It was 2011 and Norfolk-based Navy SEAL, Michael Stacks, owner of Bold Mariner Brewing, was facing a landmark decision: What to do when he retired?
“I’d served for 24 years and loved it so much I couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” says Stacks, 47. “Then, it was like I blinked and suddenly had to figure out what’s next.”
He got a hard nudge when Virginia passed laws letting breweries open tasting rooms. Stacks loved craft beer and, before joining the Navy, had considered a career in brewing. As breweries popped up across the state, the dream reemerged.
“My dad was big into homebrewing, so I’d grown up around it and helped out a lot,” says Stacks, who was raised in Michigan. As a first-year college student, he won props salvaging his friends’ dorm-brewing setup. “They were making every mistake in the book. I kind of stepped in and took over, and everyone seemed excited about the results.”
The success led him to consider pursuing brewing at U.C. Davis. But Stacks was conflicted. The American craft beer renaissance was in its infancy and opportunities were scarce. Plus, he’d fixed on the idea of becoming a Navy SEAL.
“I came from a military family and my grandfather liked to joke that we’d had everything but a ‘frogman,’” says Stacks. He didn’t catch the SEAL reference until he watched a TV special about them in college. “I got obsessed. I thought, ‘Try it now, while you can. You can go back to brewing later.’”
And in 2012, that’s exactly what he did. But Stacks didn’t go in blind.
“I saw it as my next big challenge,” he says. “I loved craft beer, but knew almost nothing about the brewing business.”
Stacks threw himself into research and preparation. He spent hours reading and watching how-to videos online. He took classes at Old Dominion University to study systems design and business. He also befriended and volunteered with brewmasters at watering holes like O’Conner Brewing Co. and Young Veterans Brewing Company. The latter proved invaluable.
"I’m so grateful to those guys for that opportunity,” says Stacks. The experience was particularly useful due to their differing approaches: One had a large system and focused on Old World staples; the other was much smaller and pursued a specialty menu. “That helped me refine my thoughts about what I wanted to do. … Ultimately, I took a middle path, hoping to offer the best of both worlds.”
Bold Mariner opened in Norfolk’s Lambert’s Point in November 2013. The name celebrated Stacks’ naval career and brewing ambitions, as well as the city’s nautical history. It also hinted at a foundational mission.
“From the beginning, I wanted to find a way to give back to the community,” says Stacks. Considering his background and the region’s military presence, supporting organizations that help veterans transition to civilian life “seemed like a pretty good place to start.”
Bold Mariner quickly developed ongoing partnerships with the Navy Seal Foundation and The Honor Foundation, and donates a percentage of sales to each. Stacks’ commitment to community expanded in 2019 after relocating to a bigger building in Ocean View—one replete with a 100-person event room, ice creamery and barbecue-focused restaurant.
“We were in this awesome location one block from the beach, but the beaches were littered with trash,” he says. “So, we organized a monthly meetup at the brewery where we collect garbage along two miles of beach, toss it in our dumpster, then share some discounted beers.”
With Bold Mariner about to turn 10, Stacks credits its ongoing success to the fact that, for him and his employees, it’s more than business.
“When I retired from service, I wanted to find something to do that I could feel just as passionate about,” says Stacks, who’s married and has four elementary-aged children. Bold Mariner is a place “where people come to share food and drink, relax, and have a great time. And I think we make that easy because we love what we’re doing and we’re sincere about it. People feel that and I think it’s what keeps them coming back.”