Veterans Turned Brewers

Casey Jones of Fair Winds Brewing
Casey Jones of Fair Winds Brewing

Sean Arroyo spent four years in the U.S. Marine Corps, receiving numerous medals for his time in combat in Iraq. His brother, Ryan, served in the Army in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Today, they’ve found a new way to serve their country: They run Heritage Brewing in Manassas, Va., just a few miles from the Civil War battlefield. One of their most popular brews is Freedom Isn’t Free, an IPA.

Ask Sean to compare the brewing life to his time in the military, he says: “Long hours, hard work and low pay is the first thing to come to mind, and team ethic.”

Heritage is one of a growing number of breweries owned and run by veterans across the country. There’s no firm numbers on how many of the nation’s 4,100 craft breweries are owned by vets, but at least a couple dozen is a likely estimate.

The annual Craft Brewers Conference, which draws thousands of industry professionals, included a “Veterans Roundtable” in 2014, allowing about 30 brewers who’d served in any branch of the military to network and trade advice.

In 2015, the non-profit Veterans Beer Alliance was launched in Colorado Springs, Co. to connect veterans across the country in the brewing and beer distribution business.

(L-R) Sean and Ryan Arroyo of Heritage Brewing
(L-R) Sean and Ryan Arroyo of Heritage Brewing

Veteran-brewers come from virtually every branch of the military — including the Army Special Forces, known as the legendary Green Berets for their distinctive service headgear. That's where the three owners of Southern Pine Brewing-- Micah Niebauer, Jason Ginos, and John Brumer-- first met. The three spent a decade based at Fort Bragg before opening the brewery in 2014 about 35 miles away in Southern Pine, N.C.

Virginia, home to over 20 military bases, has several veteran-owned breweries in addition to Heritage. These include Young Veterans in Virginia Beach, Bold Mariner in Norfolk, Fair Winds in Lorton, Fidelis Beer in Burke and Honor Brewing in Chantilly.

Casey Jones, a 12-year Coast Guard veteran and founder of Fair Winds, said he’s not surprised vets are attracted to the brewing life. Both jobs offer a sense of adventure and risk — and are the opposite of holding a desk job. “Every day is different,” said Jones, who opened Fair Winds in 2015. “In the Coast Guard, you’d go out on the ship one day, do preventative work another and be in the shipyard on another day. And brewing is much like that where we brew one day, package another and on next day sit in lab and learn about yeast and brewing process.”

The recent trend is also driven by cutbacks in the military and the rapid growth in appeal of craft brewing, Jones said.

Jones left the Coast Guard in 1999 after spending years based in Florida but often boating in the Gulf of Mexico running between Haiti and Guantanamo Bay.

He later worked as a strategy consultant and gained business experience in California before returning to Northern Virginia in 2013. He had homebrewed for years and knew the fast growing Fairfax County just outside Washington, D.C was ripe for locally made beer.

Jones credits the military for giving him the “failure is not an option” mentality he uses running the brewery. When his ship would breakdown far from land, the Coast Guard taught him how to fix problems on their own. At the brewery, when equipment malfunctions, Jones works with his staff to engineer a fix. “No one panics,” he said.

Another vital lesson he applies from military service to the brewery: keeping everything clean, Jones said.

Fair Winds keeps the nautical theme behind its beer names: Quayside Kolsch, Howling Gale IPA and Home Port Stout.

At both Fair Winds and Heritage, two thirds of employees are veterans.

The Fair Winds Brewing Team
The Fair Winds Brewing Team

Sean and Ryan Arroyo had always talked about starting a brewery but it happened sooner than either thought. Sean started homebrewing during breaks while still in the Marines. After leaving the Marines, he earned a business degree and got a finance job but quickly learned that wasn’t for him. When federal government put hiring on hold a few years back, Sean took that as a sign to put the brewery idea on the front burner. With help from a veterans’ loan program, he started Heritage in an industrial park about a mile from Manassas’ historic center. Opened on New Year’s Eve, 2013, the Heritage tap room and brews quickly gained a loyal following. “Its been amazing and great to see people are so accepting to have us in the community,” said Sean Arroyo, 31. “I’m shocked and humbled.”

He said working at the brewery has helped many of his veteran employees make the transition back to civilian life.

He’s also applied the structure and focus on quality control he learned in the Marines and later in the Army National Guard to the brewing process to make sure he produces consistently good beer.

Today, hundreds of bars and liquor stores carry Heritage’s Freedom Isn’t Free and Kings Mountain Scotch Ale. Last fall, Heritage opened a bar on the concourse at Verizon Center in Washington D.C. and this baseball season began selling at Nationals Park. By July, Heritage brews will be sold across Virginia, Maryland and the Philadelphia area. In addition, Heritage is being sold on naval bases across the country, which no doubt will inspire future veterans to consider brewing after their discharge.

The sense of patriotism is apparent not just in some Heritage’s beer names (Revolution and The Teddy) but also in the brewery where a 15-foot American flag is attached to wall behind large fermentation tanks.

Arroyo doesn’t want Heritage to be known just for his connection to the military. “I want to be known for making great craft beer, and for being a craft beer maker who happens to be a veteran.”