The Bunker Saves Young Veterans’ Dream Brewery

The Bunker Saves Young Veterans’ Dream Brewery
(Young Veterans Chris Holyfield, Neil McCanon and Tom Wilder stand proud to serve — beer)

By Jeff Maisey

The Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger famously sings, “You can’t always get what you want/But if you try sometimes you might find/You get what you need.”

And, sometimes, you get even more.

Such is the case for the Virginia Beach craft brewers at Young Veterans.

Five years ago Tom Wilder and Neil McCanon began their next phase in life after serving in the military when they opened Young Veterans Brewing Company in an industrial park on Horse Pasture Road in Virginia Beach near Oceana, the US Navy’s busy airfield. The location seemed ideal both as a space to operate a small scale craft brewery and its close proximity to thousands of current and retired military personnel sure to find camaraderie with the brewery’s military themed business. 

Young Veterans quickly made a name for itself and a its core lineup of thematic beers such as Pineapple Grenade Hefeweizen, G.I. Pilsner, Jet Noise Double IPA, Night Vision American Stout and Semper FIPA.  Military hero and longtime US Senator John McCain even paid them a visit.  

All seemed to be going as planned to outside observers and patrons, yet there was one major drawback. The US Navy’s interpretation of a restrictive easement surrounding Naval Air Station Oceana forbade the brewery from operating an outdoor space, and allowed nothing that might be viewed as entertainment to keep patrons onsite such as games, live music, televisions and food trucks. In other words, you can operate a brewery as long as no one enjoys themselves and wants to stick around for an hour or so. 

While the Navy has its sound reasons for enforcing such rules, the result was prohibitive for McCanon and Wilder’s need to expand and keep pace with the rapidly changing craft beer industry where every brewery is offering more and enhanced experiences to meet the growing demand and competition. 

“It did push us to do something else,” said Wilder, “which ended up being better than we could have imagined.” 

In the theater of battle, once the bullets start to fly, the battle plan must often quickly adapt to the situation on the ground, and that turned out to be the case for Young Veterans.

After a two-year search, they found the ideal location at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront on the first floor of the building where Peabody’s has been a popular second floor nightclub for decades.   

Young Veterans The Bunker is both a brewpub with full service kitchen and a satellite location for the brewery. 

When patrons enter through the front door, a long bar with 25 stools and several TV screens are positioned on the right. The unique tap-handles are custom-made 30 mm rounds identical to those used by NATO and Russian armed forces to penetrate armored vehicles and, ironically, fortified bunkers.  To the left is a large dining hall with 125 seats and tables positioned for families, friends and couples. 

“We didn’t want to go with the regular pub fare so we  went upscale with items we call Southern comfort coastal fare with a twist,” said chef John Ferguson. 

According to Ferguson, the best selling menu items thus far are the Bunker Burger ($13), Beer Battered Mahi Fish Taco ($13/2 tacos with waffle fries), Low Country Shrimp & Grits ($20) and Fried Chicken & Waffles entree ($17). Other irresistible food choices include Sriracha Tuna Tacos ($13), Drunken Mussels ($14) and Frenched Bone-in Pork Chop ($23).  

McCannon brought his original 3-barrel pilot brewing system from the industrial location to create small batch, unique beers for The Bunker. He wants to offer patrons some of the brewery’s core fan favorites, but specialize in more rare, experimental items such as Spruce Bradley, a sour ale made with spruce tips. 

While exotic beers are sure to keep certain beer enthusiasts coming back for the flavor of the week, The Bunker is positioned in one of the most visible spots at the resort strip, where millions of tourists visit each year. Most are new to craft beer.

“The question we get the most,” explained Wilder, “is what is the lightest beer you have?” 

Young Veterans’ pilsner and kolsch are ideal gateway beers for such customers. So might be the Pineapple Grenade Hefeweizen, which, according to Wilder, still accounts for over 50-percent of their overall sales on draft and in cans. 

The original business plan for Young Vets was to serve food and offer entertainment to go with their beers. That plan is finally coming to fruition. 

From the dining/bar area, patrons walk by a dividing wall and into Cadence Hall (military jargon for music hall), a second large room with a raised auditorium-like stage for live music or theatrical performance, cornhole games, and a second bar designed to resemble an actual bunker.  

Having a brewpub with entertainment beneath Peabody’s was a no-brainer for property owner Nabil Kassir.

“It was very important,” said Kassir. “We had many offers for the space. We waited for the right concept to rent to.” 

Finally, for McCanon and Wilder, some satisfaction.