Brewpubs in Uniform

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 30, Issue 1
March 1, 2009 By

No matter how dearly you love beer, or how far you’ll willing to travel for an obscure brew, there are some beers you cannot have. Unless, that is, you’re willing to serve your country.

On a dozen bases in the United States and overseas, modern brewpubs are among the amenities meant to make life in the armed services a little more pleasant, and a bit more like life on the civilian side. A soldier at Fort Dix, NJ, or a sailor stationed at Pearl Harbor has a gleaming brewpub waiting when it’s time for r ‘n’ r, with a range of increasingly adventurous specialty styles possibly available.

Drinking and Soldiering

Alcohol—often beer—has always figured in a soldier’s life. Beer numbed Celtic warriors to the terrors and suffering of battle. Beer was part of the soldier’s ration on land, as rum was on the sea. Beer was a staple for troops, healthier than local water for armies serving in India. It served as a reward, a morale booster and an anesthetic, buffering both physical and mental pain.

However, every military commander then and now knew the perils of alcohol to his troops. Overindulgence dulled battle-readiness, eroded discipline, triggered fights and stirred up trouble with the civil population. The trick, then, was the same inside the military as out: how to support the relaxing conviviality of beer and discourage its excesses. Only the stakes are probably higher in the military setting. Brewpubs and specialty beer can play a role.

The first brewpub on a U.S. military base opened not at home, but in Korea. It was, in fact, the first brewpub anywhere in that country. In 1995, the U.S. Army hired Oldenberg Brewery of Fort Mitchell, KY to design a seven to 10-barrel system for Camp Casey in Korea, an Eighth Army base about 40 miles north of Seoul. As the base is located on the DMZ, the 10,000 military and civilians serving there had few opportunities to leave the base. Given the popularity of brewpubs Stateside in the mid-nineties, the idea of a variety of freshly-brewed beers available on base had great appeal.

Oldenberg designed the pub brewery, developed the beer recipes and provided oversight for the brewery when it opened as part of Camp Casey’s Second to None Club in 1995. Oldenberg brewmaster Ken Schierberg developed the beer recipes, which were brewed on the small J.B. Northwest system by a qualified brewer.

Within a few years, though, it was clear that a commitment to full-grain brewing would not be sustainable. It was time consuming and expensive to employ a fully-trained professional to brew “from scratch.”

The brewery operated under the management of Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR), a non-profit network of support and leisure services for members of the military and their families. Each branch of the United States Armed Forces has its own branch of MWR, where civilians operate MWR programs with military oversight. MWR programs cover everything from child and family services, to sports and fitness, to touring entertainment. MWR also operates casual restaurants, high-end dining and military clubs—such as Second to None, which housed the brewpub at Camp Casey.

Under a 1987 federal law, military clubs have to be self-supporting, so MWR’s challenge was to find ways to adapt the brewpub so it could essentially be operated profitably by staff from the food service, without the presence of an extensively-trained brewmaster. The answer was to streamline the brewing process, itself. Micropub Brewing Systems of New York was brought in to retro-fit the brewery for extract brewing.

As every homebrewer knows, traditional start-to-finish brewing begins with grain—most often malted barley—that is milled to crack the grains, then steeped in boiling water to create wort, a rich, sweet broth ready for yeast to ferment into alcohol. The selection of grains—the grain bill—that makes up the wort determines the color and much of the flavor of the finished beer, and the concentration of the wort largely governs the beer’s final alcohol content.

Beginning homebrewers, however, often turn to malting companies for concentrated wort in the form of malt extract, eliminating all these preliminary steps. Dilute and boil the extract, add hops and then yeast, and the beer begins to ferment. Extract brewing removes many of the creative stages in brewing, it’s true, but it also greatly reduces the training necessary to brew fine beer from scratch.

Micropub converted the Camp Casey brewery to an abbreviated extract system, where a brewer with short-term training could execute a recipe and produce sophisticated beer. Micropub has since established a dozen military brewpubs. The creative job of making sure that extract recipes provide the range of beer styles that the customer demands falls to director of brewing Jon Downing.

Foolproof Fine Beer

Downing, an Englishmen transplanted to Ontario, holds GABF and World Beer Cup honors, both for beers he’s brewed and for beers he’s designed for others.

When he devises recipes for the military brewpubs, Downing explains, “Essentially we use Briess extracts [Briess Malt and Ingredients, Chilton, WI]. When Roger Briess was still around, he and I worked extensively developing their malts for this, because when I first came over, there were no extracts available for brewing apart from homebrewing ones, which were basically no different from the malt extracts sold for baking and cooking.”

Downing’s knowledge of the composition of the extracts allows him to combine them to create the raw material for 50 or more beer styles. “I know the grains that go into the extracts and I know the proportions, what quantity of dark malt or crystal malt or whatever,” he says. “Instead of working with a grain bill you’re working with an extract bill: dark, amber, Bavarian wheat, corn syrup for lighter beers, rice syrup for lighter beers as well.”

His end result is essentially a foolproof beer kit containing extract malt, the appropriate yeast strain and hops and explicit instructions for the on-base brewer to follow.

“The whole point is to make this as easy as possible,” says Downing. “I’ve trained guys who don’t speak English to brew using these systems. It’s very easy to run, once they get the basic concept of ‘valve A goes to hot water,’ and so on. For each beer, from the lightest light beer to a stout, the actual process is identical—you can have a boil hop, mid hop, finish hop, or a combination of those. We have extract to get to the percentage alcohol we need. And they’re all based on four-barrel or eight-barrel brews.”

Downing generally arrives on base along with the custom-built, abbreviated brewhouse, oversees the installation, then undertakes the three to four week training of the MWR employee destined to become the functional brewer. Teacher and pupil brew two beers, then Downing leaves and returns two weeks later to transfer the first batches, and brew two more with the on-base brewer.

“We get it down to 15 hours of work they have to do per brew, which keeps down the cost,” he says.

Local Expression

Different bases, naturally, take their brewing in different directions.

The Navy Club in Seoul went crazy for unfiltered wheat beers of all descriptions, and ended up with five on draft at once, from hefeweizen to a honey wheat, to an authoritative weizenbock.

The brewing operations on other bases ebb and flow as troop deployments play out. Club Alliance at Yokosuka, Japan, has the largest capacity of any of the military base brew pubs, but when the fleet sails, the brewpub stops brewing, to resume again when the fleet comes home.

At Fort Bragg in North Carolina, the taps currently feature six house-brewed beers at Iron Mike’s, the bar and brewpub: amber, yingyang, Fuggles, a German wheat, an Australian lager and an extra special bitter. The brewpub has been operating since the fall of 2006. Iron Mike refers to the statue of a soldier that sits a block from the officer’s club. Like many of these brewpubs, Iron Mike’s brands its décor, beer and tap handles with references to local base lore.

“We had a boss, Col. Post, who had been to the brewpub at Fort Drum, and thought it would be a wonderful idea for Fort Bragg,” recalls Michelle Hagwood, the club manager.

“She was one of the first people that started that initiative.”

When it opened, the novelty of a brewpub was a lure to the soldiers, but ingrained army traditions may have kept some away. “We are the Fort Bragg Officer’s Club and that limits our clientele a little. There are about 50,000 soldiers on the base. Very few of them are officers; most are enlisted. We’re open to everybody, but when it says “officers club” on the door, it deters the enlisted folks.”

That’s a shame, because the brewpub is sleek and modern with large-screen tvs. And brewer Isell Oquembo produces a range of craft styles, meticulously executing her training.

“On days that I’m brewing, the most important step is cleaning and sanitizing. I get the equipment out of the cooler so it can come up to room temperature, then the first steps take about three hours,” she says. She likens the brewing process to “cooking a good soup.” German wheat beers are among her most popular brews: Michelle Hagwood confesses that a fresh hefeweizen with an added shot of peach schnapps is “out of this world.”

Unexpected Benefits

The popularity of military brewpubs has been swept along with the demand for everything else from the civilian world to have its counterpart in the military sphere.

“I think the popularity of the brewpubs may have something to do with the recruiting/retention issue,” speculates Michael Smith, Micropubs president. “The MWR organization sees the benefits in making the base where these people live as much like home as possible. Providing an up-scale brewpub setting is seen as a draw.”

There may also have been some unintended but positive consequences. Brewpubs aren’t like bars. “It seems to have changed the culture a little,” says Smith. “Historically, when enlisted men or women would get off duty, the assumption was that they’d go to a bar and drink half a case of beer and get in trouble. Our places don’t lend themselves to that kind of drinking style.”

In certain cases, it seems to have led to a reduction in problems like DUIs. Fort Irwin, where Smith’s company built their first brewpub, is located about halfway between Las Vegas and Los Angeles in the middle of the desert, down a 35-mile access road. The side of the road is dotted with crosses to mark the deaths of drivers who came home too fast and too drunk from Barstow. “This is all anecdotal,’ cautions Smith, “but the accounts we hear say that there are fewer DUIs. That would be great.”

Serving Comfort, Not Conflict

Just as in the civilian world, military brewpubs encourage a perspective on beer that invites the drinker to pause and savor, not drink blindly. With the emphasis on freshness and diversity and the importance of good food and company, the brewpubs extend to hard-working soldiers and sailors (and other branches perhaps yet to come) the pleasures of a well-earned pint. If serving men and women are sipping beers the rest of us can’t get, well, they probably deserve it.