Veteran Business Series: Back Paddle Brewing

back paddle brewing
Kyle McCloud, Navy Veteran and Owner/Operator of Back Paddle Brewing

Vets support vets. If there’s one unofficial promise that should be repeated to active duty service members as they take TGPS or TAPS class and separate from the service, it’s that phrase: “vets support vets.” Our community has organizations to help one another and even individuals who just want to help. That sense of family and fraternity is hard to shake off. Enter: Back Paddle Brewing in Georgia.

For decades, Augusta has been known for the Master’s golf tournament and just about nothing else. One week per year, the city would become the center of attention for American sports then fall back into obscurity. But ever since the Army expanded its cyber forces at Fort Gordon, the area has been growing rapidly. Fort Gordon is home to a sizeable arm of the National Security Agency. One town over, Evans, houses one of the biggest pellet grill companies in the US, RecTeq. As Augusta and the Central Savannah River Area (CSRA) between Georgia and South Carolina have developed with the growing military presence, so have the veteran-owned small businesses. One of those small businesses is Back Paddle Brewing, nestled on the edge of the quiet country town of Lincolnton, just north of Augusta.

Walk into Back Paddle and you’ll see a veteran project. The bar top is live edge made from reclaimed wood. The brewing gear is repurposed from soda syrup containers and specifically designed by an electrical engineer to be operated and managed by computer. There is a challenge coin board on one wall, command patches and vet mugs next to the list of beers on tap on a second, a mural of the services (even our new baby brother, Space Force!), and posters for veteran support organizations in the area. Back Paddle Brewing is a distant dream brought to life. It is the product of perseverance and gumption when the Covid lockdowns broke thousands of small businesses. It is also the home of some fantastic beers and original flavors inspired by military duty stations and deployments around the world.

Owner Kyle McCloud, a Michigan native and Navy veteran came to the area after medical separation from the service with a severe leg injury. He began his Navy career as a Photographer’s Mate, then crossed into the intelligence community as an Intelligence Specialist. The Navy sent Kyle around the world. He saw tours in Groton, CT, with the Navy’s P-3 Orion sub hunter Squadrons in Brunswick, Maine, at Molesworth, England, Djibouti, and as a mine warfare trainer in San Diego, California. The last of these tours sent him on short trips to RIMPAC in Hawaii, and exercises in South Korea.

back paddle brewing
Kyle McCloud on deployment to Djibouti, 2009

After he separated from the Navy, Kyle found himself in culinary school, enjoying the academic aspect of his personal hobby. He apprenticed at Notre Dame before he was offered a job at Fort Gordon as a defense contractor. Despite a full time job as a defense contractor, just a couple years ago he seized the opportunity to open his brewery. Brewing had been his business since his teenage years. As he put it, any liquor store clerk can card you, but nobody needs an ID to buy yeast, grain, and water.

Back Paddle Brewing is situated on the corner of Bethany Church Road and State Route 378. It is surrounded by marinas, boat slips, dense woodland, and the serpentine rivers and inlets along the Savannah River. But don’t be fooled by the unassuming small town brewery, it keeps you guessing. As Kyle himself puts it, “you aren’t going to drive all the way out to Lincolnton for just one beer.” His taps rotate as he and his brewer cycle through seasonal recipes, or even experiment with something new. In just a couple weeks, Back Paddle’s flavor shifts from the rich malty Scottish ale to their concoction, the strawberry milkshake IPA. Brewed with a healthy serving of lactose, this IPA is smooth, sweet, and refreshing; it’s almost like a summer shandy meant to be sipped ice cold on the river that winds just in sight of Back Paddle’s porch.

Just like the beer rotation that keeps the customers guessing, Back Paddle has a menu full of unique flavors. Kyle is proud of his truly local ingredients. He mentions that most restaurants that claim to be “locally sourced” let local mean within 300 miles. But when he talks about where his beef comes from, he confidently says “a few miles down Bethany Church Road. There’s a retired Army Warrant Officer down there who raises longhorns.” His pork comes from another vet-owned farm in Thomson, Georgia, about 30 minutes south. If he can get it locally, especially if that local source is vet-owned, that’s where he will get his ingredients. The pride and joy of Back Paddle’s menu is the Back 9 Burger. With pimento cheese and bacon jelly, it truly is a standout.

While Back Paddle is a growing name in the region, it did not have an easy start. Kyle and his investors were prepared to open in March, 2020, just in time for the Covid shutdowns to bring government operations to a grinding halt. The licensing process delayed until October, leaving the new brewery in limbo, spending start-up funds just to stay above water. Back Paddle was only able to open in October, 2020, when the alcohol licensing was finally approved. Finally open, Back Paddle is not just a vet-owned restaurant, it is a family business: his wife, son, and mother-in-law all devote their time to this dream. Despite the struggling start, Kyle is optimistic, saying “if you really want to get the experience, win, lose, or draw, you start at the bottom.” Because Georgia alcohol distribution laws are so strict and essentially force the brewer to sell their label to the distributor, Back Paddle beer may only be bought on site. But it sells out fast to the locals and those willing to take the scenic drive down winding country roads and explore our great state.

The pandemic caused nearly 170,000 small businesses to close their doors. There are reports that up to 60% of those doors will stay shut permanently. So get out and find yourself a vet-owned small business and become a new regular! And if you’re driving down the I-20 in Georgia, take a detour off the beaten path and grab dinner at Back Paddle Brewing!

If you are the veteran or law enforcement owner/operator of a small business or organization, I want to tell your story! Reach out to me at MilVetStories@gmail.com. Vets support vets!

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Featured photo: Kyle McCloud, Navy Veteran and Owner/Operator of Back Paddle Brewing

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