The Story Behind Joe Maddon’s Try Not to Suck Beer

May 2, 2019

By Respect 90 Foundation

Sterling Johnson came home from a five-year hitch in the Navy to the realization that he had “lost himself.”

Nate Reeves returned from two years as an Army radio operator in Afghanistan and even after earning his college degree at Western Illinois University, ran into a  wall of red tape.

The two Chicago veterans are at the heart of what makes the story behind Joe Maddon’s recently released Try Not To Suck Beer not just a another new ale tale.

“I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time, ”explains the Cubs manager whose primary motive is to generate funds for his four-year-old foundation, Respect 90, which targets at-risk children and families. “We needed to find the right situation, the right people. We have found them.”

In addition to Sterling and Nate, that cast includes Mark Doyle founder of Chicago nonprofit Rags of Honor 1, which assists homeless veterans and is establishing a brewery, RnR Brews, that will be staffed by vets and produce Maddon’s new beverage.

The final group member is veteran brewmaster Pete Crowley, co-owner of Haymarket Beer Co. with a long history of community service.  To get things started, he generously offered up his time, expertise and his brewery’s facilities, something he’ll continue to do until RnR Brews can obtain its own. “This isn’t new to us. We wanted to help them get off the ground,” reasons Pete. “I feel like if we can do something like this, we want to. I believe that’s what Joe’s mentality is too.”

Joe with veterans Sterling Johnson (left) and Nate Reeves (right). Both men are involved in producing Joe’s Try Not to Suck Beer at Haymarket Brewery in Chicago.

“This was a perfect match, says Mark. “It all started at the same time. About the time we were trying to expand our opportunities for veterans and decide what direction we wanted to take, (Respect 90 marketing executive) Steve Alexander contacted us about Joe wanting try this venture for Respect 90.  Pete from Haymarket was all in right from the start. This was one of those perfect timings in life.”

Profits from the beer sales spurred by this group will go to both the Respect 90 and Rags of Honor 1 foundations.

Presently, Try Not to Suck Beer is available at Jewel-Osco Stores and Binny’s Beverage Depot locations throughout the Chicago area.

While Joe loves the taste of his new product, this project is about the opportunity to help the homeless population in general, through Respect 90, and homeless vets, through Rays of Honor1 and RnR Brews. “I never served (in the military) and it’s one of my regrets,” he confesses, “but my father and uncles did, and it bothers me that people who fought for our country could ever be homeless. How can that possibly be right?”

Sterling is one of those veterans. “The transition home was rough. I made some mistakes,” admits the youthful, former Navy mechanic.

As Mark was looking to add veterans to assist in the brewing process for Respect 90 and to supplement his staff at Veterans Roasters, another one of his initiatives that puts veterans to work as coffee roasters, he called the staff at Hope Manor One, a supportive housing development specifically designed by Volunteers of America for Chicago’s homeless veterans.

“I told them give me the best guy you have,” recalls Mark.  Enter Sterling Johnson, who for the time being is still living at Hope Manor.

“This is a re-boot for me. This opportunity gives me a sense of pride, a feeling of accomplishment,” says the enthused, youthful Southside native. “What’s most important to me is that it is all for veterans. Everything we sell, whether it’s beer or coffee, goes to veterans. Whatever it is I am doing, I feel like I am working for the customers and the veterans and I want it to be of the highest quality every time.”

On the beer side, he is learning from fellow veteran Nate, who following his return from Afghanistan, started brewing beer as a hobby in his garage with his father. “We did everything, even built our own equipment,” says Nate. After a few temporary jobs, he came to realize his real passion and began taking classes on brewing science at Chicago’s 150-year-old Siebel Institute.

Nate eventually went to work for a veterans’ brewing company that failed, but a connection was made with Mark’s RnR Brews. When the Try Not to Suck Beer project emerged, he found a home.  “I really can’t put it into words,” he says when talking about the opportunity to do what he loves with people he loves. “It doesn’t matter where you are when you are with veterans. We have the same interests, the same likes, the same sense of humor. It’s like being in the military again, but it’s just about the fun stuff.”

Fun.  Exactly as Joe Maddon would have it.

Rick Vaughn | Executive Director, Respect 90 Foundation

Joe with veterans Sterling Johnson (left) and Nate Reeves (right). Both men are involved in producing Joe’s Try Not to Suck Beer at Haymarket Brewery in Chicago.