Kevin Sandefur didn’t know much about craft beer in the late 1980s. At the time, he was stationed in Homestead, Fla., as a linguist in the U.S. Navy. There, a friend and co-worker introduced him to homebrewing.
“I had no idea you [could] make beer at home,” he says. “So, I learned the ropes.”
Decades later, Sandefur began gifting his homebrews to colleagues at Harris Regional Hospital in Sylva, where he worked as a nurse.
“One day, I came in, and a group of doctors pulled me aside and said, ‘Hey, you need to start a brewery,’” he says. “They handed me an envelope with a check [and became] my first investors.”
About a year later, in 2012, BearWaters Brewing Co. launched. Today it has three locations in Haywood County.
Like Sandefur, there are several other local veterans who’ve found similar success in Western North Carolina’s brewing industry. And while their styles may vary, these brewers all agree that their current accomplishments are linked to their past service.
Grill, brew, bond — repeat
For many who are enlisted, cooking becomes a means of building community.
Chris Melton, head brewer at Lookout Brewing Co. in Black Mountain, says he spent a lot of time over the grill while stationed in Hawaii in communications intelligence with the Navy. And that passion, he says, extended from land to sea. Often when deployed, he would help prepare meals alongside the chefs inside submarine kitchens.
“Man, that was always a good time,” he notes. “We were temporarily part of their crew. It was a bonding experience.”
When on base, Melton and his buddies often sipped on local favorites from Kona Brewing Co. and Maui Brewing Co. Meanwhile, frequent deployments to the Far East exposed him to the rice lagers inherent to the region.
Those moments of bonding over food and beer stuck with Melton after he returned to his native Buncombe County. He regularly hosted friends in his backyard, serving meals and homebrewed beers.
Sandefur echoes Melton’s experience.
“For a lot of guys in the military, that was a hobby we all had outside of work: taking turns to cook and host,” he says. These gatherings, he continues, went beyond meals, allowing service members a chance to share parts of their cultural traditions and upbringing.
“My wife always says that food is my love language,” Sandefur continues. “For me, brewing has always been a natural extension of that. Just playing with different flavor profiles and seeing how far to push the envelope with things.”
Taste of Germany
The transition from military service to civilian life can be tricky to navigate for some.
Mike Baer, owner and founder of Guidon Brewing Co. in Hendersonville, was at a loss after his 20-year career with the U.S. Army ended at Fort Stewart, near Savannah, Ga.
He says the skills he learned in the military, where he worked in reconnaissance, offered a narrow range of opportunities tied to defense contracting and law enforcement. Neither path appealed to him.
Homebrewing, however, had been a major part of his service life. While stationed in Germany, he discovered his love for German-style beer. Once he returned stateside in the early 2000s, he attempted to replicate the flavors.
“I couldn’t afford import, and we didn’t have a whole lot of craft beer options on the shelves at the time,” he remembers.
Eventually, one of Baer’s civilian friends, a beer distributor, suggested he pursue it professionally.
“[My friend] had tasted my [homebrewed beer] and thought it was good,” he recalls. “And as someone who sells beer, I figured he would know what good beer is and what kind of beer sells. That kind of planted the seed in my head about opening a brewery.”
Baer’s passion eventually brought him north, where he enrolled in the brewing certificate program at South College Asheville campus. And by 2019, Guidon was a reality.
For other veterans, such as Greig Hillman, the journey from military to brewery is less direct. After serving in the Air Force, Hillman initially purchased several Subway restaurants around Greenville, S.C.
It was not until Hillman’s brother, Brad, then a homebrewer based in New York City, relocated to the South that the pair turned to the beer industry. At that point, the two siblings, along with Greig’s wife, Brandi, went into business. The trio launched Hillman Beer in 2017 and later opened a second location in Old Fort. (They have a third spot coming to Morganton soon.)
But what Greig Hillman has in common with the other three veterans interviewed for this article is a collective appreciation for how their service, and the organizational skills it taught them, continues to inform how they own and operate their breweries and businesses today.
“I have brought a lot of that into everything I’ve done after the military,” Hillman says. “It’s very structured and organized; everything is done on checklists. So, all of our breweries and the Subways, they all had checklists that we all followed to help us get through a day, get through a week, and make sure everything we needed to do got done.”
Along with structure, Sandefur adds that the military’s inclusive culture has helped him better understand how to manage personalities within the brewing industry.
“Knowing how to take a diverse group of people and blending them into a team that is working toward a common goal is something that I really took away from the military,” he says.