August 21, 2013

Iraq veterans find new freedom in opening craft beer brewery

By Michael Felberbaum / The Associated Press

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Two Iraq War veterans eager to slake a growing American thirst for craft beer are setting up a brewery less than a mile from the main runway for the Navy's East Coast master jet base. Their beers have names like Jet Noise Double IPA and Pineapple Grenade Hefeweizen. And their motto strikes a military chord: "Brewing With the Freedom We Fought For."

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Neil McCanon, an Iraq War veteran and head brewer at Young Veterans Brewing Co., adds water to the brew kettle as he prepares to brew Pineapple Grenade Hefeweizen at the Virginia Beach, Va., brewery.

The Associated Press

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Thomas Wilder, Young Veterans Brewing Co. president and an Iraq War veteran, pours a glass of Jet Noise IPA at the Virginia Beach, Va., brewery.

The Associated Press

Young Veterans Brewing Co. is set to open in September in military-heavy Hampton Roads. For the brewery president, Thomas Wilder, and the co-founder, Neil McCanon, the business was born of struggles the two endured after they returned to American soil in 2005 from their overseas assignments.

The craft brewery is one of a growing corps popping up in Virginia and the nation. Virginia, which is celebrating its second craft beer month in August, has seen the industry grow from about 40 craft breweries last year to more than 60 in 2013. And many more are in the works.

The 29-year-old Wilder spent more than a year in Iraq after joining the Army National Guard in 2003 right out of high school. He lost two close friends in a 2004 bombing at a base in Mosul that killed 22 people, including 18 Americans. Wilder was in Germany getting surgery at the time of the bombing.

"Being at war is tough, but you don't realize how tough it is while you're there," Wilder said as the sound of F/A-18 fighter jets roared overhead from nearby Naval Air Station Oceana.

Many vets face trouble reorienting to normal jobs, finding adequate paying jobs or employment, period, after military service. Many also grapple with war wounds or invisible post-traumatic stress.

Upon returning home, Wilder tried his hand at school, hoping to become a teacher. McCanon, 29, went through a revolving door of hirings and firings. But both knew they wanted to work for themselves.

When they first experimented with a home brewing kit that the high school friends from Virginia Beach received as a gift, Wilder said he was unfamiliar with craft beers. His knowledge then was limited to mass-produced domestic beers. But once he began brewing his own, he preferred his over all others.

The pair hosted house parties offering up free beer to friends and family to test their creations. Now they hope their dream of finally opening a brewery will provide an opportunity to hire other veterans and give back to military-related charities.

"For me, it's sort of my way of showing that after service there's more to do," Wilder said. "For a lot of soldiers who come home, there's a lot of trouble. I've been through that and I know what that's like."

The young veterans are joining ranks as the craft beer industry is "seeing the edge of expansion," noted McCanon, who joined the Army in 2003 and most recently was as an Army Reserve drill sergeant.

In Virginia, a budding interest in craft beer is helping brewers grow at a faster rate than the national average. And thanks to changes in state law, they are making an impressive impact on the economy.

Production in Virginia grew nearly 37 percent to more than 84,000 barrels in 2012, more than double the national growth rate of 15 percent, according to the Brewers Association, the trade group for the majority of U.S. brewing companies. With more than 2,480 breweries nationwide, craft brewers make up a more than $10.2 billion industry that sold about 13.2 million barrels of beer in 2012.

Despite the industry's recent success, Wilder and McCanon said opening the brewery about six years in the making has been hard. The two faced resistance from banks when they sought loans. There were other obstacles along the way.

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