There’s more to brewing than making good beer. A good beer needs balance; it needs distinction. Brewing good beer requires commitment, decisiveness and the ability to adapt and overcome obstacles.
It’s no wonder, then, that many of our country’s most determined are behind some great beers across the country. From a Black Hawk helicopter crew chief-turned-New Jersey brewer, to the Vermont brewery conceptualized during a deployment in Afghanistan, these veteran-owned breweries stand on their own merit.
14th Star Brewing Co.
St. Albans, VT
With more than 40 years of combined Army service, Matt Kehaya and Steve Gagner laid the groundwork for their Vermont-based brewery quite literally on the battlefield.
“While in Afghanistan, Matt and I were stationed at a small patrol base in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan,” says Gagner. “We had no power, no running water and certainly no internet.”
The duo had a lot of downtime between their duties, and spent it discussing their post-Army goals.
“We decided that we wanted to start a business together and slowly build it into something that would not only support our families in retirement, but allow us to spend more time together,” says Gagner. “We started to jot down ideas and concepts that would eventually become the business plan we wrote.”
Currently, the duo serves as active-duty infantry while running 14th Star Brewing Co., which they opened to the public in 2012 and named in honor of their home state.
“I think I am a better businessperson because of my time in the service and, conversely, a better Army officer because I am an entrepreneur,” says Gagner. “The self-discipline we’ve learned in the Army certainly helped in the building and growing of the business, and, as an Army officer, I benefited from experiences at the brewery where we faced uncertainty and had to develop novel approaches and out-of-the-box thinking to address them.”
Gagner and Kehaya often spend Veterans Day at the brewery, since they also celebrate their company’s anniversary that day, but this year Gagner will be toasting alone since Kehaya is currently deployed overseas.
Service Brewing Co.
For Kevin Ryan, the beer that started it all was a New Belgium Fat Tire. “That kick-started my taste buds and there was no turning back,” he says.
The name was inspired by the act of giving back, whether it’s service to your country or your community, Ryan says. After graduating from the United States Military Academy in 1996, he served as an infantry officer for eight years and left the military in late 2004 after commanding two companies in Iraq.
His time in the military taught him to adapt and overcome, two traits he credits for his success during tumultuous times. “2020 was a true test for everyone and we brought our creative juices to the forefront to push through,” he says.
This year, in time for Veterans Day, the brewery is launching its Freedom Machine IPA in cans. The hazy/juicy IPA is dry hopped with Yakima Chief’s “veterans’ blend” of hops, where $3 of every pound of hops sales goes to K9s for Warriors.
Altruism is tied to nearly every aspect of the business, Ryan says. “We give a portion of every pint sold in our taproom to a seasonal charity that supports active duty, veterans and first responders. Since our first day opening our doors, we have given over $200,000 to charity.”
At Ease Brewing Company
Colonel Mike Conrad spent years perfecting his brews at beer competitions while serving as an engineer in the U.S. Army. In 2006, after 27 years of active duty, he retired from the service. He opened At Ease, his very own brewery, in 2019.
“My daughter had about 10 years in retail,” he says, “and, after attending several beer conferences and visiting numerous breweries and taprooms, we decided that we could pull it off.”
It was a complex process.
“The buildout of our brewery took almost a year since we converted 2,000 square feet of indoor space that was a property management office to a functioning brewery and taproom with two restrooms and indoor and outdoor seating,” he says.
Conrad chose a name he thought would resonate with all his customers, whether they had a military background or not. However, the military-green exterior with helmeted hop stickers slapped on nearby posts is a clear nod to those who serve, as are beer names like Army Brat Brut IPA, Basic Training Pumpkin Spice Ale and Brigadier Summer Wheat Beer.
“Pilots from Beale Air Force Base are big supporters, so we had a U-2 Rye Saison and they helped us name our golden stout, Hands of Gold,” he says. “For Veterans Day we brew an IPA with a special blend of hops from Yakima Chief that they call their Veterans Blend. We call the beer DD-214, which is the Department of Defense form you receive once you retire from the military.”
Bombs Away Beer Company
When John W. Degnaro starts something, he goes all in. In his military career, that meant devoting 14 years of his life to his service in the United States Air Force, during which he spent time in both Iraq and Afghanistan and worked as an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) technician before he ended his contract as a master sergeant.
As a brewer, it meant building an entire business from scratch with his wife and co-owner, Hilary A. Degnaro.
Bombs Away Beer Company began long before the brewery opened its doors in 2017, when Degnaro could often be found teaching himself the brewing process alongside his EOD tech buddies.
“We made a lot of beer on a 1/2 BBL pilot system in my garage pre-brewery and gave it away in exchange for feedback,” says Degnaro. “Once we purchased the brewery property, we completed as much of the renovations ourselves as possible. We left plumbing and electrical to the professionals, but we built everything else.”
The Degnaros constructed the tables, crafted the bar and pieced together the brewery mainly from salvaged materials and used equipment collected while John was still on active duty. Dog tags engraved with the name of the beer hang beneath each tap as a nod to his veteran roots.
“We have a ‘buy a veteran a beer’ board,” says Degnaro. “Anyone can pre-purchase pints, and any military vet can redeem one.”
Brews rotate as frequently as Degnaro and his brewing team come up with new recipes for gluten-free options, sours, dunkels, wits and more, but local favorites remain the Proximity Pilsner and Bombs Away IPA.
608 Brewing Company
La Crosse, WI
Ten years ago, if you’d asked Phil Humphrey if he might brew sours and breakfast stouts for a living one day, he’d never have believed you.
“I started homebrewing around 2012,” says Humphrey. “I always wanted to have my own business when I was growing up but hadn’t found exactly what I wanted it to be until I got really into brewing and won first place in the national homebrew contest regional. That really got me thinking that my beer is actually good and it’s not just my neighbors and friends being nice.”
Humphrey opened 608 Brewing Company (the name nods to his La Crosse area code) with his wife, Lorie, and close friends Danielle and Ryan Beach in August 2018. He and Danielle served in the Wisconsin National Guard together, and the couples grew close during their deployments to Iraq and the Gulf Coast of the U.S. after Hurricane Katrina.
Humphrey says his years of service helped him develop his maxim for running his business. “Be prepared to get up early because you never know what obstacles are going to extend your day,” he says.
Backward Flag Brewing Co.
Forked River, NJ
A backward-facing flag adorns every bottle brewed at Backward Flag Brewing Co. in Forked River, New Jersey.
“It’s a symbol of always moving forward, never retreating,” says Founder Torie Fisher. She opened the brewery in 2015 after a 13-year career in the U.S. Army and New Jersey Army National Guard, where she deployed to Iraq twice and served as a Black Hawk helicopter crew chief before retiring as a staff sergeant.
“One of the pilots in my last unit was a homebrewer,” says Fisher. “Just one Sunday brewing at his home sparked the interest.”
Fisher’s drive to challenge herself led to her sitting for her Certified Cicerone exam, and she now wears the coveted title with the same pride as a military rank.
In addition to its creative menu, which includes the S.T.F.U. Coffee Pale Ale brewed with vet-owned Black 6 Coffee, the brewery’s main focus is peer support for the veteran and first responder community. Backward Flag has its own nonprofit, Arms 2 Artisans, that provides veterans with the skills to transition from military life to one behind a brew tank.
“Give a veteran a beer and you’ll have quenched their thirst for a day,” says Fisher. “Teach a veteran to make beer and you’ll give them the unquenchable thirst to thrive.”