In honor of Veterans Day, we’re highlighting a few veteran-owned breweries from across the United States. These breweries represent just a few of the dozens of veterans who have transitioned from serving their country to serving their communities. Their success speaks to the unique leadership and management skills that these veteran-owners picked up during their military service.
14th Star Brewing, St. Albans, Vt.
Vermont’s 14th Star Brewing arose from Steve Gagner’ and Matt Kehaya’s need to alleviate boredom while stationed in the remote mountains of Afghanistan and their desire to imagine a post-war future. The two friends filled time between dodging rockets and mortars by mapping out a plan to turn their homebrewing hobby into a full-scale brewery.
After returning to the U.S. in 2011 to continue their military careers, Gagner and Kehaya were still kicking around the idea and began putting realistic costs and details to the rough estimates they had scribbled in a green army notebook. Ultimately, Gagner’s wife pushed them to march over the final hill and open a business. Says Gagner, “My wife finally said, ‘Are you going to do it or not? I’m tired of hearing about it.’ So we thought screw it, let’s try it.”
At first, the founders worked their military day jobs while simultaneously running the brewery. For Gagner, this meant waking up at 4 a.m., checking the brewery, commuting to his full-time job, returning home to his family, then making a late-evening check on brewing operations and emails. At the time, the brewery was only open limited hours, primarily weekends.
Both owners recently retired from decades-long military careers to devote more time to the brewery and other passions. Like many former servicepeople, Gagner believes that skills learned in the military contribute immensely to managing and operating a business. “In terms of leadership and management, I think the military uniquely positions people to be entrepreneurs and business leaders,” he says. “It was remarkably translatable. When you’re in the service, even though you don’t realize it, you’re part of the world’s best leadership education program.”
Gagner also believes that military training prepared him and Kehaya for brewing quality beers. “Our time in the military taught us how to systematize and manage procedures. Only when you have that understanding of the processes and the system can you make those small changes and innovations to bring new products to market.”
For former Army Infantry Officer Gagner and 1st Sgt. Kehaya, Veterans Day inspires an appreciation for current and future generations of servicepeople. “So many young men and women each year commit to serve others. I don’t know that there’s a greater gift that anyone can give,” says Gagner, adding, “I’m remarkably grateful for what those servicemen and women pledge to do.”
With their military service behind them, Gagner and Kehaya have strengthened their focus on using 14th Star to serve locally. “It’s part of our mission statement to help out communities, both the local community and the veteran community,” says Gagner.
14th Star’s largest annual fundraiser supports the Josh Pallotta Fund. Pallotta served with Gagner and Kehaya and later took his own life due to PTSD. The fund, started by Pallotta’s parents, supports a wellness and recreation space for veterans along with outreach and suicide prevention programs. The brewery also creates brews that support specific non-profits across a wide range of causes from Alzheimer’s to adaptive sports to food banks.
Launch Pad Brewery, Aurora, Colo.
Colorado’s Launch Pad Brewery grew from a similar connection born of military service. Founders Dave Levesque and Henry Rusch met while working for defense contractors after their military duty. Levesque served in the Air Force as a nuclear missile maintainer and intelligence specialist. Rusch served as an intelligence specialist and currently serves in the reserves. The two bonded over their shared military backgrounds and became best friends.
A longtime homebrewer, Levesque said his friends commented that his pumpkin beer was better than anything commercially available and suggested opening a brewery. The thought stuck.
“I started writing a business plan and asked my best friend Henry if he wanted to start a brewery. He informed me he didn’t know anything about beer, so I asked him if he had good credit. He said yes and that is how we started Launch Pad,” jokes Levesque.
On a more serious side, Levesque and Rusch noticed that for veterans, leaving the military meant leaving a tight-knit community where everyone shared common experiences. “One of the things missing was the camaraderie and family feeling you have while enlisted. By creating a brewery, we were able to attain that feeling again, everybody coming together and enjoying something as a crew/family,” says Levesque.
The owners intentionally located the taproom near Buckley Space Force Base where it serves as a hangout for servicepeople and civilians alike. In addition to space-themed brews, the taproom reflects the community’s military connections. Patches from different branches of the military cover the wall behind the taps. Meanwhile, televisions show footage of rocket launches.
Launch Pad also partners with the local Wings Over the Rockies air museum to furnish the taproom with scale-model versions of rockets and satellites along with other historical references. The brewery has even extended its hours to host live launch watch parties.
Naturally, Launch Pad supports military-related organizations. The brewery hosts meetings for the Colorado Defense Counsel and events for Buckley SFB. It also hosts fundraisers for the Colorado Freedom Memorial, Colorado Freedom Hunters, and American Heroes in Action among others. Says Levesque, “We try to be as involved with veteran/military/first-responder groups as possible, and we have a monthly donation that we provide to a lot of these organizations.”
Launch Pad’s founders realize that their armed forces background offered uniquely applicable training for running a brewery. Says Levesque, “You must be able to transition and pivot in a moment’s notice to a changing environment. Having to manage employees is another daily requirement. These are all skills that were taught in the military.”
For Levesque, “Veterans Day is a significant holiday for us at the brewery to remember all active members and veterans of all military branches and first responders. It provides an environment for individuals to come together and share experiences and stories about their lives and service. It also helps create that family/camaraderie-type environment that was lost when leaving the active force.”
Service Brewing, Savannah, Ga.
Service Brewing in Savannah, Ga., also celebrates veterans in its taproom and through community involvement. Co-founder and Army veteran Kevin Ryan started homebrewing with a kit that his wife, brewery co-founder Meredith Sutton, gave him. He enjoyed the creative aspect of brewing and also wanted to create a community gathering space. After connecting with like-minded veterans who became investors, Service Brewing was born.
Ryan explains that his time in the service in many ways influenced his passion for brewing. “Brewing is all about working with your hands, creating something from the raw materials available, nurturing the beer through the brewing process, and being able to execute with precision. Discipline and precision are two principles both the military and brewing process share.”
He also believes that military experience offers excellent preparation for the unexpected challenges that brewers face, both in brewing and managing a taproom. According to Ryan, flexibility and adaptability are critical. “Adapt and overcome! We learn that early on in the military and it applies every day in the brewery, regardless of how much planning we have conducted.”
Themed beer names and the décor infuse military concepts throughout the brewery. The taproom includes murals with military designs, light panels made of stretched parachute material, and a riveted, zinc-wrapped bar that mimics the exterior of a fighter jet.
True to its name, Service gives back to the community. The brewery partners with numerous nonprofits, and of course veteran-focused organizations feature prominently. Says Sutton, “Every six months we choose a veteran/first responder charity to donate a portion of every pint we sell in our taproom.” So far, the brewery has donated over $250,000 to charities like the Warrior Music Foundation and Veterans Healing Farm.
Ryan eloquently sums up the sentiments of all the veteran-owners we talked to. “Veterans Day is a celebration of those who have dedicated themselves to a greater cause. All veterans have made sacrifices in support of their country and community in some way. We celebrate our veterans every day, but Veteran’s Day is that one day a year where the spotlight really shines in celebration and thanks for our veterans.”
CraftBeer.com is fully dedicated to small and independent U.S. breweries. We are published by the Brewers Association, the not-for-profit trade group dedicated to promoting and protecting America’s small and independent craft brewers. Stories and opinions shared on CraftBeer.com do not imply endorsement by or positions taken by the Brewers Association or its members.