States, especially something from Washington, D.C.,” he says.
During his trip, Augustin met a tai chi teacher name Jane King on an online travel forum called Chongqing Expat. She offered to teach him tai chi in order to practice her English. Augustin always wanted to learn kung fu as a kid. Tai chi? Close enough. He was in.
Augustin showed me a bunch of photos of King and her family on his phone while telling me how touched he was by the way they welcomed him. The two met on Feb. 8, and knowing that eight is a lucky number for the Chinese, Augustin named the beer “888” in her honor.
But not wanting it to be mistaken as an Asian beer, he says he decided to put the White House and other D.C. landmarks on the packaging “to give it a local flavor.” The packaging also includes a blurb about the “secret formula” and how the Central Intelligence Agency and a list of 10 other global intelligence agencies “cannot find out our closely held private trade secrets.”
In D.C., at least, the beer hasn’t exactly taken off yet. An employee at North Sea Restaurant in Adams Morgan says they bought a case but haven’t sold any yet. Meanwhile, Sudhouse co-owner Allison Farouidi says Augustin emailed her in September and asked if the U Street NW bar would host a tasting. She says she initially thought the emails were spam. Then, he started calling and calling. Finally, she agreed.
“People thought it was a really good IPA,” she says. But she didn’t end up keeping the product because it was a little too expensive and she found the branding to be, well, “weird.” “He’s constantly going out of the country to do promotional tours. I don’t know, girl, it was just random,” she says.
Augustin also wants to open a brewpub or a brewery in D.C. with an “Asian flavor.” Last week, he sent an email imploring me to talk to two partners at Squire Patton Boggs law firm whom he’d met with “to discuss accessing up to $10 million from the DC Revenue Bond program” for his brewery. One of those attorneys, Alethia Nancoo, says it was a preliminary meeting to go over potential financing options. Augustin has not yet retained the law firm. Nancoo didn’t have much to share but says “it’s a great concept.”
In the meantime, Augustin still has his eyes set on the Asian market—and beyond. The tai chi teacher he met helped translate parts of his website into Chinese. He translated it into French and Haitian Creole, and he outsourced the Spanish to a translator he found online. “We are positioned as a global brand,” Augustin says. “Yes, it is a local brand, but I’m going aggressively on the global market.”
To bolster this claim, Augustin says he recently travelled to Taiwan, where he says he met with nine food and beverage importers and distributors. His Filipino virtual assistants arranged the meetings with the help of a script that he created. “That’s my global outreach,” he explains. “They email the media, the buyers, the restaurants, the hotels, the grocery stores in whatever city that we’re targeting… They’re really my conquest arm, if you will.”
This week, Augustin says he’s in Shanghai as part of what he calls “the global tour of 888 Lucky Beer.” Next year, he wants to go to trade shows in Singapore and Japan.
* * *
In case none of this is far-reaching enough, there’s always outer space. Toshiba, for one of its commercials, sent a chair into the upper stratosphere. Why not do the same with beer? Initially, Augustin planned to get a weather balloon and other equipment to do it himself. He even found a guy online who charged him $15 to create a “breaking news” video commercial about the launch.
But a logistical concern has temporarily foiled the beer’s lift-off: “I cannot guarantee that it will not fall within restricted airspace,” Augustin says. “It will be intercepted, and I’ll be in hot trouble.”
Now, he’s looking into using JP Aerospace, the same operation that sent Toshiba’s chair to the edge of space. The California-based company will send people’s stuff—from margaritas to bonsai trees—up 100,000 feet with a high-altitude balloon and take photos and video along the way. Space-bound voyages for small plastic boxes go for as little as $340. Augustin isn’t yet sure how much it would cost to send a whole beer bottle, but he’s not deterred.
Actually, he doesn’t seem to be deterred by the limitations of any of his ideas, no matter how wacky they might seem.
“The first people I talked to, they said ‘You don’t stand a chance against the big boys,’” Augustin says. “I wasn’t scared. It’s adventure. I like adventure. It’s a challenge. I like challenges.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery