14th Star looks to 2015

Brewery born in plans drawn in a battle zone

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By Roy Mercon, Messenger Correspondent

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ST. ALBANS — Steven Gagner, a captain in the Vermont National Guard’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team, oversees the operations of specialists who would assist various agencies around the region in the event of a specialized weapon-of-mass destruction attack.

In addition to his full-time military profession, Gagner serves in a role more familiar role to those who have just gotten to know him, as the owner/head brewer at 14th Star Brewery, now located in a new location in the St. Albans Shopping Plaza.

The move puts the brewery in a position to capitalize on growth opportunities in the new year and to develop a solid base of customers, something that’s been an obvious potential since it began on a much smaller scale using a plan hatched in a war zone.

The old facility had a production capacity of 800, 31-gallon barrels a year. At its new site, 14th Star Brewery can produce 10,000 barrels annually.

A self-described “typical procrastinator” during high school, Gagner was cutting it close when it came to deciding what to do after his graduation from Missisquoi Valley Union. It was the posters on the wall of the school’s guidance counselor’s office that started the chain of events that would come to define his career.

“[On the wall], there was UVM, there was Champlain, UMaine and UMass (informational materials), and they were all very similar,” said Steve. “It was the college kids sitting under the big oak tree or whatever. … It was all just white noise to me. Then there was this poster that was maroon and gold, and it said ‘Norwich University- Since 1819.’ I thought, ‘Well that place looks pretty prestigious.’”

At the time, he didn’t even know the military connection to the university.

His guidance counselor tried to talk him out of attending Norwich, he said, but the military aspect wasn’t even mentioned. It was only after talking it over with his career-military father (at the time head of the Vermont Army National Guard Recruiting and Retention Command unit) that he learned what the school’s Corps of Cadets was.

At the time, the name sounded cool to him, so the younger Gagner applied. After receiving his acceptance letter and surviving what he referred to as ‘Private School Sticker Shock,” Steve enlisted in the Vermont Army National Guard to earn assistance paying for his education. While his motives were higher education, he said he has received much more during his military career.

He has served in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, participating in some of the heaviest fighting the Vermont brigade saw during its deployment in 2010.

“In the summer of 2010, we launched 1,100 mortar rounds, which has to be some kind of record,” said Gagner. “The greatest thing I’ve ever done in the Army is being able to say that I brought all of my guys home from that.”

It was during that year of fighting in the hills of Afghanistan that Steve and his partner got the idea to start a brewery.

“In between patrols, attacks, cleaning your weapon, training … I wrote a business plan for a brewery. I’ve been home brewing for a number of years before that,” he said.

Phenomenal growth

Though the business plan he wrote during his days in combat didn’t call for the expansion his company recently underwent, Gagner wasn’t complaining when late last year he spoke about progress made.

Speaking of the brewery then, he said, “For the first two years, growth was 4,300 percent. With this scale-up, it’s another ten-fold expansion, so in two-and-a-half years, growth is 43,000 percent, which is ridiculous. It’s not even a real number at this point.”

Before 14th Star, named for Vermont’s place as the 14th state and star on the American flag, Gagner says there wasn’t a brewery north of Burlington. He chose St. Albans, because this is the area where he grew up, and it’s where he lives.

“This is the perfect place for it,” said Gagner. “It’s a great little city, and I thought it needed something like this.”

Having moved from its start-up location on Lower Newtown Street to the former St. Albans Bowling Center, which underwent significant remodeling to accommodate the machinery of the operation, 14th Star Brewery is also interested in having a role in the community.

With an offer of 820 pounds of donated goods, the brewery helped to make the stressful holiday season a little easier to bear for those that rely on the local food shelf.

The donation was made to the local food shelf after the brewery’s Dec. 18, Release Party Food Drive.

After donating non-perishable food items attendees were given the right to purchase 14th Star’s first canned beer in the facility’s new taproom. Those attending also had the opportunity to sample 11 beers on tap, including the new salted caramel brown and black IPA varieties.

Walt Gaskill, the food shelf coordinator, considers the amount of food donated from the event to be significant, considering the uncertain nature of community donations. He said that the food shelf exists solely through donations, which benefits around 30 families daily.

After the celebration, the food items were loaded into a van, filling it to the brim. Gaskill said the load was so large, he had trouble transporting it all from the van to the loading dock at the food shelf.

The evening at the brewery, however, was also an opportunity for the public to see the fruits of the recent and rapid successes of the brewery.

The first two types of canned beer made available to the public were a double IPA and a stout. The IPA is called “Tribute,” and according to the brewery’s website, is “a celebration of hops, pure and simple.” The Maple Breakfast Stout is brewed with real Vermont maple syrup, and was the clear favorite of the two that evening.

“This is my favorite brewery,” said Patrick Trombley, a chemist at Mylan Technologies, who attended the event, purchasing two four-packs of each, which was the maximum amount allowed. “I’ve been drinking Vermont beers for about 10 years, and I’m really glad they’ve opened up,” he added.