By: Neil McCanon - Owner/Head Brewer YVBC
People can change, but not completely. This is something I have always believed. I also think that in life, you mostly get back what you give. I think it is also true about the brewing industry. It’s changing, more now than ever, but the core remains the same. This is a story of how the experience of opening a brewing business with one of my best friends changed me, and how the effort we have put forth in pursuit of our dreams has given back to us.
As one of two owners of Young Veterans Brewing Company in Virginia Beach, I am working what many people would refer to as a dream job. In late 2008, in the dreary months of the financial crisis, I was not. I was a student making my income from the GI Bill, and from the Army Reserve, while I attended Tidewater Community College. During that time, my friend, Tom Wilder, and I brewed our first batch of home brewed beer, while living together in a cramped house. It did not take long until we had the idea, as many have had, to open our own brewery. Even during the financial downturn, we could see the craft industry was a beacon light, experiencing double-digit growth as people’s tastes changed. It was a craft beer revolution and we wanted to be a part of it.
We worked hard and invested much to refine and finalize a few recipes that we thought were stand- outs. We moved to a big old farmhouse with a garage perfect for brewing. We held tasting parties, where the beer flowed freely, in exchange for a review of the product. I attended the Siebel Institute in Chicago and completed their international brewing technology program over the course of three months. Our business plan went through numerous rewrites and reviews. I will spare the reader the details of our many failures. When searching for financial backing over several years, suffice it to say, that we did eventually convince some people that we had a sound plan worth investing in. That was late 2011. We put in the initial equipment orders and got our new address: 2505 Horse Pasture Road.
A few weeks before the official opening of the YVBC taproom, we were scheduled to compete in a local beer competition: 'The Battle of The Beers', hosted by Beach Ambassadors. Several other local craft breweries were already established businesses and were involved in the first-year charity event. We had our ABC license and a location, but our new brew house had experienced delays and was still yet to be installed. The contest was two weeks out and we did not have enough beer to meet the volume requirement, two half kegs. It looked like we were not going to be able to compete despite our desires. However, necessity is the mother of invention.
In the final days that it was possible to brew a beer that would be ready by the time of the event, we brainstormed and made an executive decision to go for it anyways. We knew of a forty-gallon fermenter at Homebrew USA, the best local brewing supply shop in the area. The owners Neil and Elizabeth Erschens had been guiding us and helping us grow as brewers since we bought our first carboy. Most graciously, they agreed to loan it to us. With that vessel, plus our pin lock kegs, we had the capacity we needed and we filled them all in an intensive day of brewing the two beers we thought stood the best chance, while the contracting work and construction continued around us. That fermentation cycle was the most stressful I had experienced up to that point. This beer was destined for the public, not just for consumption, but also for judgement.
The event day arrived and rolled by. We talked to everyone non-stop. It rained constantly that day but we were elated to be participating as "professional" brewers, alongside our now peers, even with wet feet. Positive feedback was all we got back from the participants. At last, the end of our very first public event came, and they announced the results.
We had won! Our Jet Noise Double IPA and our Pineapple Grenade Hefe had taken first and third place. The pride I felt standing on that stage in front of my community receiving their validation of our long perseverance is hard to compare. My family looked very proud that day. I can also say sincerely that beer really does taste better consumed from the lip of a first place trophy.
Looking back, we were idealistic and sometimes naïve, but we were really doing it, pursuing the American dream. We had found the target for our own millennial generational instinct to create something new and different and things were looking up.
I remember a quote from the French philosopher Henri Bergson, who inspired us at the time; "Think like a man of action, act like a man of thought." It encapsulated the idea of what we needed to be as entrepreneurs; thoughtful in design and hard working in practice. So, with that in mind, we pushed forward through the tasks of getting open.
Coming from a hard fought middle class background of teachers and military members, we were treading on unfamiliar territory. People kept on telling us we had something amazing. The Associated Press did an article on us and people from all over were contacting us. People commented on our theme, both positively and hilariously negatively. A man from California called after seeing us online, looking to get in on the ground floor. He only wanted 50% ownership at a cut rate. We navigated mazes of regulation and form submitting forms. Fox news interviewed us, and they introduced us as 'Heroes'. It was sometimes overwhelming. Part of me felt under prepared, wondering if I had wasted years of my mid-twenties through inaction, despite my military service, and I wondered If I really deserved, and could now live up to, all the praise and the pressure?
I can remember very clearly standing inside our little taproom a few weeks later and looking out at the large crowd that had gathered for our first day in operation. It was September 7, 2013. I was amazed at the turnout and felt so awed by the entire day. We had just three beers available and minimal decoration. Our friends and family were working behind the bar. It was a smashing success. The line did not make it inside the entrance for four hours. The sense of appreciation from that opening day of seeing a customer outside our door has never faded. I still love meeting new customers who have not heard of us before, and who were sometimes hailing from quite a distance. It is also a particular pleasure to meet members of our armed forces who have relocated to the area. That is how my own family came to Virginia Beach, and this town has treated us well.
Once over the initial elation of our opening, the reality of our new responsibilities consumed us. We ran out of beer in a week, the new-found national interest in craft breweries, combined with our opening into a very open market, made for rapid growth of demand. We struggled to meet all of our commitments on the low pay we allocated to ourselves in the early months, working exhausting hours and through many challenges.
Equipment broke down, or was not properly installed in the first place, kegs on the market sprang leaks, we had to interact with distributors and new customers, and assure them these were only growing pains. The time and thought required to navigate through the complex and multi-layered regulations governing breweries was more work than we anticipated. Tom had the responsibility to learn and navigate the system of communicating with local, state and federal tax departments and regulatory agencies. It took a lot of man hours. With just the two of us running the back of the house operation and a lot on our plates, my responsibilities fell to production and quality control, while Tom focused on the communications and sales.
We tried to do everything in the brewery. Our computer was set up feet away from the brew kettle. We were answering emails and fielding phone calls with manufacturers one minute, scraping spent grain from the mash tun the next. There was also the unexpectedly high level of interaction on social media, like many small business owners, we were trying to leverage it to maximum advantage. That meant staying engaged and answering queries around the clock. It worked fine until a piece of brewing equipment guillotined our laptop, one more hit to our minuscule operating budget.
It is a commonly heard sentiment from people outside the industry. That it is all fun and games and drinking, but that idea does not mesh with the strenuous, loud, wet and dusty environment we work in during a brew day. A reality you do not realize until you have been working every day for weeks straight, churning out that delicious liquid. It is tiring and physical to work a small brew house. It is a great occupation, but at the same time, it can be a grind.
Things did get better though, and the hard work paid off. Our beer was picked up by the best local distributor. They helped get us into lots of new accounts, and they were there to help deal with the issues when they arose. We increased the size of our operation with the purchase of more fermentation capacity. We had some of our product canned. We hired on two dependable new brewers and learned together what it takes to make a brewing operation run more smoothly and continuously.
In basic training, the army assigns a 'Battle Buddy' to new soldiers. They are always there right next to you, when you're being rewarded, when you're being chewed out, when you are down in the mud they are there too, sharing in the misery and watching your back. Tom is my battle buddy when it comes to all of this, and it helps when things feel overwhelming to remember that he and the other members of the YVBC team could not accomplish this without each other.
In the military, I learned what it was to be a part of an organized and unified force, and how many individuals working together can accomplish near impossible tasks. That was a lesson, which has proved itself invaluable here at YVBC. As an entrepreneur, I have learned that Murphy's Law applies to almost any endeavor. Sometimes you need to think fast to adapt and solve problems. When you are the boss, the buck stops with you.
A new year is about to come upon us again, and with it a lot of good news for Young Veterans Brewing Company. We have recently completed an extensive expansion with a 20-barrel Deutsche Beverage brew house. It is allowing us to control quality and efficiency better than ever, and the proof shows in the brews we make on it. We still face new challenges all the time, but by now, we have learned to lean in and keep moving forward despite the challenges. As entrepreneurs, we are always looking for examples of how to succeed, and how to get there better and faster. Often though, when I speak to the people whom I consider mentors, I am reminded how short three years really is in the course of a career.
There will be work ahead, no doubt. The experience of opening this brewery and participating in my local community, these years have prepared us for it. The future will always bring with it uncertainty, but hopefully, with a stout heart and maybe a glass of stout we can overcome it to find our own success.