Young Veterans Brewing Co. President Thomas Wilder, left, and co-founder Neil McCanon spent six years attempting to open their own brewery. The Iraq War veterans will open one next month in Virginia Beach, Va.
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.”
Young Veterans Brewing Co. is set to open in September in the military-heavy Hampton Roads area. 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.
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.
Mr. Wilder, 29, spent more than a year in Iraq after joining the Army National Guard in 2003 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.
“Being at war is tough, but you don’t realize how tough it is while you’re there,” Mr. Wilder said as F/A-18 fighter jets roared overhead from nearby Naval Air Station Oceana.
Many vets face trouble finding jobs or reorienting to normal jobs after military service. Many also grapple with war wounds or post-traumatic stress.
Upon returning home, Mr. Wilder tried his hand at school, hoping to become a teacher. Mr. McCanon, 29, went through a revolving door of hirings and firings. But the two, who had been friends since high school, knew they wanted to work for themselves.
When they first experimented with a home brewing kit they received as a gift, Mr. Wilder said he was unfamiliar with craft beers. His knowledge 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,” Mr. 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.”
Despite the industry’s recent success, Mr. Wilder and Mr. McCanon said opening the brewery — about six years in the making — has been harder than living in a war zone. The two faced resistance from banks when they sought loans. There were other obstacles along the way.
But ultimately, they raised most of their needed capital of about $250,000 from investors and an online crowdsourcing campaign. Mr. McCanon honed his skills apprenticing at another local brewery and attended the Siebel Institute of Technology, America’s oldest brewing school.