The Road Home: An Air Force Vet Builds Left Hand Brewing and a Colorado Community
Eric Wallace, Left Hand Brewing
November 24, 2020
[A note from Tugboat Institute: Please note the postscript at the end of this article, in which the author comments on the connection of this topic to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.]
When I retired from the Air Force in 1992, I had no idea I would be the owner of a brewery one year later. And yet, in September, 1993, there I was: proud founder, with my business partner Dick Doore, of Left Hand Brewing in Longmont, Colorado.
The founding of our Evergreen® business in Longmont represented the welcome culmination of a largely nomadic early life. For all of my 32 years up until then, I had been moving pretty consistently every few years—first as the son of an Air Force Officer and then as an Air Force Officer myself. By the time my wife and I arrived in Longmont, I had lived, in this order, in: Tennessee, Ohio, Texas, Germany, Ohio (again), Florida, Japan, Colorado, Germany (again), Nevada, Colorado (again, at the Air Force Academy), Mississippi, Italy, Turkey, and Italy (again).
When I left the Air Force, after a brief time working with my wife’s family in Italy, we flew back to the states, picked up a car in New Orleans, and drove across the country, all the way to the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. Along the way, as we visited family and friends and many of these new, small microbreweries. We were searching for a hometown. After so many years of constant motion, I was ready to settle, put down roots, and raise our family.
When we landed in Longmont, an evolving, former agricultural town about 20 minutes northeast of Boulder, it felt right. It was close enough to the mountains but not too remote for us with a baby on the way; it offered great quality of life; opportunities for outdoor recreation were abundant and easy to access; and, it had a pretty vibrant and welcoming business community. And Colorado was an early hotbed of craft brewers. We were living between Boulder and Longmont in Niwot. We found a location for a brewery in Longmont. We had found our hometown.
While I hadn’t planned to open a brewery after my Air Force career, I didn’t enter into the industry completely blind. Having traveled widely and spent formative years in Germany, I had been exposed to a whole world of beer that wasn’t even on the radar of most people in the U.S. at that point. I saw the opportunity to introduce both new products and experiences and to connect deeply with the community as a business owner.
My experience living in a small village in Germany, where the local “gasthouses” and the soccer clubhouse all featured “stammtische,” or locals’ tables, as well as my time in Italy, where the locals gathered at the village’s café and bar, had shown me the central role a business like ours could play in creating community. That community-minded, local vision was a driver in our commitment, from our earliest days, to being involved in and giving back to our community. This was our hometown, and we wanted to contribute in meaningful ways.
Early on, we took the obvious steps of joining the Chamber of Commerce and joining various business groups, sinking our roots where there were opportunities. As newcomers to the town we were conscious of the need to connect to raise awareness for our business—we wanted people to try our beer, after all—but also of our desire as residents, parents, and business owners to help shape the community we had so intentionally chosen.
Over the years, we have not wavered in that commitment. We serve on non-profit boards, were involved in founding the original Colorado Brewers’ Guild, and sponsor local events. Left Hand Brewing is a National Bike MS Sponsor, and our Team Left Hand, which has raised over $4.9 million over the last 13 years, rides in events in Colorado and across the country to raise awareness of and research funds for multiple sclerosis. Several years ago, we took over the management of Longmont Oktoberfest, a two-day, community-wide celebration that benefits local nonprofits, including our own Left Hand Brewing Foundation, a 501c3 we founded to support a range of local and regional causes.
Our continual desire to impact our community is an extension of the entrepreneurial spirit that drives our company. I had never really thought of myself as an entrepreneur, but after someone else described me that way early on in the life of our business, I realized that I do actually fit the description. I’m continually looking for a solution, a better way to do things. My team will tell you that’s how I show up in the business, and I think that orientation is reflected in my desire to improve our community, to lean in and address the critical issues that will make a difference for the people who live here.
Our employees absorb this ethos, and they’re involved in these efforts too. Beyond stepping into volunteer opportunities that we make available to them, team members have spun off and developed dozens of businesses in Longmont, fueling our economy and engaging in the community in meaningful ways.
As we head toward three decades in business in our hometown, it’s gratifying to see the impact of our Evergreen® company and our efforts to work with our neighbors to improve the town we love. For years, Longmont had a bit of an inferiority complex, overshadowed by Boulder, just down the road. Today, I receive photos from locals all the time who find Left Hand on offer around the country or overseas and are so proud to tell the bar tender, “Hey, I’m from Longmont and this is our brewery!”
We never had an agenda to be community leaders, but our long-term view of building a great company in the place we had chosen to raise our families meant that we were invested in not just the business but the town from day one. Now, we’re incredibly proud of the role we’ve played—and will continue to play—in lifting our community up and helping to instill pride in the place we call home.
Eric Wallace is President and Co-Founder of Left Hand Brewing.
While socializing in bars and brewery tasting rooms is being severely impacted by the pandemic, we are finding new ways to continue to have an impact and build community. Since we need to physically distance to operate safely, expanding our tasting room into our parking lot made sense. We have also just received approval to build a beer garden next door to the brewery (years in the making).
As the national beer sponsor for Bike MS, we didn’t do much beer pouring at rides around the country since the rides were all virtual, but our fundraising by our eight teams far exceeded our initial expectations. Our 525 team members raised over $525,000 in a year with no actual group rides, providing both emotional support for our team members and continuing financial support for the National MS Society when it’s needed more than ever.
Finally, we helped launch the Longmont Evergreen Opportunity Fund in October. The LEOF is an initiative to impact our community by investing capital into entrepreneurs, ventures, and property development projects within Longmont’s Opportunity Zone. It is an interesting initiative. It’s Evergreen because 10 percent of the management fees will be invested in local founder development and 50 percent of the manager’s carry will be reinvested into the next Evergreen Fund. It’s impactful because we want to build economic vitality and retain companies that are solving problems and creating jobs right here in Longmont.
It is more important than ever to keep our people engaged and support our communities. Staying busy and having a positive impact keeps us inspired and out of trouble!