The Nicest Place in North Carolina: Dirtbag Ales Brewery in Hope Mills

NICEST PLACES IN AMERICA 2020 FINALIST
"Beer for the Troops"

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You know what helps quarantine pass quickly for troops coming home? Free, local beer.

In mid-March, Shannon Loper, operations manager for Dirtbag Ales Brewery and Tap Room, got a phone call. At first she thought it was a joke. The caller said he was Brian Knight, an operations director at the local USO, and he had a big request: Would the brewery provide free beer to soldiers returning to nearby Fort Bragg? The returning troops had to quarantine for two weeks to protect the other soldiers at the base from COVID-19, he said. “What better way to boost morale?” Loper had a lot of questions. She wanted to make sure he wasn’t just some prankster looking to scare up some free brew for his own needs. Finally she was convinced the request was legitimate, and the brewery donated 40 cases of beer to almost 900 returning troops.

“No one wants to go into quarantine, but it’s what they have to do,” he told Reader’s Digest. “Anything that can be done to help raise their spirits while they’re in quarantine is good.”

Knight, who was once one of those thirsty troops (Command Sergeant Major of the 82nd airborne division, retired), knew it was a lot to ask. So he proposed another idea: Customers who came in to buy beer for themselves could give a donation to provide beer to the quarantined troops. The brewery shared the idea on their Facebook page and in the first week, Dirtbag Ales had collected enough donations for 15 more cases.

Dirtbag Ales is owned by a bunch of Army veterans. Eric Whealton is a former Army nurse, Jerry Hall is a former Army officer, and Vernardo “Tito” Simmons-Valenzuela is a former Army medic and the head brewer. In November, the brewery released Heroes Homecoming pilsner in for a Veteran’s Day celebration.

dirt bag ale cansCourtesy Melody Foote
Providing beer for quarantined troops was a no-brainer for the owners of Dirtbag Ales Brewery.

Backing the troops is part of a larger theme of service at the brewery. “Every weekend we do something to benefit local charities,” Simmons-Valenzuela told Reader’s Digest. Quarterly, they host a “Ladies Night Out with a Cause” event where they bring in health and wellness vendors and collect hygiene products to donate to various women’s charities. One of their last Ladies Nights brought in enough supplies to fill their van.

Like a lot of America right now, Dirtbag Ales is grappling with issues around race. Two of the owners are Black (Hall and Simmons-Valenzuela), and all three support the cause of freedom. Recently, the brewery donated its space to the Juneteenth Freedom Festival, marking the end of slavery in the United States. Dirtbag’s pavilion can only seat 100 guests, but they invited people to bring blankets and spread out on the brewery’s six acres. Local leaders, poets, storytellers, and a historian entertained and educated the crowd.

“Donating their space [for people] to feel safe and have a voice is their way of providing something for this movement,” says Kia McMillan, an executive board member of Circa 1865, the organization that puts on the festival.

The Nomination

Approximately 5,000 soldiers have been returning from deployments to Fort Bragg, where many of them are being quarantined as a precautionary measure. When a brigade commander reached out to veteran-owned-and-operated Dirtbag Ales Brewery & Taproom (DBA) about donating beer to the returning troops, it was a no-brainer for DBA to jump on this cause. Last Veterans Day, DBA had collaborated with the Fayetteville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau (FACVB) in producing a beer specifically for the FACVB’s annual Heroes Homecoming initiative. DBA decided it was only appropriate to donate 900 cans of that same Homecoming Pilsner to welcome these soldiers home.

The public can support this initiative by donating a 6-pack to quarantined troops. DBA takes donations by phone or at the brewery. Each week, logistics specialists from four different units visit the brewery to pick up the donated brews and deliver them to the barracks where the troops are quarantined.

The community has shown remarkable resilience in this crisis. So many businesses on in an instant turned around and changed their business model. the public has continued to support restaurants, stores and other business hit held by closures.

For me, I’ve been lucky to be able to work from home 3 days a week. And we can easily social distance in our office. I am extremely lucky and blessed.

I have always thought of our community as kind. The community is also has a heritage of service, dedication and perseverance. It inherent here, in part because many of our neighbors are affiliated with Fort Bragg, the largest military installation in the US (by population). We lift up and support each other on a daily basis. A great example – a few years ago my husband’s transmission dropped out of his car when he was on a busy road with my two kids, who were toddlers. This was in the days before cell phones were common. Two young service members immediately pulled over to help him move his car and let him use their phone to call me.

Today, the biggest change I see is people are actively supporting the businesses that are affected by the COVID-19 closures. We’ve become passionate about supporting small businesses and restaurants. there have been so many good news stories that came out of our community in this crisis. It has really shown what our community is all about!!

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