Mike McCreary with Hatch Plug, Nomad, Big Wally, assistant brewer Justin and their friend Tony, another Iraq Vet
The Great Recession was, and still is, the cause of plenty of pain. People have lost homes, jobs, cars and worse. But it has also provided the inspiration for some to find a better way. For Mike McCreary, the founder of Connecticut-based Cavalry Brewing, that better way involved beer.
English beer, to be exact.
In 2008, McCreary was laid off from his job in sales and marketing. But the Army veteran wasn't exactly your typical unemployed executive with five years of active duty and 18 as a reservist under his belt. In 2003 he was in Iraq as a member of the civil affairs team attached to the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment. He was responsible for a lot of the infrastructure projects meant to restore power, water, sewer service and all the other niceties of civil society to the Iraqi right in the thick of the conflict. After that kind of experience, it was only natural for him to want to build something of his own – Cavalry Brewing.
“We got back from Iraq after far too many close calls and luckily, the entire team made it back,” said McCreary. “I wasn't quite so lucky in 2008 and was running a division of a company and was let go along with many of my people,” said McCreary. “I drove my wife nuts for about six months and then decided to head for England to learn how to brew beer.”
McCreary jokes that his relationship with beer is his longest standing one, dating back to when his was 13 years old. But despite this long-lasting affair, he had no background in home brewing. So when he hopped on the plane to England he was essentially starting from scratch, with only his master's degree in biochemistry, a background in sales and marketing and 14 years in Army civil affairs to back him up. And unlike in Iraq, where there were bundles of cash in palaces to provide the funds for projects, he had to use his own resources to get the venture off the ground.
“I was originally going to start up a brewpub,” says McCreary. “But after a whole lot of research I realized a brewery was a better place to start – fewer workers, less licensing, just more simple overall. It was a way to talk about my experiences in the military and tell my friends' stories through a product I love.”
While many would-be brewers head straight to Germany or Belgium for their crash course in beer making, McCreary went to England to learn the traditional styles of that country because of their sessionable and easy-drinking nature. After six months spent learning from the best brewmasters the country had to offer, McCreary was ready to set up his own shop.
“I like balanced, drinkable beers – English style beers,” says McCreary. “I like beers with a malty backbone and subtle hop flavor. The kinds of beers that you sit down with and want to have another one when you’re done. I really just want to see people reaching for more than one of my beers.”
This year is Cavalry Brewing's first full year of production and the company is brewing up five different English-style beers, all named for members of his team in Iraq. The brewery is on pace to roll out between 1,000 and 1,200 barrels of these highly drinkable brews. Here are the ones to keep a look out for:
Dog Soldier Golden Ale – The civil affairs team attached to the 2nd ACR was split into five six-man teams, one of which was called Team Dog Soldier. Named after the friend who ran that team, Dog Soldier is an English Session Ale, with a mildly sweet malty overtone and a gentle hoppy bitterness that makes it a wonderful summer ale. It's light, crisp and clean, with a little palate-cleansing citrus that makes it that much more refreshing on a hot day. Plus, the 4 percent ABV rating means going back for more after sweaty out a few pints doing yard work isn't anything to feel guilty about.
Hatch Plug Ale – Just prior to leaving for Iraq, McCreary's unit traded a 1st LT to another unit for six M-16s. It was a win-win, since the other unit needed a lieutenant and the 2nd ACR was short on the guns they needed. That lieutenant was an engineer and ended up running the Baghdad airport in the early days of the rebuilding process, even setting up the telecommunications system in the area that allowed for cell phones. And despite trading him for firearms, the man this bottle is named for is still a friend. Apparently he's a good one, since the English Bitter is one of McCreary's favorite styles. Unlike more modern American-style bitters, this one is easy drinking, without the over-the-top hops so many associate with IPAs and bitters. It pours a bright amber, with clear floral and bready aromas and a muted orange tang to go with the well-balanced hops. According to McCreary, it “...goes down like it has wheels on it.” And since it's his sales leader, it seems others agree with him.
Marauder IPA – This one is a testament to the 75th Ranger Regiment. McCreary makes a point to make Cavalry Brewing a veteran owned and run business, so he hired a young man who spent four years with the Rangers as his assistant brewer. The beer they've developed as the banner bearer for the regiment is a classic English IPA – somewhat controversial with the hopheads given how these traditional India Pale Ales only have a slightly more pronounced bite from the hops than a typical beer does. It's surprisingly dark – a deep copper color with an odd musty aroma giving way to a lemony spark as it hits the tongue. Slightly peppery, Marauder offers up a light body and some nice bready malts and an almost caramel-like sweetness, but probably not quite enough hops for the typical IPA drinker. That said, it matches up to large chunks of grilled meat like a champ.
Big Wally Porter – The Civil Affairs Command CO was a Major who was, according to McCreary, ...”absolutely the right guy to lead the group.” Big Wally was knowledgeable and a bit loud – matching up nicely with the English porter Cavalry named for him. Adding a little coffee and chocolate malt, the porter is a great traditional beer. It's nearly coal black, with a thick head and just sweet enough to give the bitter backbone a run for its money. For a big beer, it's surprisingly light, making it that much more disappointing the brewery took it off the menu for the summer. But like Big Wally himself, it's hard to keep a good beer down and it'll be back on tap this Fall.
Nomad Stout – Named for a close friend who ran Team Nomad was in southeast Baghdad and its CO, one of McCreary's friends, who got wounded – without any help from insurgents. His team moved to Camp Mule Skinner, which used to be the Iraqi war college, after their original base was blown up. He ended up bunking in a building with ceiling fans and caught his hand on one while doing laundry. Sadly, no Purple Heart for him. The dry Irish stout that was named in his honor offers up a lighter texture than a typical stout. Oddly enough, it features some German hops despite McCreary's near obsessive dedication to English ingredients – even recreating the water hardness from England. There's an almost chocolaty charcoal flavor in the mix, with a smoothly bitter hop punch and nice overarching lemon pucker that brings the brew together into something more than the sum of its parts. Team Nomad should be proud, though it may be wise to stay far away from ceiling fans while drinking one (or more) of these.