Photo by Justin Merriman | American Reportage | for Postindustrial

Jake Voelker, 34, stands in rubble next to Voodoo Brewery in Homestead, Pa., where the business plans to expand its operations. An Erie-area native, Voelker is partial owner of the Voodoo franchise, overseeing its six locations in Western Pennsylvania. Voelker attributes some of the business’s success to his own military experience. An Army veteran, Voelker survived one of the most dangerous corners of Afghanistan during two tours in 2007 and 2009. “I drew that card and it was fucking crazy,” he says. Photo by Justin Merriman

January 13, 2019

A soldier’s new mission: Franchising craft breweries

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BY Carmen Gentile

PHOTOS BY JUSTIN MERRIMAN // AMERICAN REPORTAGE FOR POSTINDUSTRIAL

Jake Voelker speaks in rapid bursts reminiscent of machine-gun fire. It’s not everyday that someone like Jake — an Erie-area entrepreneur building businesses throughout the region — can talk with as much enthusiasm and knowledge about war as he can about beer. But Voelker is not your average entrepreneur. A 34-year-old Army veteran, Voelker is the brains behind Voodoo Brewery — a growing craft beer franchise with six regional locations in postindustrial towns throughout Western Pennsylvania.

Voelker attributes some of his business’s success to his own military service — and his experience in one of the Middle East’s most notoriously dangerous and remote combat outposts.  

Eyes darting, Voelker’s staccato turns to a steady patter when he talks about his experiences.

His mania while recalling his time in the Middle East is understandable considering where the Army veteran spent much of his deployment: In the Kunar Province and Korengal Valley of Afghanistan. His assignments included helping to construct combat outpost Restrepo. 

Anyone with a glancing interest in the war in Afghanistan has heard of Restrepo. The small base tucked in the Korengal Valley is the subject, as well as title, of the award-winning documentary by conflict journalists Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington.

“Restrepo” is a deep dive into the difficulties of fighting in a remote corner of Afghanistan where the enemy is practically on top of the troops, albeit often invisible, and the nearest ally is never close enough.

Voelker and his men were tasked with the actual construction of Restrepo back in 2007, building perimeter walls and barracks under the most hostile of conditions.

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He was just 23 and a recent graduate of Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University when he was dropped into the forested valley in eastern Afghanistan, an area long hostile to interlopers of any kind.

“I drew that card and it was fucking crazy,” he says of his deployment, recounting the five or six times a day he and his men took incoming fire from the mountains surrounding them on all sides. Soon after he arrived, he even told himself: “This is where I’m going to die.”

But operating under life-threatening conditions day in and day out honed Voelker’s dark sense of humor, a coping mechanism common among combat veterans.

“I always tried to have humor in my unit,” he says. “If one of us is going to die, we might as well be able to laugh about it.”

Those dark days also fed his appreciation for good food and drink, both of which were nowhere to be found on the front line of the Afghan war.

After his time in Afghanistan and a second deployment to Iraq in 2009, Voelker returned to the states to start his civilian life.

He got an MBA at the University of Pittsburgh, married his long-time sweetheart, then went to work for UPMC, using the engineering skills he collected in Afghanistan as a construction manager for the fast-growing network of hospitals and medical centers.

By 2010, he was called to brewing. His first venture was running a bus tour of local breweries in Western Pennsylvania. Then he co-founded the coffee business Steel Valley Roasters.

Around that time, Voelker also became a partner in the fledgling eatery and bar known as Voodoo Brewery, which boasts six locations in Pennsylvania.

The Homestead outpost of Voodoo is the crown jewel. A turn-of-the-century firehouse, police station, and community center in its previous incarnation, the beer hall where the firetrucks once parked is tattooed with graffiti art and paintings depicting the region’s industrial past, giving the place a demented funhouse feel.

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But operating under life-threatening conditions day in and day out honed Voelker’s dark sense of humor, a coping mechanism common among combat veterans.

There are smaller rooms off the main hall, including seating in old jail cells, and a VIP area only accessible by a hidden door.

Next door is the rubble of what was once a movie house attended by the affluent and blue-collar steelworkers of a time long gone. Voelker plans to finish clearing the space in the months ahead to create a public place for patrons and locals to commune.

“I want to build a community around it and I want it to be really special … craft beer creates extreme, lasting employment,” he says, noting the success he’s had with employing locals in other iterations of Voodoo Breweries in towns like Meadville and Erie, Pennsylvania.
“I can cannonball into a town and pull people from the area,” he says about finding workers.

Voelker’s passion for craft brewing and the community it creates is clear considering the results of his labor over the last nine years; Voodoo also provides libations for charity and nonprofit events for the Animal Rescue League and Veterans Breakfast Club.

The pace of his speech quickens as he recounts those achievements, his passion for beer, and the more than 100 employees at Voodoo he calls “good people making good products.”

Voelker doesn’t boast a deep knowledge of or previous experience with brewing. It was merely a love of beer that prompted him to shake off the corporate yoke following his time on the front lines of Afghanistan and go into business for himself.

“I’ve just always liked it,” he says. “At this point, this is my life’s work.”

Carmen Gentile
Carmen Gentile has worked for The New York Times and CBS News, among others. His book, "Blindsided by the Taliban," documents his life as a war reporter and the aftermath of his brush with death after being shot with a rocket-propelled grenade while embedded with U.S. Army forces in Afghanistan.

Justin Merriman is a freelance photojournalist based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has traveled the world to cover politics, wars, natural disasters, civil unrest as well as covering assignment throughout the United States. His work has appeared in leading national publications and he has received multiple top journalism awards. Justin is a founding member of American Reportage.

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