Imagined while at war, soldier’s dream becomes reality as military-minded brewery takes hold in St. Albans
Photographed by Gary Hall
It is — as Billy Joel sang in his ’70s hit “Piano Man” — a pretty good crowd for a Saturday. Except it isn’t Saturday — it’s the middle of the week in northern Vermont and the crowd at 14th Star Brewery spills from the hardwood bar to the picnic table seating to the back room where about 30 people, predominantly women, take part in a directed art exercise marketed as “Paint and a Pint.”
Over the shoulders of the beer drinkers at the bar, the regular crowd shuffles in, queuing up to have their half-gallon glass growlers filled. Some quiz the bartenders about new beers on tap, some swill small samples before deciding on what brew to bring home to tide them over until the weekend.
Andrea Gagner is slinging beers tonight. She’s actually the CEO of the brewery, but as the painters and the regulars commingle in the taproom, she’s pouring pints of Valor ale and Tribute double IPA, ringing up sales at the register.
Located in the heart of downtown St. Albans, 14th Star Brewery is a part of Vermont’s thriving craft beer industry. In four short years, an idea that was hatched during downtime between patrols in Afghanistan has grown from a part-time operation into a company with a reported $2.5 million in annual sales. But there’s more to it than that. 14th Star’s ascension is a case study in small business success, a central figure in downtown St. Albans’ aggressive revitalization and a reliable partner for numerous charitable causes, especially those focused on veterans.
The genesis of 14th Star begins in a small outpost east of Bagram Airfield, a sprawling U.S. military base in Afghanistan, where Steve Gagner was serving. There, he would often come under sporadic and usually inaccurate rocket fire from Taliban troops, but there was also plenty of that hurry-up-and-wait that the U.S. Army is famous for. In those monotonous moments an idea took shape.