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.
“I started it as a mental exercise,” said Gagner, 37. “I didn’t want to be financially tied to the military for the rest of my life, so I was trying to devise a plan that would provide some opportunity when I finally got out of Afghanistan.”
Gagner, a product of Franklin County’s Missisquoi Valley Union High School and Norwich University, had also served in Iraq, assigned as a platoon leader, conducting combat patrols and training and fighting alongside Iraqi soldiers in the city of Najaf. Back stateside in 2006, he was working at the Rutland Armory of the Vermont National Guard, living in Swanton, and driving the two-and-a-half hours down U.S. 7 several times a week. If he wasn’t at work or on the road, he was holed up in his apartment. “I was fairly depressed,” Gagner said. “I needed to find some things to do.”
He started making soap, enough so that he could sell a few bars at small craft fairs and bazaars. Soap-making led him to try his hand at making cheese, which in turn led to homebrewing beer.
“Brewing is what captivated me,” Gagner said. “It combined science with my love of good beer. I brewed a lot back then to pass the time, and I gave a lot of my beer away. I had carboys and bottles all over my apartment.”
Then came the deployment to Afghanistan. During lulls, he wrote a business plan for a brewery in Franklin County, taking guesses as to costs for things like equipment, insurance and permits. When Gagner came back to Vermont in 2011, he filled out the necessary state and local paperwork, borrowed some funds from his retirement savings and established 14th Star — a nod to Vermont’s place in the Union — as the 23rd licensed brewery in the state of Vermont.
By early 2012, 14th Star had set up shop in a small industrial building on Lower Newton Street in St. Albans City. That’s where Gagner got the first inkling of the depth of support in the Franklin County community. The monthly rent on the 1,200-square-foot building was more than the business plan allowed, and Gagner needed to make a deal with the landlord, Jeff Dussault. Dussault recalls, “I wanted $850 a month, and Steve asked if he could pay me $500 a month for the first few months and then make up the difference in the months after that. He had this hand-written business plan that he showed me, and you could tell he had his ducks in a row when he came to me. So I trusted him. It only took about a year for him to get caught up.”
It wasn’t long after getting the break on the rent that Gagner learned the Vermont craft brewing community would also provide a boost. The 2012 Vermont Brewers Festival was looming in midsummer in Burlington, and while the fledgling 14th Star Brewery was gaining fans in northwestern Vermont, it was producing just one barrel — about 31 gallons — of beer at a time. To be in the Vermont Brewers Festival, 14th Star needed to deliver multiple kegs, something the startup couldn’t handle. In stepped Paul Sayler, co-founder of Zero Gravity Craft Brewery, who invited the Franklin County crew to use their recipe and his equipment to make enough beer to enter into the festival.
“That’s sort of like telling your boss you need a ride to work and he tells you to take his car,” Gagner said. “Then you find out his car is a $300,000 Ferrari.”
The 2012 Brewers Festival, as well as a continuing presence at Zero Gravity’s American Flatbread Hearth in Burlington, kicked off 14th Star’s ascent, and the small St. Albans brewery was filling growlers from its garage-sized site at a decent clip. Then one day, while Gagner was working inside the building, St. Albans restaurateur Domenico Spano, of Mimmo’s Pizzeria, knocked on the locked door. “He was like, ‘I’ve heard about your beer. People want a local beer. I need to sell it at my place,’” said Gagner. “I couldn’t just give him beer to sell, there are laws and regulations I have to follow, but it didn’t take us long to figure out how to get him a keg so he could start selling it.”
In the spring of 2013, 14th Star brought Dan Sartwell on as brewmaster. Sartwell had worked at several Vermont breweries, including Rock Art and the Trapp Family Lodge, and Gagner credits his expertise with giving the brand a creative jolt. That, in turn, pushed 14th Star to start looking for a larger space than the rental building, and it also convinced Gagner’s older sister, Andrea, to leave her job at a pharmaceutical company and come on board as the brewery’s general manager. “I had been entrenched in the corporate world, but when I sat down with Steve and started talking about where he wanted to go, it was clear that wherever it was going was up,” she said. The expansion plan also dovetailed with a revitalization taking place in downtown St. Albans — a decade-long, $40 million process that has returned vibrancy to the historic heart of Franklin County.
In late 2014, 14th Star made the leap from the small rented building to the site of a former bowling alley that was sitting idle in a rather nondescript Main Street strip mall. At the time, adding life to central St. Albans was especially important because of megaretailer Wal-Mart opening a store on the outskirts of the city, putting pressure on downtown businesses. “It was fortuitous,” said Chip Sawyer, director of planning and development for St. Albans City. “If we didn’t have 14th Star, we would be jonesing for a locally owned craft beer brewery to locate in downtown.”
The bar in the 2,500-square-foot taproom is made of wood recycled from the lanes of the bowling alley. Brewing equipment and coolers fill up a 13,000-square-foot brewery where the bowling lanes once were. Ten employees are now on staff. In addition to selling draft beer in the taproom, 14th Star began canning its beer and increased distribution throughout the state. It raised production to more than 5,000 barrels of beer in 2015 and is on pace to brew about 7,000 barrels this year. The company’s top seller, the Tribute double IPA, was rated “outstanding” by the website Beer Advocate and also won a gold medal at the 2015 Tastings World Beer Championships. Maple Breakfast Stout, brewed with 100 percent pure Vermont maple syrup, won a silver medal at the same world championships.
Steve credits Andrea with spearheading the growth. “She’s really running the show,” he said. Andrea is already planning to expand in the current space, adding a banquet room adjacent to the taproom. She is working to increase distribution beyond Vermont and Massachusetts and is exploring ways to get cans of 14th Star beer sold near a handful of military bases in the Northeast. On those nights when she’s not tending bar, she’s making sure 14th Star has a robust calendar of events — which includes everything from the painting nights to live local music.
Sawyer, the city development director, said, “The brewery is a very good neighbor, an important part of what there is to do in downtown St. Albans. We need companies like 14th Star. We’re lucky they set up shop here.”
Earlier this year, Andrea traveled to a slew of brewers’ festivals and beer tastings — one as far away as Spain — searching for further inspiration and ideas to fold into 14th Star’s journey forward.
“It’s taken hard work and tremendous support from the community to get where we are,” said Andrea, “and now that we’ve kind of found our footing, there’s a responsibility that comes with that. We’ve got to make sure we’re growing the right way and in a responsible manner.”