By Andi Prewitt
If the founders of Salem’s Vagabond Brewing ever offer to buy you a one-way plane ticket to any place in the world, better take them up on it. You’d be the first to do so. The four marines-turned-brewery-operators used to issue this challenge to people who expressed awe about their ability to drop everything and travel. But their experience wasn’t out-of-reach. It just required abandoning any sort of comfort zone. In order to get others to step outside their secure lifestyle, the Vagabond owners would ask individuals whether they’d like the airfare. The catch: the flight would have to leave the following week. Perhaps not surprisingly, no one ever accepted the proposal.
Risk-taking isn’t for everybody, but it’s pretty much defined the lives of James Cardwell, Ryan Fineran, Dean Howes, and Alvin Klausen. Not only have they served 12 combined tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq; each also traveled extensively after getting out of the military. Now that the group has a brewery, they’re honoring fellow adventurers this month by holding celebrations for Veterans Day.
The brewery will be running specials for veterans on Friday, November 7th through Veterans Day on Tuesday, November 11th. There are also plans for Vagabond tap takeovers at two locations in north and south Salem. And that’s not the only occasion the brewery will mark this month. Most people are familiar with Veterans Day, but not all have heard of the Marine Corps Birthday, which takes place Monday, November 10th. Units are known to celebrate the event no matter where they may be stationed. Vagabond is featuring a catered dinner for local Marines to honor the Corps’ 239th birthday and including many of the long-established practices associated with the event. For example, the oldest Marine and youngest Marine present participate in a cake cutting ceremony. There will also be a reading of a message from the Commandant of the Marine Corps. And to add a bit of Vagabond flavor to the observance, the brewery is making a special Semper Fi IPA to pour that day. The brewery’s business manager Dean Howes says the birthday helps service members maintain a bond:
“It’s very rooted in tradition. A lot of Marines get out and you kind of lose that camaraderie and your connection to that sort of thing, so having an event on the birthday is important to a lot of the guys.”
Losing that daily interaction with other Marines can be a jarring, if not downright-traumatic, experience. Upon leaving the service, which is a life filled with built-in structure, purpose, and community, some individuals find themselves adrift. Howes and Vagabond’s marketing and distribution manager Alvin Klausen dealt with that shift after three back-to-back deployments.
“You basically go from a very regimented, regulated life and then it’s like, ‘All right, bye! Have a nice life!’ And literally the next morning no one’s telling you where to be. You don’t have any responsibility to anything,” explains Howes. “But you just have the weight of the world on your shoulders and you were in charge of people and their lives and making decisions that affect people forever. And you’re doing this thing that hopefully you felt was important and worthwhile and then suddenly now what do you do?”
Of course they did the most obvious, logical thing possible at the time: buy a van off of Craigslist and start driving south. Howes admits it may sound drastic or dire. However, the journey ended up being anything but that. Their travels took them through Central and South America, which provided some much-needed perspective after they spent their adult lives in the service. The friends saw there was much more out there to experience. And it was an opportunity to simply unwind. During this trip the two also developed the idea of starting a brewery.
Given the founders’ experiences, it’s easy to see how they came up with Vagabond’s motto: “Beer. Love. Adventure.” But starting the brewery proved to be quite a challenge. The group decided to use the crowdfunding resource Kickstarter to raise money even though their research showed them that the site’s failure rate for breweries was quite high. They set a target--$25,000 in about 30 days, kicking off one of the busiest months they’ve ever experienced. To the surprise of some users, you don’t just sit around and wait for free money to pour in. It takes a lot of public campaigning and stifling your shame. The group recalls they struggled with the uncertainty of it all.
“Keep pushing—like not knowing if it’s going to pay off. Because if it fails you fail real publicly. It’s like all or nothing the way Kickstarter is. So you either make it or you get nothing. And you basically fail in front of everybody,” says Howes. “And in order to try and make it work you literally present it to everybody that matters in your life and everyone that you care about.”
Vagabond ended up surpassing its goal by more than $3,000, which then helped secure traditional lenders. But more importantly it provided a much-needed boost of confidence by showing that others had faith in their project. The brewery eventually opened in February 2014 and much of what the friends learned in the service—discipline and always having the other Marine’s back—helped get things up and running.
“For a while there we were working 100 hour weeks for months straight, seven days a week—just going,” recalls Howes. “And I think a lot of that too was probably cathartic. And you put everything into something because that’s what you used to do. And you do it for each other, which is why most guys will tell you they serve or why they fight.”
It might be human nature, but the wandering periods of life seem to come and go. The kinds of risks that are taken tend to change and most strive for some sense of permanence in. The four vagabonds who started the brewery have built a home for themselves, their growing families, veterans, and beer lovers. Ultimately, they still embrace the ethos of the wanderer—so don’t be surprised if one of them offers to buy you that one-way plane ticket.
[a] 2195 Hyacinth St NE #172, Salem
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.