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Brewer Wins Small Biz Top Prize

Steve Gagner, 2019  VT Small Business Person of the YearThe 2019 Vermont Small Business Person of the Year is awarded to Steven Gagner, 14th Star Brewing Company, co-founder and owner. Gagner is recognized for growing his company, increasing sales, employee growth and contributing to the local community.

It is a Veteran-owned Vermont company with a mission to brew world-class beer while enriching the community. The business plan for 14th Star Brewing Company was originally drafted on the back of a notebook by Gagner while he was serving in Afghanistan. Upon returning home to Vermont from deployment, Gagner and his best friend and fellow soldier Matt Kehaya, worked to refine the plan to make their dream of 14th Star Brewing Company a reality in 2012.

Gagner, who serves in the Vermont Army National Guard, said when he was thinking about starting a brewery some fellow soldiers were skeptical about his idea, but one officer was particularly instrumental in his decision to open 14th Star Brewing Company.

“I have always encouraged our people to take opportunity when they see it. Steve is no exception. I have known him in various roles for probably 20 years, and have always been impressed by his level of intellect and drive to succeed whatever the endeavor,” said Brig. Gen. Gregory C. Knight, Vermont Adjutant General. “When he told me of his thought of opening a brewery, I knew it would happen. It has been wonderful to watch what was a small brewery making a few barrels of beer a month on Lower Newton Street to now one of the largest in Vermont, a philanthropic and contributing member of the business community.  Steve is the classic example of a Citizen Soldier.”

Since it was founded, 14th Star Brewing Company has grown from two part time employees to 24 fulltime employees, and has gone from producing 31 gallons of beer per batch in a 1,200 sq. ft. facility to producing 1,000 gallons per batch in a 20,000 sq. ft. brewery. To support the brewery’s expansion, Gagner obtained four SBA loans from 2014 to 2016.

 “Fortunately, 14th Star Brewing Company qualified for SBA-backed financing in 2014. We used the financing to move the operations to our current brewery and taproom, and purchase equipment capable of producing 10,000 barrels a year,” said Gagner.

Today the brewery distributes to six states and has received numerous awards. In 2018, Military Times named Gagner Entrepreneur of the Year. Later that year Gagner also graduated from the SBA’s Emerging Leaders Program.

“In 2018 right as we began thinking about the brewery’s future, SBA’s Emerging Leaders presented itself. We knew the training and peer networking sessions would help long term,” said Gagner.

As for enriching the community, the brewery is involved with several noble ventures.  Proceeds from every batch of Valor Ale supports Purple Hearts Reunited, an organization dedicated to returning lost or stolen military medals to Veterans and their families. Each year 14th Star holds an event to support the Josh Pallotta Fund, an effort to prevent Veteran suicides. In 2017, the brewery raised funds to ensure a local food kitchen had milk and eggs for a year. Recently Gagner co-founded Danger Close Craft Distilling, a company dedicated to teaching the concepts of entrepreneurship to Veterans.

Gagner, who is still in the Army, is the Battalion Commander at the Army Mountain Warfare School in Jericho, Vt. Gagner has served two combat tours and is a two-time Bronze Star recipient. 

 “I am very proud to know and serve with Steve. I have watched him grow as an officer and as a person, and am pleased to know that in some small part I got to be a part of that. I have every expectation in his continued success,” said Knight. 

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