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After months of controversy, Norfolk City Council approves Armed Forces Brewing

Armed Forces Brewing will be able to start brewing beer immediately, after the Norfolk City Council approved its permits Tuesday. (Photo by Ryan Murphy)
Armed Forces Brewing will be able to start brewing beer immediately, after the Norfolk City Council approved its permits Tuesday. (Photo by Ryan Murphy)

A controversial military-themed brewery will be allowed to open its doors in Norfolk, the City Council decided Tuesday.

Armed Forces Brewing company has drawn fire for several months from people saying the culture of the brewery and anti-LGBTQ statements by its spokesman meant it wasn’t a good fit for Norfolk.

Armed Forces will start brewing immediately and is looking to open its tasting room to the public in January, said CEO Alan Beal.

“There’s … obviously some community repairing to do,” he said after the council meeting. “Everyone is welcome at the brewery - we don’t care who you are.”The decision was a rare instance of City Council members breaking from decisions made by a civic league and the Planning Commission, which both voted to deny Armed Forces permits. Community members fought against the brewery’s approvals, saying a former spokesman was misogynistic, homophobic and transphobic.

Several city council members said they disagree with the sentiments of those associated with Armed Forces Brewing, but it’s their job to approve the permit and, as councilman Tommy Smigiel put it, “let the market decide their fate.”

Councilwoman Andria McClellan cast the sole vote against granting Armed Forces their required permits.

Celebrity spokesman causes controversy

Armed Forces Brewing announced this summer it would move its headquarters from Annapolis, Md., to the former O'Connor Brewing facility in Norfolk’s Park Place neighborhood.

But some members of the community took issue with the brewery’s marketing materials, saying the online videos featuring scantily-clad women in faux-military costumes are misogynistic and promote the reckless use of guns in a city grappling with community violence.

Beal has said those videos are meant to be tongue-in-cheek.

There are also statements made by Robert O’Neill, a former Navy Seal who claims to have killed Osama bin Laden who is also a minority owner in Armed Forces Brewing and served as the face of the company. 

Critics say O’Neill’s remarks on social media, on his podcast and in media appearances are evidence of a culture of intolerance at the brewery.

For instance, O’Neill criticized the U.S. Navy for featuring a drag queen in recruitment materials and is accused of calling a security guard a racial slur when he was arrested earlier this year in Texas.

Armed Forces leadership have since said O’Neill is no longer in a public-facing role with the company.

But O’Neill’s comments helped fan the flames of controversy for several months. 

Jeff Ryder, the president of HR Pride, told Norfolk’s planning commission in November he doesn’t “feel that (Armed Forces Brewing) will be a safe place for queer folks in Norfolk.”

Despite Beal’s assurances the brewery would welcome everyone, both the Park Place Civic League and the Norfolk Planning Commission recommended City Council not approve the permits Armed Forces would need to start brewing and open its doors to customers.

A lawyer for the company wrote a letter to the city after that vote saying Armed Forces would sue Norfolk if it was denied the permits – a move that critics called a bullying tactic.

Ryan is WHRO’s business and growth reporter. He joined the newsroom in 2021 after eight years at local newspapers, the Daily Press and Virginian-Pilot. Ryan is a Chesapeake native and still tries to hold his breath every time he drives through the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.

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