Veterans have always been involved in the brewing industry, going back to the early days of the republic. These days, though, they’re more visible than ever, thanks to veteran-owned breweries with names such as Service, Honor and Young Veterans, and as liquor stores and bars across the country stock beers called Freedom Isn’t Free IPA, Devil Dog Stout or Boot Camp Brown Ale.
There are no hard numbers to track the number of veterans starting their own breweries: The Brewers Association, a national trade association for craft breweries, doesn’t track or ask about the service of brewery founders, says director Paul Gatza, but there’s no question that interest is growing. The annual Craft Brewers Conference, which draws more than 10,000 industry professionals to a different city each year, included a “Veterans Roundtable” this year for the first time, allowing brewers who’d served in any branch of the military to network, talk shop and trade advice.
In many ways, it makes sense that veterans would be drawn to brewing: As of Nov. 30, there were 4,144 breweries in America, the highest number in the country’s history and double the number in 2011. At the same time, the downsizing of the military means more veterans are looking for work and getting help through such organizations as the Jonas Project, a nonprofit group that helps turn veterans into entrepreneurs.
“A lot of us joined the military because it’s not just sitting in a cubicle, typing on a keyboard,” explains Casey Jones, the founder of Lorton’s 10-month-old Fair Winds Brewing, who graduated from the Coast Guard Academy and later became an instructor there. “For me, it was being out on ships. For others, it was being in the outdoors, mountaineering, or being active. We like to be doing different things. Here, we call ourselves brewers, but one day we’re brewing, the next day we focus on cellaring, the next day we’re working on packaging. That’s very consistent with my military experience.”
Sean Arroyo and his brother Ryan, founders of Heritage Brewing in Manassas, both joined the military but “had always talked about starting a brewery,” Sean Arroyo says. “We thought, ‘We’ll do 20 years, get out and do the brewery.’ Our military retirement, if you will.” But after four years in the Marines, during which time he began home-brewing, Sean Arroyo joined the Army National Guard and began working on a business degree. He later got a job in finance but realized “the financial world wasn’t for me.” He thought about joining the FBI, “but then sequestration happened.” He took that as a sign that he and his brother, who remains on active duty, “should go and do what we’re passionate about.”
Heritage opened on New Year’s Eve 2013 and has experienced “100 percent growth year over year,” Arroyo says, with hundreds of bars and liquor stores stocking Freedom Isn’t Free and Kings Mountain Scotch Ale. At the beginning of hockey season, Heritage opened a bar on the concourse at Verizon Center, offering a highly visible outlet for its beers.
In Virginia, the growing number of breweries owned and run by veterans includes Young Veterans in Virginia Beach, Bold Mariner in Norfolk and Fidelis Beer, which is based in Burke but brews its beers under contract at Beltway Brewing in Sterling.
Ian Schuster, the founder of the Schubros Brewery in San Ramon, Calif., and a Naval Academy graduate who served in Iraq and Kosovo, says similar breweries are sprouting up all over the country. Schuster led the roundtable discussion at the Craft Brewers Conference, where he met representatives from 30 breweries, from Key West to Seattle.
In October, Schuster and a group of veterans who’d met over beers at the CBC founded the nonprofit Veterans Beer Alliance. Schuster wants it to be a way for veteran-owned business to network or potentially share costs. As an example, he cites a conversation he had with Jeff Dieringer of the Fort Washington-based beer distributors DOPS. “The first 15 minutes was all about beer. The rest was what he did in the Army, what I did in the Navy,” Schuster says. Schubros recently reached an agreement to have DOPS handle the brewery’s upcoming launch in the District, Maryland and Delaware, thanks in large part to the connection between Schuster and Dieringer. “There’s a level of trust right off the bat,” Schuster says. “We understand each other’s history.”
If breweries with veteran ties are becoming more visible, it’s due in large part to the marketing, including the names of breweries and beers. Many breweries play up their connections for a simple reason: “No matter where we go, there are people who relate to veterans,” says Kevin Ryan, a West Point graduate who opened Service Brewing in Savannah, Ga., in 2014. “Their dad served or their next-door neighbor served or their grandfather was a vet.” Service’s beers include Rally Point Pilsner and Battlewagon Double IPA, but it also tries to appeal to non-veterans: The brewery’s motto, “How do you serve?” is featured on a large chalkboard in its tasting room, and visitors are invited to add their own response.
For Thomas Wilder and Neil McCanon, high school friends who opened Young Veterans Brewing in Virginia Beach in 2013 after serving in the Army National Guard and the Army and Army Reserve, respectively, their name is a response to a more existential question. One day, while working on a construction job he hated, Wilder asked himself, “‘Who are Neil and I? Who do we hope to represent?’ Well, we’re young veterans.”
Despite their adoption of the name, Wilder and McCanon, both of whom completed tours in Iraq, say they’re conscious that they walk a fine line. When you use the word “veterans,” McCanon says, “you represent a wide spectrum of people. In our labeling and our choice of names, we try not to overrepresent our military or our patriotism.”
“We try very hard not to wave flags or use red, white and blue on the labels,” Wilder adds. Instead, they use olive drab and labels styled as World War II propaganda posters to evoke what Wilder calls “the Greatest Generation feeling. It’s military, but it’s also nostalgic.”
Others agree: Ian Schuster says he heard from some veterans at the CBC roundtable who are concerned that breweries with overly militaristic names looked as if they were cashing in on their military service. Arroyo, of Heritage, served in Iraq but says that he and his brother initially discussed whether to tell anyone that they were veterans. “We’re happy with the exposure, but the much more important thing is making good beer. We want you to come out and have a great craft beer and say, ‘Oh, hey, these guys are veterans,’ not come out because we’re veterans.”
Whether or not they advertise their service, a tie that binds veteran-owned breweries is support for charitable causes. “One of the things that’s hard to root out of a military guy is that drive and that love of service to their country and community,” says Heritage’s Arroyo. “Any way that we can give back, whether that’s donating or doing an event, we’re happy to do it.”
Many specifically help organizations that help veterans. Every quarter, Service Brewing picks a different such charity to support. The brewery hosts a launch party for a new beer and donates a percentage of ticket and beer sales to its designated charity. Earlier this year, the beneficiary was Homes for Our Troops, which builds adapted homes for disabled veterans. After the fundraising, Service founder Kevin Ryan, who led two companies in Iraq, learned that “one of my soldiers from Iraq is going to be receiving a home from them this spring. It hammers home the importance of what we’re doing.”
Young Veterans hosts a monthly gathering at its brewery called Vet Noise, which uses beer sales, food trucks and live music to raise money for veteran-focused groups such as Fisher House and Dogs on Deployment. This month, the brewery held a food and supply drive for Vetshouse, which helps homeless veterans in Virginia Beach.
Other partnerships are more traditional: Battlefield Brew Works in Gettysburg, Pa., donates all the proceeds from its Red Circle Ale to the Red Circle Foundation, which helps support the families of special forces members who have been wounded or killed.
The smaller breweries, like many others across the country, are finding out that the next challenge will be growth. Young Veterans has received plenty of buzz, especially after Semper Fi P.A. won a bronze medal in the Best IPA category at the 2015 Virginia Craft Brewers Cup, but its beers are hard to find outside its hometown. “We’ve gotten a reputation for being a little bit bigger than we are,” McCanon says. “We have a three-barrel brew house and do about a thousand barrels a year,” which is a drop in a bucket compared to Virginia competitors Devils Backbone or Champion, let alone the big boys.
Service Brewing is sold in Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina, but Ryan says he regularly receives distribution requests from members of the military farther afield. “They’ve been [stationed] at Fort Gordon or Fort Augusta, places where we’re now available, and they move on [to another posting], and they want to get your beer where they are now.”