For Life After the Navy, A Veteran Turns to Beer

A man is squatting next to beer brewing machinery.

This week Michael Stacks will celebrate more than just Veteran's Day — this week, he will open the doors to The Bold Mariner Brewing Company, a venture that he dreamed of for much of his life.

For Michael Stacks, falling in love with craft beer was really a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Living in Michigan in the late ‘90s, operations like Bell’s had just started to gain a foothold, and microbrewers began popping up throughout the region. “I saw that they were making beer on a small scale — with Bell’s, he started out on a homebrewing system,” Stacks explains. “So it made me think, this doesn’t have to be just a hobby.”

A couple of failed attempts at using the Mr. Beer later (“It was a disaster,” he laughs), Stacks still found himself fascinated with the idea of making high-quality, craft brews on his own. It was an idea he could never really shake, not even after joining the Navy and relocating to Virginia Beach — where, fatefully, a fellow active-duty serviceman was operating his own homebrew shop. “We started talking about craft beer, and he invited me into his store,” Stacks says. “So I started to brew again at home, and I also continued thinking about how cool it would be to open a brewery after retiring from the Navy.”

As craft beer continued gaining momentum (and Norfolk became home to its first craft brewer, O’Connor), Stacks kept contemplating the idea of a brewery to call his own. “As more and more breweries started to open in the area, I realize that I needed to do it now if I wanted to be on the right side of the wave,” he says. “I started to set up my business so that when I retired from the Navy, the business would be up and running full-steam, and I could transition right from military into full-time brewer.”

Man dumping ingredients into a brewing still. Michael Stacks has gracefully transitioned from an active member of the military to a business owner and full-time brewer with the help of a The Jonas Project and a wide network of family and friends. Photos courtesy of Bold Mariner Brewing Co.

That initiative was helped in part by The Jonas Project, a non-profit organization that provides resources and business mentoring for veterans transitioning from the military into entrepreneurial careers. Focusing on the critical first two years in a new business’s lifespan, The Jonas Project offers a range of services to its participants: legal consulting, management consulting, tax and accounting advice, and in some cases, interest-free start-up loans to be repaid once the business has reached financial viability. Stacks’ assigned mentor, Paul Tuennerman (yes, that Paul) helped Stacks define his concept, introduced him to resources, and gave recommendations along the way. “He was able to give me access to resources I wouldn’t even have known about,” says Stacks.

Once the business plans were hammered out, it was time to get down to brass tacks: the beer. (Luckily, that’s been an area of expertise for Stacks for quite some time: his dad was a homebrewer, too, and Stacks says he’s been a fan of beer since he first discovered the stuff.) “As we brew and we add more equipment, we'll be able to add more variety. Our goal is to be able to have our year-round, steady beers as well as a good assortment of seasonal beers, so when you come in, there's always something that's refreshing for the weather but you'll also be able to get our flagship beers that are the year-round favorites,” says Stacks. “I'm big on listening to the customers and seeing what they like, and what's popular in the area. As we keep brewing, we plan on trying to find that dial that could be unique to Norfolk, and go with it.”

The brewery plans to open in mid-November, but locals got a chance to taste the goods early: Bold Mariner’s Red Maiden, an Irish American red, took third place in the People’s Choice category at Virginia Beach’s recent Battle of the Beers. Bold Mariner has also developed Bold Dominion, a pale ale, and Witty American, an American White.

Four beers are displayed in pint glasses in a brewery.The full variety of Bold Mariner offerings will soon be available to the public.