Alan Beal, the chief executive of the fledgling Armed Forces Brewing Company, was scouting locations in Florida to buy a brewery in January when he got a call from Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

“The governor let me know that Virginia would love to have us relocate and open a brewing facility and employ Virginians,” Beal said in a “classified briefing” video for the company’s investors.

Virginia already had more than 340 breweries, but Youngkin wanted at least one more. So the state came a-courting. The Virginia Economic Development Partnership created Project Seawolf, offering for sale Norfolk’s O’Connor Brewing and more than $300,000 in tax incentives, details first reported by Dave Infante in his Fingers newsletter about drinking.

Armed Forces sealed the deal in July, taking control of a trailblazing brewery that had helped transform what was once a depressed, largely industrial neighborhood into a hip, bustling enclave of businesses, restaurants and apartments known as the Railroad District. City Council members, who are typically consulted on big business moves happening in their backyard, learned about the sale when Youngkin’s office issued a press release.

In the investor video, Beal called Norfolk " just a great community for us to locate,” noting there were 100,000 military family members in the area in addition to its 82,000 active-duty personnel.

Bringing a “military tribute” craft brewery to the home of the world’s largest naval base and its thousands of personnel sounded like a perfect marriage — until neighborhood residents found out.

Rather than “Ooh-rah,” their reaction was “Oh no.”

Hundreds posted their opposition on social media. More than 800 filed objections to the brewery’s application for a required conditional use permit. In a surprise vote last month, Planning Commission members recommended denial, contradicting a staff recommendation.

The final say sits with Norfolk’s City Council, which is scheduled to vote on Dec. 12 on whether to approve the company’s application to operate a brewery and a tasting room. Beal has said the company will sue if the application is denied.

Much hangs in the balance. The company has raised $7.5 million from investors but has operated $1.5 million in the red over the past two years while contracting out its brewing, according to filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

But the fight over Armed Forces Brewing Company is more than just a neighborhood spat. It mirrors increasingly divisive national battles about free speech and the ways in which businesses appeal to politicized niches of the public. To its supporters, Armed Forces is simply a brewery that wants to replace another with different branding, as portrayed by Tim Anderson, the firebrand delegate who represented the company at the planning commission. To others, notably some neighborhood residents, it’s a divisive business that glorifies violence, threatens LGBTQ people and says those with different views don’t love America.

Beer as community

Over the past decade, as the number of craft breweries nationwide has grown to more than 9,500, they have become local hubs, many explicitly representing themselves as progressive places welcoming all comers (and their pets).

Armed Forces is different. It’s the anti-craft beer, craft brewery, as conservative as Coors but with a $14 six-pack price tag. The company’s branding and its leaders cater to a specific niche, mocking hipster, “woke” culture and appealing to Fox News viewers. Beal’s social media posts show him wearing a “Trust in Beer, Not in Government” shirt, supporting indicted former President Donald Trump and mocking President Joe Biden. It chose as its brand ambassador Robert O’Neill, the SEAL Team 6 member who claims to have killed Osama bin Laden.

Eli Wilson, an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico and the author of “Beer and Society: How We Make Beer and Beer Makes Us,” said he’s not heard of a similar controversy over a brewery, but he is not surprised by the battle in Norfolk.

“The companies and people drawn to craft beer champion a kind of authenticity,” he said. Often, he noted, they are outspoken about their progressive social values. But that’s not the only way that kind of authenticity — the view “that my company is an expression of who I am, and what I believe” — can be presented.

“It can certainly manifest on the other side of the political spectrum,” he added.

Wilson said the controversy raises the thorny issue of people trying to stop a business only because it doesn’t align with their views.

“To not be hypocritical with how we approach the world, if we’re going to be okay with some folks leading with very strongly progressive values and holding events and supporting certain charities, I think we have to look at a little bit of symmetry and see the ethical value in allowing folks to make equal gestures in the opposite direction, as long as they’re not directly hurting anyone,” he added.

For as much ire as Armed Forces has attracted locally, it’s also garnered passionate supporters nationwide. The company raised $7.5 million from 9,300 investors who ponied up a minimum of $200 in what was essentially a crowdfunding campaign. Contributors got rewards ranging from stickers and hats for smaller amounts to a signed copy of O’Neill’s book, “The Operator,” for a $10,000 investment. Investors have no voting rights, and the company says it is uncertain if it will ever issue dividends. The stock cannot be sold on the open market.

Armed Forces was founded by two Gallaudet College mates. They hooked up with Beal, a college dropout who had been running a consulting business branding bars, and created Seawolf Brewery in Annapolis, a Navy-themed company that debuted with its Special Hops IPA at the Military Bowl in December 2017. Sales were negligible. According to an SEC filing, Seawolf had $30,881 in revenue from Jan. 1, 2018, through Dec. 31, 2019.

The latest stock offering shows the company operated at a loss in both 2021 and 2022, kept afloat by offerings. It paid no income taxes in 2022 because it had no taxable income.

In Norfolk, Armed Forces Brewing does not own the former O’Connor property, according to the October filing. SEC filings show a 72% share of the property is owned by a third party, Ironbound AFBC Properties, LLC, while Armed Forces has a 10-year lease and an option to purchase the property.

The third-party owners appear to include Evan Almeida, the owner of a New Jersey real estate investment firm and the multimillion-dollar Empire ATM Group who is listed as a principal of Ironbound. Almeida and his brother, Michael, appear as $50,000 to $99,000 investors on the Armed Forces site. He did not return a call seeking information about his holdings.

Diverse opposition

A Norfolk flagship would be almost certain to change the company’s financial position. But in the months since the July purchase announcement, the military tribute brewery in a military town has come under fire on social media for its testosterone-fueled, chest-beating and jingoistic marketing.

Many of those critics were especially unhappy with swaggering statements by O’Neill, Armed Forces’ brand ambassador. He drew the bulk of unfriendly fire for his social media posts criticizing the Navy for using a drag queen in a recruitment ad, mocking transgender people and refusing to wear a mask on an airplane during the pandemic.

In a cartoonish video courting investors that was widely shared online by critics, including veterans, O’Neill, assisted by a cleavage-forward blonde in tight military couture (the company’s marketing advisor, Amber Miller), rails against craft breweries while promoting a craft brewery. He pours a can of “p— water” into a toilet and destroys it with a grenade. He uses a Vulcan grip to immobilize a “slackster or coffee house misanthrope” who wants a “hoppier” brew (a role played by Beal clad in plaid and a porkpie hat), and he calls in a drone strike on a “pretentious foreign brewery.”

In August, O’Neill was arrested in a Dallas suburb for public intoxication and misdemeanor assault. A security guard who attempted to help him from a bar to his room told police he called him a racial slur.

In Hampton Roads, hundreds posted their opposition to Armed Forces and its ambassador on Facebook. “I cannot believe they are putting that BS in Norfolk,” one wrote, calling the company “this sexist, gun culture glorifying, hipster hating, racist magnet.”

The discontentment spread beyond social media. Del. Jackie Glass, D-Norfolk, held a town hall in a prominent gay bar noting anti-LGBTQ comments by O’Neill on social media and questioning whether the brewery was a good fit for the neighborhood. The local civic league as well as the neighboring one voted to oppose a use permit for the brewery.

Andrew Coplon, a Norfolk resident and founder of Craft Beer Professionals, an online industry forum with nearly 17,000 members, was a leader of the opposition. He said the O’Neill video promoting Armed Forces caught his attention, but he initially viewed it as borderline offensive and in poor taste.

“Once we dove deeper into the company and what they stood for and what their leadership represented, that’s when it truly became something that I did not believe reflects the values we have in our wonderful community,” he said.

He also said he was worried that Armed Forces’ goal of brewing the equivalent of 500,000 to 700,000 cases per year — a level of production that dwarfs O’Connor’s 200,000 annual output — would cause problems in what has become a more residential neighborhood as trucks move in and out.

At this November’s Planning Commission meeting, opponents like Jeff Ryder, head of Hampton Roads Pride, told the commissioners the brewery’s values as expressed by O’Neill didn’t fit the neighborhood.

“We have been challenged and dismayed to see Armed Forces Brewery coming into Norfolk and don’t feel that they are a business that will support our community or be a safe place for queer folks in Norfolk,” he said, noting that “there is rising hate and unfortunately, again, an increase in violence against queer people.”

Some veterans, too, opposed permit approval. Tom Wilder, a veteran who has operated Young Veterans Brewing Company in Virginia Beach for a decade and is soon opening a Norfolk location five blocks from the planned Armed Forces Brewing site, aired concerns about the company’s military-themed branding.

He noted that when Young Veterans got approval to open in Norfolk, “we were told if the civic leagues didn’t give us their blessing, the case was closed.”

“What you see from us (is) to never appear to be flag waving to sell our product. To never appear to make guns or warfare look too cool so as not to appear to be recruiting for military service or political parties,” he said. “Armed Forces have not taken those strides. Marketing a military-themed brand with American flags, guns and ammo is the low-hanging fruit of creativity. All the while, their CEO is not even a veteran.”

The Planning Commission voted 4-2 to recommend the denial of the permit despite a staff recommendation to approve, stunning Beal, who in another investor video called it a “sh–show.”

Beal has been clear he’s not a veteran and has said the company is committed to hiring veterans as 70% of its workforce. Of the 13 members of the management team listed on the brewery’s site, four are veterans.

Anderson, answering questions after the planning meeting, said Armed Forces is a good fit for the neighborhood. It’s just misunderstood.

“There’s been a lot of misinformation in the very beginning that has caused a part of the community to hate this company,” he said. “The misinformation is that Robert O’Neill is Armed Forces Brewery and that’s not the case.”

O’Neill, he noted, is a 4% owner but has been removed as brand ambassador.

“There’s been no anti-LGBTQ, anti-race or racist or any kind of comments from the Armed Forces Brewing Company,” he said. “Individuals on their own Twitter pages are just what those are — individual comments.”

Coplon isn’t buying that. “People truly equal brand and you cannot separate the personal behaviors of a company leader from their organization,” he said. “The actions that Armed Forces Brewing Company’s leadership has demonstrated is lack of good moral character. And I truly believe that their continued actions are problematic.”

Anderson predicted the City Council would approve the permit because “it’s gonna be hard to say you can’t operate the exact same business that operated there for nine years.” Last month, Beal urged supporters to email council members and city officials. They received nearly 9,600 emails, according to a city spokesman.

The Armed Forces counteroffensive

Armed Forces Brewing has not reached out to mend fences with local civic leagues and other opponents. If anything, it’s become more pugnacious.

Beal declined to answer questions after the Planning Commission meeting but later issued a statement decrying “a vocal minority who believe their personal social agenda places them above the law, and above the rights of the Hampton Roads military and veteran community that have overwhelmingly supported us.”

He also threatened legal action against opponents. “Those who defamed Armed Forces Brewing Company publicly at this hearing and leading up to it will learn that there are legal repercussions to publicly lying and affecting our 9,300 shareholders,” he said.

Pam Catindig, the brewer’s outside public relations consultant, offered to take questions but responded to none of them, including one seeking examples of defamatory statements and another about the number of employees who are veterans.

Wilson, the University of New Mexico professor, notes the booming industry he got into a dozen years ago as the beverage director at a craft brewery has become far more competitive. Building a brand viewed negatively by a portion of the community is a perilous move, he said.

“That is a dangerous, risky business strategy during times in which many craft brewers are really struggling to stay in the black — for them to go increasingly, socially and politically niche at a time when so many craft brewers are just desperate to cling on to enough business to keep them afloat,” he added. “Interesting decision.”

This story by Jim Morrison was originally published on The Virginia Mercury is an independent, nonprofit and nonpartisan news source covering Virginia government and policy. Access the original story here.

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