Norwich Alumnus taps into his pride

081114_OC_14th Star Brewery Steve G-39Norwich University has a long list of notable and prosperous alumni to be proud of: seven Medal of Honor recipients, a number of military generals, the architect of the trans-continental railway, even a former Chief of Staff of the Army to President Bush.

The newest addition to the list? An established beer brewer. Steve Gagner is an alum from the graduating class of 2003 and current Army National Guard Captain. He is also the founder and current owner of 14th Star Brewery and will be an integral part in these next four years of the Forging the Future campaign that Norwich University has embarked upon.

Gagner began his time here at Norwich as a rook in 1996. However after the completion of his sophomore year he took four years to go active duty army before returning in the fall of 2001 to finish out his education. Upon graduating from Norwich, he left the school with a degree in business and a commission as an armor officer in the army.

He quickly transferred branches into infantry and served two tours; one in Operation Iraqi Freedom and one in Operation Enduring Freedom. It was between these two tours, while still separated from his family back home, that Gagner first began his hobby of home brewing.

Interest in his new hobby followed Gagner to Afghanistan where in the back of a write-in-the-rain notebook (something Norwich cadets are all too familiar with) he began to draw up a basic business plan for what would become 14th Star Brewery (the name refers to Vermont’s role as the 14th state to join the original 13 colonies in 1791 after 14 years as an independent republic.)

Armed with help from a fellow wartime friend and whole lot of determination, Gagner began his brewing process as soon as he got home. To say 14th Star Brewery had very humble beginnings would be an understatement.

All of Gagner’s original brewing equipment was homemade to lower the startup cost. However it didn’t take long for the company to find its legs and begin pouring out crisp, homemade brews by the barrel. And as a tribute to Gagner’s dedication and leadership, the renown and production abilities of the company have only been going up.

Of the 40 registered microbreweries in the state of Vermont, 14th Star has been named not only the fastest-growing but the sixth largest in production.

Testament to that is the company’s recent construction of a new brewing facility – and it’s no minor upgrade. Beer will be brewed within a 16,000-square-foot facility compared to its small 1,200 square foot predecessor. The projected total amount of production will be 8700 barrels per year creating a grand total of 269,700 gallons of homemade, military dedicated Vermont beer.

How did he get involved with Norwich’s major new fundraising campaign?

Proud of his Norwich heritage and looking to give back, Gagner reached out to the school administration before the beginning of the five-year campaign. It was a perfect match, as the school was also looking for something different, something “to engage and commemorate the alumni,” as Ganger explained.

The college and Gagner agreed on a series of five commemorative annual beers, starting this year and following through to the fall of 2018. Production of each annual beer will be limited to just that year, until a variety pack of all five beers is released at the end of the centennial celebration.

The first beer to be produced, which was sold at alumni weekend this past September, was named Citizen Soldier and is a “clean, crisp, light-bodied, amber ale” that was produced in 1,000 bottles.

The name Citizen Soldier and taste profile of the beer were decided upon by alumni themselves. Put out through forms of social media, the name and taste won their way to the top.

The logo for the beer was designed by Kate Alberghini, a graphics designer in the Office of Communications for Norwich. Alberghini received the initial template for the bottle and modeled the design around the logo for the Forging the Future campaign. In it, a cadet walks to the top of Centennial stairs with the black lamp post illuminated on his left. The message? We are “lighting the way into our next 100 years.”

Gagner has not allowed his contribution to the school to stop at the bottom of the Citizen Soldier bottle. Using the knowledge from his own business degree, and more importantly, all the incredible firsthand experience he has gained in creating his own business, Gagner is partnering up with the students as well.

During the next four years, Gagner will be working with interested entrepreneurial students to coordinate the release of the annual brews, allowing them real work experience before leaving school.

Capt. Gagner is happy to be giving back to his alma mater and community. He explained how the lessons he learned at this institution have proved invaluable in his military experience and also in being the owner of a company. Honesty and integrity aren’t just words taken from a rook book, but as he describes, real-life principles that need to be applied.

“Bad news doesn’t get better with time” he explained. As a leader or a manager “you need to have to the courage to admit when you are not able to make a deadline. It allows people to build trust in you.”

He added that an early wake-up and long work day isn’t just a Norwich experience. Gagner describes how in the business world you need to get up early and work long hours “to do what needs to get done.”

But don’t get the idea that brewing and running a business is all work. Gagner enjoys his brewing business because it is a product that “brings people together.” There is a certain amount of joy, he said, that comes from knowing people will be sharing and enjoying your product over dinner as it has been done for thousands of years.

At the end of the interview, Capt. Gagner was asked about one of his favorite memories from his time at school. After a quick chuckle the answer came quickly. Late in the fall, like the current time of year, the leaves from all the trees around the Upper Parade ground would be raked up. What is one to do with bountiful piles of freshly raked leaves? Leap into them while running at a full sprint. And that’s exactly what Gagner and then classmates Mark Dooley (killed in action Sept. 19, 2005), Matt Russo, Gene Enriquez and Brendan Conway would do.

Rooks, don’t get any ideas.

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