California beer makers embark on latest mission to help military vets
By Jeremy Thomas | Contra Costa Times | Published: June 24, 2014
LIVERMORE, Calif. — From the outside, it resembles any other suite in a nondescript industrial park.
But inside, its shelves are stocked with barrels of liquid gold bearing names like AWOL Pale Ale, Boot IPA and Bazooka Brown Ale. Uncle Sam’s Misguided Brewery is offering its own twist on an age-old craft: beer brewed by veterans, for the benefit of veterans.
“We don’t have loads of money,” said co-owner Josh Laine, a Marine sergeant who was “shot, stabbed and blown up” during two tours in Iraq. But he and his co-founder believe, as veterans, it’s “very important to bring people on board and lift people up as you’re lifting yourselves up.”
After years creating home-brewed concoctions, Laine and some military veteran beer-makers sold kegs at holiday parties to launch the USMB Tap House in March, the latest in a string of craft breweries and taprooms to open in Livermore.
An offshoot of the award-winning Valor Winery in Livermore—which Laine started in a converted school bus with a fellow Marine in 2007 — the veteran-owned and operated microbrewery not only employs veterans but also donates a portion of profits to nontraditional rehabilitation programs for returned soldiers, like wilderness retreats, yoga, sailing and equine therapy.
Combined, Valor and Uncle Sam’s have donated more than $100,000 in money and products to such programs in the past six years, Laine said.
One major beneficiary is the Vets & Vines Foundation, a nonprofit Laine founded to teach viticulture and farming in the vineyards. Its cornerstone project is Valor Ranch, a 290-acre farm with grapevines, gardens, stables, housing and a wellness center to train veterans in sustainable living techniques. The project is in the first phase of planting.
According to co-owner Fara Barnes — a former Defense Department contractor and veteran of the Air Force and Air National Guard — in a “saturated” wine industry, Valor had to forge a new path in order to create more jobs and educate civilians on the stigma facing returning soldiers.
“We have faced prejudice being a veteran,” Barnes said. “We have both gone through rehabilitation ourselves, and we’re both very passionate about helping our brothers and sisters.”
Veterans make up the whole paid workforce. The winery and brewery combined have hired nearly 60 veterans in full- or part-time roles, Laine said. About 200 more veterans have been assisted through vocational training or other resources.
Uncle Sam’s has a staff of 34 paid employees (full-time and independent contractors), 16 veteran and 10 civilian volunteers and five intern brewers looking to be hired on when production increases.
Army veteran Gordon Yardy was in dire financial straits and struggling to find a home when he started working in the winery’s warehouse, cleaning machinery and prepping bottles for filling. He received life assistance as well as a job.
“They helped me with getting my benefits,” Yardy said. “Through my work with Valor I was able to get back on my feet.”
Now in the construction business, Yardy continues to help out at the brewery when needed, appreciative of bonds he forged laboring alongside his brothers-in-arms.
“It’s helped me tremendously,” he said. “I made some good friends and met some good people.”
According to VA Palo Alto Health Care System spokesman Michael Hill-Jackson, veteran-owned businesses like Valor and Uncle Sam’s are vitally important to veterans attempting to readjust to society with “invisible discrimination” from employers.
“The hardest thing is to get (veterans) into jobs where that professional atmosphere doesn’t suit them and that stigma is present,” Hill-Jackson said. “It’s good to be around people who have had similar experiences.”
Veteran-owned small businesses make up just a fraction of employers, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Alameda County has 17 registered with the VA, Contra Costa 16, followed by Santa Clara County with 13 and San Mateo County with six. The state has 1,006 registered veteran-owned businesses. The VA doesn’t track which ones also hire veterans or give to veteran causes. To further encourage a spirit of brotherhood, a varying percentage of Uncle Sam’s beer sales and half of net profits from Valor’s online wine sales go to the purchaser’s program of choice. The funds support seven partners like Wounded Wear — a nonprofit providing free clothing and clothing modifications for wounded soldiers — and Huts for Vets, a wilderness rehabilitation program based in the Colorado Rockies.
This fall, the winery and brewery will expand to offer rehabilitation kits and a hunting and fishing series on ranches in Northern California and Texas, the latter with Wayne Kyle, whose son Chris, a former Navy SEAL and author of the bestseller “American Sniper,” was shot and killed at a Texas gun range in 2013. An Iraq War veteran diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, Eddie Ray Routh, has been charged with Kyle’s murder.
Wayne said he is “100 percent” behind the efforts of Laine and Barnes, because they will create public awareness of veterans’ issues and educate wounded warriors in what resources are available.
“These programs like (Barnes) has are extremely important,” Kyle said. “Our men and women voluntarily put themselves in harm’s way. They sacrifice a lot, more than most people will even realize. ... There are those who are (suffering) greatly internally where you can’t see.”
Over Memorial Day weekend, Uncle Sam’s brewed a Valor Double IPA in Chris Kyle’s honor, with half the profits going to the Chris Kyle Memorial Benefit & Auction and American Valor Foundation, organizations founded by the Kyle family.
Currently able to produce up to 288 barrels per month, Uncle Sam’s is among the finalists for a fall appearance on the ABC reality TV show “Shark Tank,” which lets aspiring entrepreneurs pitch their businesses.
It is on the hunt for investors so it can increase production, hire more full-time employees and expand its beers into bars, retailers and restaurants.
“Every time people share our story and our mission, they truly do decrease the amount of time it takes for wounded warriors and veterans to rehabilitate,” Barnes said.
Veteran Josh Laine, co-owner of Uncle Sam's Misguided Brewery, pours a sampling of Miracle Black Ale for fellow Marine Corps veteran Andy Kulakowski on Memorial Day in Livermore, Calif., May 26, 2014. Free tastings were part of the day's event for all veterans.
Susan Tripp Pollard/Bay Area News Group/MCT