Todd Baldwin settled on Colorado Springs as the location for his brewery for a simple reason: the proximity to five military bases.
Baldwin spent three years as an artillery officer in the U.S. Army, including a 15-month deployment in Iraq. He left the army in 2009, at the height of the recession and found a less than satisfying life in the working world in Nashville. In 2012, he took a well-developed love of beer and decided he was going to open a brewery, with a mission. His brewery would be dedicated to veterans and those who serve the nation.
“Our motto is ‘Serving those who chose the life of service,’” Baldwin said.
Red Leg opened in 2013. Baldwin believes that back then, there were maybe a dozen veteran-owned breweries in the U.S. Now, as the beer industry continues to grow, there are dozens of breweries scattered across the nation that are owned by veterans.
They are common enough now that Baldwin and several other veteran brewery owners started the Veteran’s Beer Alliance to help reduce costs for brewery ingredients. The three-year-old alliance now has more than 30 members.
Baldwin said the Alliance has helped support a subculture of collaboration in the already collaborative beer industry. Their camaraderie is likely because of the experiences those veterans share.
Steve Gagner, one of three founders of 14th Star Brewing Co. in St. Albans City, Vermont thought brewers have the same sense of fellowship as veterans, and that there are many parallels in the cultures of army and brewing brotherhoods.
“The subset of veterans banding together in society is partly due to having a shared understanding and common values,” Gagner said. “In society we clump together and there is some of that in brewing, but it’s already so inclusive and understanding that it almost means we don’t have to create our own subset.”
Despite a more straightedge approach to their culture than some breweries, the overall brewing community in Vermont couldn’t have been more welcoming to 14th Star Brewing.
“The perception is [Vermont is] a very liberal hippy state, and a lot of the brewers are the weed smoking, huge beard variety. That’s fine, not our scene,” Gagner said. “Our first brewers festival, we stuck out like a sore thumb. But some of the hippiest of the hippy were the most welcoming to us and wanted us to feel welcome and included.”
Gagner started brewing as a way to pass time away from his wife while he was in the army — gas was $4 a gallon at the time, making road trips tough even when he was stateside — and he had an apartment with no internet or cable. It started with soapmaking, evolved into cheesemaking, and eventually found his way to brewing.
“I enjoyed the science and the art. The science of making a good beer and the art of making an interesting beer,” Gagner said. “I really liked inviting guys from work over for the post work beer and there wasn’t any pretentiousness. There was nothing formidable about it, just dudes grabbing a beer.”
Five years later, he was sent to Afghanistan and was the highest-ranking officer for more than 100 miles. In between mission planning and firefights, his mind would drift and he started sketching business ideas in the back of a notebook. Back in the states a year later, his wife told him to “do it or shut up,” and the brewery was open in May 2012. The brewery now makes 10,000 barrels of beer a year and distributes to Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and occasionally Washington, D.C.
Red Leg Brewing is smaller than 14th Star Brewing, making approximately 2,500 barrels of beer, but in the brewery dense Colorado. When the brewery opened, Baldwin said there were about six breweries in the Colorado Springs area, a number that now surpasses 40. The brewery could make more, but Baldwin said just because you can make more beer doesn’t mean you can sell it.
“Colorado is one of the most prolific states in brewing, if we can compete here, we can compete anywhere,” he said.
Unlike Baldwin, Carter Wexler stayed in Tennessee and started Big Frog Brewing in Red Bank. Also unlike Gagner and Baldwin, Wexler had long retired from service, leaving the U.S. Navy in 1994. A chemical engineer by trade, Wexler worked in corporate America since his retirement but became dissatisfied with a civilian corporate career.
Wexler had brewed beer since his college days in the 1980s, where a professor told him he could brew his own beer and shared a recipe with him.
“When the time came, I opened one and was surprised how good it was,” he said.
As dissatisfaction grew in his career, he continued to homebrew and an idea popped in his head in 2012. The beer revolution was kicking itself into full gear and he was helping serve beer at an Oktoberfest event when he realize despite a tough road of small business ownership, it would be worth it. He started the brewery in 2014 and still works his full-time career, but hopes he and his wife will be full-time in their beer business in a few years.
As a one-barrel brewhouse, Big Frog Brewing is certainly among the smallest breweries, but it’s a suitable option for Wexler who can self-distribute. He opened a taproom in 2016.
Now we’re building, creating, and doing something positive.”
Both Baldwin and Gagner cited beer as being a fairly significant piece of military culture, and in a similar vein, Wexler mentioned traveling across the globe in the navy and trying different beers in different countries.
“In Europe, we were exposed to different kinds of beers that we didn’t have in the U.S.,” Wexler said. “Seeing the kinds of beer and each town having a small brewery, that was cool. Then when I got out in the mid-1990s, there was a craft beer explosion.”
Regardless of how an entrepreneur becomes inspired, it still takes a special type of person to start and run a business. Veteran small business owners might inherently have a head start and an advantage when it comes to building a business.
“Veterans make good entrepreneurs,” Baldwin said. “We’re less risk averse and take chances to go for it. A lot of the things that go into who’s attracted to the military, all those things come into play in getting a business off the ground and running and running a business."
“Owning a business is hard. I always say, ‘I don’t own Red Leg, Red Leg owns me.’”
Veterans own a multitude of businesses across America, but brewing offers an outlet they weren’t able to utilize while in the service. Gagner is furthering that outlet and has also started a distillery, Danger Close Craft Distilling.
“There’s very little creativity of community building around destroying people, places, and material,” Gagner said. “At least for me, brewing is fun and creative and artistic. There’s that community-building aspect, being able to revitalize part of a community is the antithesis of what I could do in the army.
“Very little of what we could do in the army is creative thinking or doing something original. Now we’re building, creating, and doing something positive.”