When Yakima Chief Hops plans its annual Veterans Blend—its varieties evaluated and voted on by brewers who are also military veterans—there is a certain parameter in mind. Those varieties need to be harvested and processed early, so that the hops can ship out in time to go into special beers to be released around Veterans Day, November 11.
There are many such beers, but there is probably only one brewed by an active-duty airman who also is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan.
Master Sergeant Shane Ison is an intelligence analyst at the Michigan Air National Guard in Alpena—that’s the “day job.” He’s also the brewer at Alcona Brew Haus in Harrisville, about 40 miles south of the base.
With a population of about 425 people on the shores of Lake Huron, Harrisville is one of the smallest towns in Michigan. In a rural area like that, a batch brewed on the brewery’s seven-barrel system tends to last a while—especially outside of high season. That capacity allows a part-timer to plan a brew schedule for a surprisingly wide variety of beers on tap—from a mixed-fermentation bière de mars to doppelbock to bourbon-barrel stout and imperial IPA. Ison says that brewery owner Sandy Arens gives him plenty of room to be creative.
She’s also fully on board with the upcoming beer to support veterans—Alcona’s IGY6 Pale Ale. (The name is shorthand for “I Got Your Six,” meaning “I Got Your Back”—a phrase with deep significance for military veterans looking to support each other.)
Ison says he chose a pale ale for the brew because he wanted something easygoing that would appeal to as many people as possible. He was looking for mid-range bitterness, a relatively simple grain bill, and light color—mostly pilsner malt—with a juicy expression from the hops.
He also knew he wanted to use the Veterans Blend from YCH. This is the fourth annual edition of the blend; every year, brewers who are military veterans help to select and vote on varieties that get included. This year’s blend includes Azacca, Ekuanot, HBC 472, HBC 630, and Idaho 7, likely to combine for a fruit punch of berries, cherries, citrus, and stone-fruit notes.
For every pound purchased, YCH donates $3 to support veterans. This year, the chosen nonprofit is K9s for Warriors, which aims to end veteran suicides by providing highly trained dogs to those suffering from trauma, post-traumatic stress, or brain injuries. The veterans also get to participate in the specialized training that helps them to bond with their dogs.
At Alcona, Ison says the plan is to donate $2 from every pint of IGY6 to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). The nonprofit helps post-9/11 veterans with one-on-one assistance, lobbying for stronger government support, and other measures. Ison is one of those veterans himself, but he’s also thinking of those affected by the recent withdrawal from Afghanistan and the struggles that many of them will face.
“I chose that one just because it's from my era, being an Afghan veteran, and it’s from my generation,” Ison says. “All veterans are obviously extremely important, regardless of the war you served in. But I think right now, with currently what’s going on, the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are the ones that have kind of been getting dumped on lately. So we’re going to go ahead and focus on that for us this year. … You know, those of us that have been there even five, six times over the last 20 years feel like they did all that for nothing because they didn’t really see any kind of benefit come out of it.”
In a way, Ison’s brewing career got its start in Afghanistan. During his 90-day deployment to Kandahar in late 2011, he couldn’t drink beer at all—but he could read about it. “I borderline got a degree in brewing beer just by reading brewing papers and Brew Your Own and lessons learned from miscellaneous posts on ProBrewer,” Ison says. “I ordered my equipment while sitting in the sandbox.” When he got home, he jumped straight into all-grain brewing and kegging his own beer.
He says that his beers made a big leap forward about five years ago when he started learning more about water chemistry and adjusting it—that’s when he started winning homebrew medals. He made the leap to brewing at Alcona a few years ago. “It’s definitely been a journey that started off with not being able to drink beer, which is pretty funny.”
A lot of the people he works with on base want to come help brew the beer and be a part of it, even if they don’t know much about brewing. Some just want to drop a few pellets of Veterans Blend into the kettle. “I think that’s pretty cool,” he says. “Those kinds of people have been coming out of the woodwork since hearing that we were leaning toward doing this project.”
Recipe: Alcona IGY6 American Pale Ale
Courtesy of Shane Ison, here is a five-gallon version of the recipe brewed at Alcona Brew Haus to support his fellow veterans. It features a relatively lean malt frame while showcasing the Veterans Blend from Yakima Chief Hops. If you brew it, consider supporting K9s for Warriors, IAVA, or other nonprofits that serve returning veterans.
Batch size: 5 gallons (19 liters)
Brewhouse efficiency: 72%
8.4 lb (3.8 kg) pilsner
1.1 lb (499 g) Vienna
7.5 oz (213 g) crystal/caramel 20L
0.5 oz (14 g) YCH Veterans Blend at 60 minutes [21.6 IBUs]
0.5 oz (14 g) YCH Veterans Blend at 5 minutes [10.5 IBUs]
1 oz (28 g) YCH Veterans Blend at flameout/whirlpool [12.7 IBUs]
3 oz (85 g) YCH Veterans Blend at dry hop
Fermentis SafAle US-05
Mill the grains and mash at 152°F (67°C) for 60 minutes. Do a vorlauf step until the runnings are clear, then run off into the kettle. Sparge and top up as necessary to get about 6.5 gallons (25 liters of wort), depending on your evaporation rate. Boil for 60 minutes, adding hops according to schedule. After the boil, add the flameout hops and conduct a whirlpool step: Stir for 10 minutes to create a vortex, then allow 10 minutes to steep. Chill to about 65°F (18°C), aerate well, and pitch the yeast. Ferment at 67°F (19°C). When fermentation is complete, dry hop for 3–5 days, then cold-crash, package, and carbonate to 2.7 volumes of CO2.