Sacramento's military veterans make a name for themselves in booming beer industry

By JAMES PATRICK | The Sacramento Bee | Published: April 25, 2019

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — Like every other craft brewery, Rancho Cordova’s Burning Barrel sells T-shirts. Like every other craft brewery’s shirts, they feature the logo prominently on the front of the shirt.

Then things get unusual.

A white American flag sits on the left arm of the grey shirt; the back of the shirt reads “Patriotism. I’ll drink to that.”

Burning Barrel is one of several Sacramento-area breweries that fly their ties to the military high. Military service and the beer industry might not seem like a cozy pairing. We expect bushy beards and hipster vibes when we sample IPAs.

But the Sacramento beer industry is different. Burning Barrel co-owner Duncan Alexander is clean-shaven, just like his dad, co-owner Jack Alexander. It’s no surprise to them to see breweries owned by police officers, military veterans and other professions that might be atypical in other cities.

“Sacramento as a whole is a lot different from the other craft cities,” Duncan Alexander said. “A lot of them are more leftward-leaning cities. Sacramento is a little bit more blue collar. Just as a whole, Sacramento is less hipster-minded in the whole beer industry, so it’s just a great group of diverse people we have working here.”

For Duncan and Jack, the show of military support is personal. Duncan’s younger brother, Davis Alexander, is serving in the Air Force. So it makes sense the brewery paired with Patriots Honor – a Sacramento-based nonprofit that benefits veterans – for a fundraiser. Burning Barrel bought 400 gray T-shirts last fall with the patriotic slogan as a fundraiser for Patriots Honor. A few dozen of the shirts remain.

But the support runs much deeper. Jason Williams, the brewery’s head brewer, was an aviation electrician with the Navy. He spent six years in the service working on helicopter parts, radar and radios. He was in Iraq for a year as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

He sees his work at Burning Barrel as an extension of who he is. The engineering he learned in the military makes him well-suited to the technical aspects of brewing beer. And the brewery’s support of the veterans and military causes just feels right to him.

“It really does tie me in with the veteran community,” Williams said. “I’ve always tried to be involved. It’s always been a part of me and I’ve always tried to push that as hard as I can.”

Justin MacClanahan can relate. The co-owner of Brü Co taproom in downtown Sacramento, MacClanahan’s sparkling new bistro has IPAs, sours and amber ales from across California. The diversity is inspired by MacClanahan’s eight years in the Army as an intelligence officer. He did three tours overseas and he didn’t have the option to drink Budweiser products.

“When I was in France, everything is not Bud Light over there,” MacClanahan said. “When your cheap beer on tap is Stella or Hoegarden, something a little better quality, I would order something not knowing what I was ordering and I’d end up with a brown ale or an amber or something.”

Since he and his wife opened Brü Co last year, he’s found ways to incorporate his military service with his business. He sold stickers to benefit veterans. He held an Army vs. Navy football game party, with beers brewed by veterans on both sides of the divide. And he has a “Buy a Vet a Beer” program, where customers come in and pay it forward by purchasing beers for veterans. Beer fan Chris Guthrie, an administrator of a Facebook beer group, started the idea on Veterans Day by purchasing a few beers for veterans.

MacClanahan smiles when he talks about his service. He never asks for military discounts. He doesn’t thump his chest talking about the Army. He had friends killed and maimed while he was in the Army. His service is a part of him.

“When you’re in the military, you hate it 75% and love it 25% of the time,” MacClanahan said. “Then you get out and you love it 75% of the time and hate it 25% of the time.

“Not getting up at 4 a.m. for a sergeant who is ticked off about something makes the difference. You hate it when it’s happening but it makes for good stories now.”

He’s one of several people in the beer industry with stories to tell.

Owners at Claimstake and Tilted Mash are also veterans. And there’s probably more. Our area has 84 breweries employing hundreds of people.

Williams, from Burning Barrel, has a plan to bring those veterans together. He’s lining up a collaboration brew with as many military veterans as he can find in the area for Veterans Day. As you would expect, recruiting people to join has not been a problem.

“The camaraderie from the military is something that gets put into everybody no matter what branch you serve in,” Williams said. “Everybody I’ve ever reached out to, the response is ‘Hell yeah, we want to be a part of that.’ ”

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