The Navy SEAL who shot Bin Laden is hyping a new brewing company. We tried their beer so you don’t have to
Just how special is Armed Forces Brewing Company's 'Special Hops' IPA?
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In July, we expressed our amusement at the video advertisement for the Armed Forces Brewing Company, featuring former SEAL Team 6 operator Rob O’Neill as its centerpiece and spokesperson. Task & Purpose had some fun roasting the Dollar Shave Club-esque video production style, the use of MiG-29s for a patriotic American flyover, and the fact that they had the same woman digitally cloned several times over. But besides all the cheesy marketing, the question still stands: Is the beer actually good?
(For those who have been living under a rock, or something, O’Neill is widely credited with firing the shots that killed Osama Bin Laden during the May 2, 2011 raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan.)
In the video, O’Neill states that “this beer is for everybody to drink. It’s not some pretentious asshole beer for some slackster or coffee-house misanthrope,” right before he performs a Vulcan nerve pinch on a flannel-clad hipster in a bizarrely nerdy cultural reference given the messenger and the target audience. The can itself continues the promise of this being an all-American beer, with the slogan “liberty deserves a great beer” which sets expectations high. So it’s time to be the exact sort of person Rob O’Neill would Vulcan nerve pinch, which is why I’m doing the taste test of this beer in full gucci-tactical PPE to protect myself. You’ll never catch me slackin’, Rob.
The release for this beer is very limited, primarily constrained to Maryland, Virginia, and Rhode Island, but I found some for sale near me at my local Total Wine store, which Task & Purpose provided to me for the purposes of this review. In total, the beer was roughly $12 for the six pack, which is on the high side of where I start to expect quality, and consistent with the pricing of the other IPA offerings from the brewery that actually makes this beer, but more on that later.
The cans come party-ready in a disposable plastic six rack, allowing you to rip cans free as you go while keeping the others secured in your off-hand as you walk around the rager that you threw in Iraq, or whatever it is that you do when you drink. Each can comes wrapped in a black and gold paper label, printed with the legally required Surgeon General’s warning on it, the aforementioned something about liberty and beer slogan, and a paragraph of text that says “I WILL NOT FAIL (line break) In times of war or uncertainty, there is a special breed of warrior ready to answer our nation’s call. Seawolf Brewery’s SPECIAL HOPS IPA is an IPA that’s bold and adventurous. A refreshing tribute to America’s most elite force” and then there’s an eagle holding a scroll that says “ethos.”
This actually brings me to the centerpiece of the label, the logo, which features a fireteam of wetsuit-clad men, backed by a shield, flanked on the left by text that reads “SPECIAL HOPS” and topped with the Seawolf Brewing logo. I say “a fireteam of wetsuit-clad men” instead of “a fireteam of SEALs” because, despite clearly being an edited version of the famous photo below, which is the fifth result when you Google “Navy SEALs,” nowhere on the can does it say anything about SEALs, Naval Special Warfare, or even the United States Navy on it. This is possibly because the Department of the Navy has some sort of copyright on these specific terms, but there are plenty of brands that use terms like “UDT” and “Frogman” as ways around this possible restriction. But since this is left up to interpretation, I’m just going to choose to believe that this is referring to America’s real most elite force: forklift operators.
The can also features a line of text that reads “Brewed and canned by New Realm Brewing Company, Virginia Beach, VA.” This is very interesting, considering that New Realm is very well-known and well-regarded in Virginia, and is exactly the sort of brewery that O’Neill derides in his commercial, aimed at a hip, urban millennial crowd who do things like take photos in front of breweries at 10am on a Sunday with their purebred organic corgis or whatever. I reached out to Armed Forces Brewing to ask them what their relationship with New Realm is, and they responded that the New Realm “is Armed Forces Brewing Company’s contract brewer.” The response came back from an email address associated with Marchcorp Marketing, an agency that specializes in marketing brands that specifically target the veteran market, or as they call it, “Generation V.”
So, you have a brewery (Seawolf Brewery) that doesn’t brew beer, and is a sub-brand of a brewery (Armed Forces Brewing Company) that also doesn’t brew beer, but that contracts a hip craft brewery to make beer to sell people under the guise that it’s a beer for people who are anti-hipster. This would likely explain why Rob O’Neill was walking through a generic beer warehouse in the video advertisement, and why their website is very focused on attracting investors to the “$19 billion in spending power…untapped market where we can dominate” that is the veteran consumer base. Selling hipster beer to people by telling them that they’re not hipsters as long as their IPA is wrapped in the American flag would be brilliant if it was better executed.
Now, back to the beer itself.
Pouring my can of Special Hops into a glass reveals a slightly hazy pale gold liquid with a fairly solid head, aka “that foam shit on top” (God, I can already sense Rob coming to choke me out for saying this) and a bouquet that’s oddly reminiscent of Honey Nut Cheerios, with a slight hint of hops if you REALLY huff it. Not sure why that’s where my brain went. I’ve had beer that runs the full gamut of quality, from Colt 45 Malt Liquor (the worst I’ve had) to imported bottles that cost more than $50 apiece, so I like to think that I’ve got a palate for something interesting, at least. When I drink an IPA, I expect it to have a sharp, almost pungent flavor that’s oftentimes similar to a very dry grapefruit juice with a hint of pine in there, causing me to involuntarily pucker up as I drink it. I’m not usually an IPA drinker, but I know what it takes to make a good hop-centric IPA, and I’ve had other IPAs that have the word “hops” shoehorned into their names, such as Terrapin Beer Company’s “Hopsecutioner” and Drake’s Brewing Company’s “Hopocalypse” (the latter of which is, to be fair, a double IPA). I thought that this would be the Castle Bravo in the hops arms race, as brewers race each other to out-pucker their drinkers’ mouths.
This beer was none of those things. Far from being the acerbic, tangy flavor of most IPAs that I’ve tried, the immediate sensation was very bland, going from “yes, this is beer” to bitterness, to a slightly tangy hop aftertaste, all of which fade very quickly and don’t linger at all on the tongue. There’s very little in the way of complexity to the flavor, despite the website advertising “flavors of citrus, peach, and mango” and three different hops. In fact, probably the only thing that makes sense in their tasting notes is that they claim a “solid malt backbone” which, yep, it’s there. I can somewhat taste the citrus notes in the form of the ever-so-slight telltale grapefruit flavor of the IPA, but it’s quickly overpowered by the aforementioned malt flavor, and it just ends up tasting like an IPA as described by someone who’s never had an IPA, but is sure that they don’t like them, and bases their entire conceptualization of the beer off of memes.
How we tested the Armed Forces Brewing Company Special Hops IPA
I drank it, duh. The whole six rack. In one sitting. Now that I’m writing this, I’m going to do the best I can to transcribe my notes that I wrote down around cans five and six (one of them just says “operate operate operate” and I don’t know what the context is). Honestly, there was no other way to test this stuff, considering that a truly military beer would be cheap, sold in 30 racks exclusively at every PX worldwide, and be the cause of so many alcohol-related incidents that simply having a can of it would result in an immediate Battalion-level NJP if you got caught. (For non-military readers: NJP refers to nonjudicial punishment — which is bad — and a battalion-level one involves your commander personally ruining your day.) Obviously, I don’t condone alcoholism or binge drinking, but the thing is, this is science, and so I need to dispense with the sommelier stuff and drink this beer the way God, Jesus, and Richard Marcinko intended: en masse and ad nauseam.
So here we go, can by can. For great justice.
Can 1: I’m going to drink this one straight from the can, because I feel like that’s how most people are going to drink this if they’re the red-blooded “real Americans” that Rob O’Neill talks about in his advertisement. I cracked it open, nice hiss and all that, and drank it. Overwhelmingly bland and unexciting.
Can 2: I thought to myself “maybe this is one of those beers that really benefits from drinking out of a real glass?” and so I poured it into a snifter that I got as a gift for buying a pizza at a local brewery. I paused to take the photo of it, making sure to include my Avon U49 helmet in the background to make it more tactical. The glass didn’t improve the flavor, it just let me see how much more I had left to drink.
Can 3: I washed out the glass and poured the third can in after letting it sit for a few minutes to warm up from ice-cold fridge temperatures, since a lot of beers benefit from being served cool, rather than freezing cold which allows more of the taste to shine through. Bad choice: these really aren’t flavors that I want to shine through, and even then, it wasn’t that noticeably different from the previous two.
Can 4: The glass is starting to look deeper, or I’m at least drinking this slower, since being able to see how much I have left is turning into a psychological weapon against myself. I didn’t bother washing the glass out this time, because that wasn’t helping either. I really don’t want to keep drinking this, and the only thing that it’s doing right is getting me drunk, which is ruined by the fact that I’m already in a bad mood because I had to taste the beer to get the alcohol into my body in the first place. Some friends suggested that I shotgun the next can. Great influences.
Can 5: I shotgunned this can after getting off of the call with the company. It didn’t go well and now my carpet smells like Navy-SEAL-but-not-really-cuz-copyright beer. Around or slightly before then is the part where I’d written down “operate operate operate.” I assume I meant the carpet cleaner in the morning. It doesn’t taste any better when shotgunned, but at this point, my taste buds aren’t working to their fullest potential and nobody shotguns beer for the taste.
Can 6: [Unprintable profanity]
What we like about the Armed Forces Brewing Company Special Hops IPA
It got me pretty dang buzzed. The beer is listed as 6.7% ABV, and you definitely feel every tenth of a percent of it. For some people, this will make it a good beer simply because that’s the primary goal. It’s also not a buzz like some of the crazy high 14% barleywines or porters I’ve had where one minute your buddy is fine and the next he’s making out with your hardwood floors because he thought he could just slam them like Natty Light. This is just normal beer in terms of effects, and so you get what it says on the can.
The name “Special Hops” is pretty great, admittedly, and got a good laugh from me when I first heard it. I definitely feel like it was the name that got the most thought and effort put into it out of all the other various brands under this company. Because really, “Soldier Brewery, a sub-brand of Armed Forces Brewing Company” feels like it was designed by a child.
What we don’t like about the Armed Forces Brewing Company Special Hops IPA
You’re going to pay over $12 for a six-rack of an IPA that barely tastes like an IPA in a market already over-saturated with IPAs, especially as craft breweries go. The flavor is negligible, and no part of it is enjoyable, even if you’re the sort of masochist who loves having their taste buds scorched by more hops than a rabbit farm. The beer doesn’t stand out in any positive way, especially in a place like Virginia that’s fertile ground for local breweries, all of them featuring their own particular IPA (or several).
When you couple this with a dubious marketing strategy, limited release, and bewildering choices in terms of brand ambassadors, there’s very little in the way of redeeming factors at this point in time. None of this stands out from other military-themed or veteran lifestyle breweries and alcoholic beverage companies. And there are So. Many. Veteran. Lifestyle. Breweries.
This is the first and last time that I’ll likely ever drink this stuff, and it was to satisfy my own curiosity and that of my editors. If you really want to support veterans making IPAs, hit up some of your buddies, look up a tutorial online, and try making some in your garage. You’ll probably have better results and you won’t even have to use a ton of ill-advised CGI in a video advertisement, or insult other beer lovers, to get people to drink it.
To be honest, this applies to buying into lifestyle brands in general. Marketing companies think that they can sell you the identity of “veteran” as a lifestyle and make money hand over fist by selling you back your patriotism. I don’t even have to name names as probably five t-shirt companies and coffee sellers came to mind. “Veteran-owned” is lazy marketing, and if the product can’t stand on its own, it’s probably not worth your time.
In spite of being squarely aimed at the military market, and being one of the many military-themed beers out there, Armed Forces Brewing prominently features Marines as the only pictured ground troops for “Soldier Brewery” which is just, no. Unless the Army has started wearing Desert MARPAT, which they haven’t, this is a hilarious oversight that they might’ve wanted to run past someone actually in the military before they licensed the footage.
FAQs about the Armed Forces Brewing Company Special Hops IPA
More questions? Here’s Task & Purpose’s additional brief.
Q: How much does the Armed Forces Brewing Company Special Hops IPA cost?
A: $12.10 after tax at Total Wine.
Q: What is an IPA?
A: IPAs, or India Pale Ales, are a variety of ale that became popular in England during the colonial period, as early as the beginning of the 18th century, designed to survive the long ocean voyages to the Indian colonies. In general, they’re characterized by a strongly-hopped flavor, and a crisp, bitter, and refreshing character that has ensured their status as an enduring classic.
Q: Are IPAs good for you?
A: Weird question to ask here, but there is an answer to this common bro-science statement. The answer is “Possibly more than other types of beer.” A study performed on female mice showed that the hops content of a beer correlated with less fat buildup in the livers of said mice, vice less hoppy beer or pure alcohol. While not conclusive proof, this would suggest that hops can lessen some of the harmful effects of beer on your liver. However, it’s still alcohol, and so the health risks are still very present.
A: Not a question, but sure.
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Matt Sampson is an 0861 in the Marine Forces Reserve and a Virginia native. In his past life, he worked in tactical gear retail and is an avid firearms enthusiast. The farthest the Marine Corps has sent him from home is Oklahoma.