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Joe Vogelbacher

Sugar Creek CEO, Joe Vogelbacher, Deployed to Afghanistan as Sister Battles Rare Cancer

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On May 16, the CEO of Sugar Creek Brewing Company in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve, Joe Vogelbacher, got a call that he was being deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan.

As part of the reserves, you always know there’s a chance you’ll be called to serve. Joe fully understands and accepts the duty, and in less than two weeks, he’ll leave his wife, three kids — 6, 3 and 10-months — and his post as CEO at the less-than 2-year-old brewery (nearly a toddler itself) and report for duty.

While an unexpected call to service will shift anyone’s world, it’s not just the thought of leaving his wife and kids and the brewery. He’ll also be leaving behind his sister, Michelle Pratt, a working mother, who learned in the last six months that her Cholangiocarcinoma cancer had returned.

“When I found out that news, I thought she wasn’t getting out of the hospital,” he says. Cholangiocarcinoma cancer is rare. Less than 3,000 people in the U.S. develop the disease every year, according to the American Cancer Society. There is no cure.

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Michelle’s original diagnosis in 2011 is what initially brought Joe and his family back to his hometown of Charlotte.

“About four years ago, she had 65 percent of her liver removed. They said it was a 50/50 shot of surviving the surgery,” he says. “She survived and did chemo. She did radiation. She was getting scans every three months. She was a survivor.”

So after four years living cancer-free, the most recent diagnosis has been particularly hard to swallow, but Joe says his sister has “put on a happy face” and is fighting every step of the way. She eventually got out of the hospital in the spring and went back to work as a nurse practitioner.

Michelle, a married mother of three, goes to work Monday through Wednesday, has chemo on Thursday, recovers on Friday, then has a blood transfusion Saturday or Sunday, then heads back to work on Monday.

“She’s an amazing woman,” he says.

Homebrewing as Therapy

Michelle’s stamina and grace undoubtedly leaves an impression on Joe, who is no small achiever himself. From his career as a merchant marine engineer to an entrepreneur who built a $5 million boutique construction supply company in New Jersey that survived the 2008-2009 recession, even as his top five customer accounts went under.

The stress of owning a business and keeping it afloat for the livelihood of 30 to 40 employees during the recession “took years off my life,” he admits. He feared Monday mornings, knowing he’d have to lay off employees and dealing with vendors without having a cash flow from customers. Sundays starting bringing mild anxiety attacks.

A family friend recommended he start homebrewing at his Jersey home to keep himself busy on Sunday nights. He took the friend’s advice. He brewed nearly every Sunday, a type of therapy to fend off the anxiety, and he had more than enough beer to share with clients, family and friends.

When old high school friends in Charlotte were thinking about investing in a brewery, they called Joe to consult on construction, knowing that he also liked to brew beer. Joe started gravitating toward the idea of being more to the brewery than a consultant; and with Michelle’s diagnosis, his path back to Charlotte, and to what would eventually be the opening of Sugar Creek in October 2014, became clear.

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Preparing to Leave

“I love a challenge. I love obstacles. I love trying to hurdle over them and see what I can do and cut my teeth on the really difficult stuff,” he says.

The next phase of “really difficult” in his life has already started. As the CEO of a young brewery, his job changes every day, so it’s hard to prepare anyone to fully step into his role. He’s doing the best he can to prepare, hiring a handful of new brewers, and prepping brewery vice president, Eric Flanigan — a Marine Corp veteran himself, serving one tour in Iraq and another in Afghanistan — for some of the extra load.

While he’s gone, the brewery family will step in and do what they can to help Michelle and her family. On Saturday, November 19, Sugar Creek will host Michelle’s Mighty Mission, an all-you-can-eat Low Country Boil community dinner with beer and an oyster stout homebrewing contest, benefiting Michelle and the Cholangiocarcinoma Foundation. The event’s homebrewing contest winner will collaborate with the Sugar Creek Brewing Team to brew their winning recipe on the brewery’s 15 barrel system. The winning oyster stout will also be served on draught in the brewery’s taproom. Tickets are available now.

Between now and his deployment, Joe will also fly to Chicago to sit for the Advanced Cicerone® Exam. It’s a goal he set for himself that he wants to see through, no matter how ill-prepared he feels. But for those who know Joe Vogelbacher, or even spend 40 minutes on the phone with him for an interview, they wouldn’t expect an ounce less.

Jess Baker walked into a beer fest in 2010 and realized beer had come a long way from what her dad had been drinking since the 70s. She served as editor-in-chief of from spring 2016 to spring 2020, bringing you stories about the people who are the heartbeat behind U.S. craft brewing. She's a runner, a die-hard Springsteen fan, a mom who is always scouting family-friendly breweries, and always in search of a darn good porter. 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 do not imply endorsement by or positions taken by the Brewers Association or its members.