Two years ago — on Memorial Day — a company built by veterans, which hires only veterans and aims to chip away at the unemployment rate among veterans officially launched. Their beer would hit store shelves a year-and-a-half later. They haven’t looked back since.
We caught up with founder and Navy veteran Paul Jenkins and regional beer ambassador, and Army veteran, John Herman to learn more about Veteran Beer Company, the beer they’re brewing and their mission to help unemployed veterans.
Guys Drinking Beer: In researching Veteran Beer Company I’ve found the company has a unique back story and admirable goal. For those unfamiliar with the company, how did it come about and what is the aim of Veteran Beer Company long-term?
Veteran Beer Company: The Veteran Beer Company was the brainchild of a disabled Navy Veteran who comes from a line of Veterans. On being made aware of the enduring Veteran and disabled Veteran unemployment crisis in America, he decided to create a company in which every person is a Veteran. Whenever possible, the company buys from Veteran-owned businesses in its supply chain, and encourages everyone in the supply chain to hire Veterans. The intent is to awaken America to the country’s greatest underutilized human resource: US military Veterans.
The long-term aim is to hire as many Veterans as possible within the company and its supply chain, inspiring the nation’s broader business community to do the same.
When the government revealed that in 2013, an average of more than 22 Veterans committed suicide every day of the year, the task became urgent as we try to shift the momentum in what is currently the greatest crisis facing the military Veterans.
GDB: Can you talk a bit about the military service background of the founders?
Veteran Beer: Paul Jenkins and Mike Danzer met while midshipmen at the US Naval Academy in the 1980s. Though Paul became an officer in the Navy and Mike took a commission in the Marine Corps, they maintained a relationship through the years. Both have advanced degrees and both have served in leadership roles in government and private industry. The third partner, Jim Webster, is regarded as one of the nation’s top beverage alcohol industry attorneys. Jim and Paul have been colleagues and friends since the mid-1990s. Though not himself a Veteran, Jim’s son just graduated from the Annapolis and has taken a commission as a Marine officer.
GDB: Veteran Beer Company launched two years ago today. What kind of growth have you seen over the last two years and have their been any surprises — good or bad — along the way?
Veteran Beer: Though the company was technically launched in 2012, we first introduced beer into the market just six months ago–on Veterans Day (November 11, 2013). There have been countless surprises along the way. The first is the overwhelming demand for the product. Our initial estimate was that we’d sell 1,000 cases in Illinois and Indiana in our first year. We sold 10,000 cases in the first month and to date have sold nearly 30,000 cases.
There have been challenges as well. The explosive growth in terms of volume has been hard to adjust to in terms of resources (we’re self-financed) and signing multiple distributors. Of course, as with any new business, there have been some changes in personnel but the core group (the owners/founders) have remained. We wish we could have more employees, but that will come over time.
GDB: I’m curious as to why manufacturing beer became the impetus to provide unemployed veterans with a job as opposed to a different business venture?
Veteran Beer: Literally could think of nothing else that would give Veterans a national presence as quickly.
GDB: Your beer is currently brewed at Cold Spring Brewing Company in Cold Spring, MN. There are a lot of brewing options in the Midwest, so what brought you to Cold Spring?
Veteran Beer: We chose Cold Spring for a variety of reasons including its reputation for quality, the quality and availability of water, and their capacity (we can brew up to two million cases a year there).
GDB: When seeking a distributor, how much does the veteran status of those employed by the wholesaler play a role into choosing one distributor over another? And can you talk a little about the distributors you are using in Illinois and why you chose them?
Veteran Beer: We seek to have Veterans throughout our supply chain. In fact, our distributor in Michigan (June start) is being started by two Navy Veterans and will employ only Veterans. Our first distributor (Flyer Beverage, in Illinois) hired one of our Veteran Brand Ambassadors shortly after we launched.
We try to lean towards distributors that don’t carry Budweiser or Miller/Coors products. We like to be in houses that are small-to-medium in volume, where every case of Veteran beer sold “moves the meter.” In each of our distributor agreement contracts we have provisions for Veteran hiring preferences.
GDB: Let’s talk about your beer. Veteran Beer Company currently produces a blonde ale and a lager. How has the beer been received in the craft beer community and where do you think it fits in the greater craft beer landscape that — currently — is somewhat dominated by India Pale Ale’s, session IPA’s and sours?
Veteran Beer: The beer is both mainstream and crafty. With 5% abv for both the Blonde Bomber blonde ale and The Veteran amber lager, these are beers that were designed to be sessionable in the extreme. We use only the finest quality ingredients and brew in small batches at one of the nation’s top craft breweries. The result is beers that are incredibly well-balanced. Last month we entered–and won–the River Lakes craft beer festival in Minnesota. There were 140 beers entered, including some that were clear favorites heading into the event.
I think our beers provide craft beer drinkers quality brews to come home to. They can experiment with the trendy esoteric beers when they’re trying to impress their friends, but when they want to just relax and enjoy incredible, award-winning beer, we hope The Veteran and Blonde Bomber will be what they turn to again and again.
GDB: Are there any plans to brew other beers, either year-round or seasonal?
Veteran Beer: Yes. We have an IPA and an American black ale in the works. We’re excited about both of them, and hope to have them released before the end of the year. There will be other seasonal and limited-release beers throughout the years.
GDB: Your beer is currently available in Illinois, Indiana and Minnesota. Are there any plans to expand down the road?
Veteran Beer: Yes, we’re also in the Dakotas and Wisconsin and will soon be in Michigan. We are in negotiation with ten other states and hope to be selling Veteran Beer Company products in more than a dozen states before Veterans Day of this year.
GDB: I don’t want to gloss over the charitable aspect of Veteran Beer Company. Can you talk about what some of the proceeds of each sale goes to in terms of helping unemployed veterans?
Veteran Beer: We’re organized as a “B Corporation.” That’s a Benefits Corporation–a for-profit entity that puts its mission above its profits. Benefits Corporations are rare and we’re proud to have earned that status. Additionally, we’ve committed to providing 10% of our corporate earnings to local charities that support Veterans charities. Those efforts are not specific to Veteran unemployment, but will cover the whole spectrum of social issues Veterans face.
GDB: As a veteran what’s one thing people can do today when they come across someone who’s served our country — aside from buying them a Blonde Bomber?
Veteran Beer: I think the most important thing would be to consider Veterans first for job openings. Charity is wonderful, but the fact is we need the chance to support ourselves and our families with meaningful employment.
Veteran Beer Company