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A Fight Over a Controversial Brewery Exposes the Limits of ‘Community’

Just days after Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin heralded the arrival of a “military tribute” brewery to Norfolk this past July, it was clear there was going to be a problem.

Not because the sprawling city on the commonwealth’s eastern shoreline is opposed to breweries, mind you. Nor to the concept of military tributes in general: The metropolitan area is home to one of the largest populations of active and retired service members in the United States, and the Navy’s largest base. But when Norfolkians googled the name of this particular outfit they didn’t like what they found: an incendiary brand ambassador and co-owner; tired, sexist advertising; and precious little detail about the tax incentives the state had used to lure the firm to a just-vacated brewery location in the city’s LGBTQ+-friendly Ghent neighborhood.

It sounds more like the Cirque du Mar-a-Lago than a brewery. But it turns out that’s just what happens when Armed Forces Brewing Company (AFBC) comes to town.

“I feel like our taxpayer dollars are going toward a brewery that’s not a good fit for the community, forcing us to have an anti-trans brewery into the community,” said one resident at an informal town hall meeting just five days after the governor’s announcement, according to coverage by local news station WHRO. Local officials told the outlet that the brewery’s politics could be taken into account when evaluating the brewery’s permit applications. A state delegate walked back her initial support for the project, telling constituents she hadn’t looked closely enough at the firm before offering the governor’s office a quote for the press release.

Andrew Coplon, a Norfolk resident who runs the Craft Beer Professionals networking group and Secret Hopper, a secret shopper service for beer, tells Hop Take that a form he created has helped citizens send thousands of emails asking local decision makers to scrutinize AFBC’s permits. “They’re pretty familiar with people’s frustrations with it,” he says.

This is a considerable amount of community-led opposition to a single brewery setting up shop in a single neighborhood in a city of over 200,000 people. Notably, rather than a religious, neo-prohibitionist, or NIMBY base, this pressure is coming from progressive beer drinkers and even another brewery owner. The fight over AFBC’s presence in its new community is a real-time showcase of the values drinkers expect to see reflected in their local breweries, and what happens when those outfits either don’t live up to those expectations — or deliberately flout them.

AFBC first crossed your humble Hop Take columnist’s transom in 2021, when a video it produced to promote its equity crowdfunding campaign went viral on social media. It’s a tremendous cultural artifact (derogatory) featuring Rob O’Neill, the former Navy SEAL who claims to have fired the shots that killed Osama bin Laden. In a feature about conservative beverage-alcohol pander brands in these digital pages in October 2021, I described it as “shot through with lowest-common-denominator gags,” and noted the pointed decision to end with an anti-mask joke. I thought it was corny then and still do, but the video — the full cut of which AFBC appears to have taken down from YouTube, though it remains available on Instagram — was red meat for the troop-humping contingent of this country’s conservative base.

The firm’s chief executive, Alan Beal, denied to me at the time that it was a partisan ploy, and in a sense, he was probably right, given that Republicans and Democrats alike love pouring bajillions of dollars into the Pentagon’s insatiable maw. But in another more literal sense, AFBC’s best jackboot forward with potential investors was bog-standard reactionary garbagio, and both the firm and the people who buy its shares should be understood through this lens.

“It gives me pause that Alan Beal is not a veteran and is jumping on this train,” says Tom Wilder, an Army veteran and the president of Norfolk’s Young Veterans Brewing Company. While he thinks little of AFBC’s schtick, his chief concern lies with drinkers confusing his brand with Beal’s — especially since Young Veterans specifically redid its branding recently to make its beers less of a potential flashpoint for polarizing partisan rancor. “The country got divided, and we had to shift with that,” he says. Especially with AFBC open for business a stone’s throw from a new restaurant location Wilder is opening, he’s worried that potential customers will be confused by the bellicose branding of the thematically similar brewery. He says it’s already happened a few times. “The purpose of my drive is to make sure that people that are drinking beer in the area understand these are completely different brands.” he says.  “Young Vets has been here for 10 years, and [we] did it first.”

Being mistaken for another brewery is one thing, but Wilder — who has pale skin and red hair — also worries he’ll be mistaken for AFBC’s frontman O’Neill. That’s a liability in its own right. In May 2023, as AFBC was finalizing its plans to move to the Norfolk facility then occupied by the soon-to-close O’Connor Brewery, O’Neill tweeted his disgust with a Navy recruitment campaign that featured a non-binary Navy yeoman performing in drag. (The Navy, like every service branch besides the Marines, is struggling to find recruits these days, and has been trying to diversify its applicant pool.) “Our military needs to be ferocious, not fabulous,” O’Neill told Fox News in a follow-up cable hit.

It was not subtle stuff, and Eric Hause had no trouble parsing it — particularly because the service member in question is one of Norfolk’s most popular drag queens. “Her [stage] name is Harpy Daniels, and she was the No. 1 drag queen in all of Hampton Roads,” says the founder and publisher of Outlife757, the region’s LGBTQ+ magazine, in a recent phone interview. “And then Robert O’Neill had the absolute gall to go out in his public space and troll her, basically saying This f—– has no business representing the military? It’s just not acceptable for the queer community here.”

A few months after that ugly episode, O’Neill was arrested in Texas and charged with public intoxication and misdemeanor assault. Clearly, whether he remains AFBC’s brand ambassador and director of military relations, and a member of its board is germane, Norfolk’s residents have a moral, if not legal, right to know whether supporting the neighborhood’s new brewery will fund such a fellow. But the company refuses to clarify on that point; a spokesperson, Pam Catindig, provided some pat responses to my initial inquiries, but went silent when I asked her about O’Neill. (Though he’s still identified in those roles on the offering circular to investors the brewery filed with the Securities and Exchange Commissions on Oct. 11th, 2023, he is no longer listed on its consumer-facing website.)

Beal, for his part, has not exactly assuaged the apprehensions of his new neighbors. In September, he attended a Park Place Civic League meeting, where according to a signed letter from the league’s president and vice-president, he was unprepared, on-tilt, and incapable of answering basic questions about the business. The league voted 11-6 not to support the brewery’s application for ongoing permits from the city, specifically citing “[c]oncerns about insinuation of threats, violence, intimidation, anti-LGBTQI+ values, etc. in published materials.” Before she stopped responding to me, Catindig claimed the league members “were presented incorrect information which radically misrepresented” the company,” but provided no examples of this. She declined to make Beal available for an interview.

Whether any of this is enough to stop AFBC from operating its taproom remains to be seen. As Delegate Jackie Glass told alarmed residents back in July, “Just because we disagree doesn’t mean they don’t have the right to have a legal business.” (Through a spokesperson, Delegate Glass declined multiple requests for an updated comment.) Both Hause and Coplon candidly acknowledge to Hop Take that this is probably true, though depending on how other civic leagues and local officials respond to residents’ concerns leading up to the city council’s vote, the tide could still turn against the brewery. Wilder says that when he was opening his firm a decade ago, city representatives told him if the civic leagues “are not into you, you’re not getting approval from us;” he wants AFBC to be held to the same standard, and if the city approves its permits, to let the market decide. “If they want to open in Ghent, knowing that the neighborhood and the people in the area don’t want them there, that’s their choice,” he says, laughing wryly.

There’s something appealing about that approach, though I have doubts about the power of drinkers “voting with their dollars.” But if the permitting process is on the up and up as Wilder hopes, it’s the only obvious mechanism left for the progressive community to moderate AFBC’s behavior (assuming, of course, that Beal & co. don’t have a change of heart and do so themselves.) Craft brewing is a business, after all, and businesses, no matter how odious they may be, have tremendous leeway in this country to try to find customers. That reality may be a bitter swig to swallow, but its bitterness strikes me as an exception that proves a rule. In other words, the fact that this AFBC has alienated so many of its neighbors so fast is a reminder of how many craft breweries are still hellbent — militant, even — on doing the opposite.

🤯 Hop-ocalypse Now

Things are not ideal in the craft brewing industry at the moment, but in the grand scheme of the American beer business, it’s still a fairly young segment, right? These are just growing pains… right?! Wrong, Brewers Association chief economist Bart Watson told Massachusetts Brewers Guild members at a conference earlier this week: Craft beer isn’t “maturing” anymore, it has “matured.” The good news is that the data whiz sees no evidence of a bubble bursting, just a normal market doing what a normal market does after it has “moved out of the golden age.” The bad news is apparently full maturation for the segment equals fruit-forward imperial IPAs in c-store-friendly stovepipes with cartoon mascots on the side. I thought this was just a phase!!!

📈 Ups…

New Belgium Brewing’s chief marketing officer Shaun Belongie will be promoted to chief executive, congrats to him… The Beer Institute finally has a new chief economist (Andrew Heritage), congrats to it/them… The parent company of OG craft brand Smuttynose acquired Five Boroughs Brewing Co., congrats to all… Molson Coors raised its 2023 fiscal guidance a full four points, congrats to all (stockholders)… Finally, a national cider brand not named Angry Orchard, congrats to Blake’s Hard Cider and Austin Eastciders

📉 …and downs

Anheuser-Busch Inbev is refusing to negotiate with the Teamsters on healthcare, say the union’s negotiators, who have walked away from the table for now… Headed into the holiday season, Monster abruptly shut down Oskar Blues Brewing Co.’s Austin taproom and laid off all its staff… Constellation Brands’ retreat from cannabis continues apace… The Federal Trade Commission looks unlikely to make a call on the Kroger-Albertsons merger until next year…

The article A Fight Over a Controversial Brewery Exposes the Limits of ‘Community’ appeared first on VinePair.

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