By Collin Callahan
Countless pilots got their start washing airplanes in exchange for flight time. When Ben Cook began his flight training, he had something better to trade: home-brewed beer.
Cook, owner and brewmaster at Hangar 24 Craft Brewing in Redlands, California, has been interested in aviation “since my earliest memories,” he said. His parents took him to the annual MCAS Miramar Air Show, not far from his home in Southern California. For a time, he considered a career as a pilot.
It was in college that he found his other passion: beer. But his interest wasn’t just in drinking it. Soon after he turned 21, Cook bought a home-brew kit and made a batch of beer—the first of many.
At the same time, he started working toward his pilot certificate, and his two passions merged. “I wanted to learn how to fly, but I couldn’t afford it as a college student,” Cook said. “I was home brewing at the time, so I started making beer for my flight instructor and traded flight time for home brew.”
After trading several kegs worth of beer, Cook soloed in May 2007 at Redlands Municipal Airport. He was flying a 1946 Commonwealth Skyranger, which he restored for his flight training. “I bought the plane old and unflyable, and ultimately reskinned it and rebuilt a bunch of the ribs with the help of a local A&P,” he said. “My pilot’s license essentially cost me the beer I traded to my flight instructor.”
When Cook was ready to open a brewery, he didn’t need to look far for the right location. Good beer starts with good water. Nestled at the foot of the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles, Redlands offered the best water around. In 2008, Hangar 24 opened across the street from Redlands Municipal Airport. The name is a tribute to hangar number 24 at the airport, where Cook and his friends used to meet for barbeques on Thursday nights.
Beer labels are adorned with airplanes—a B–17 and its nose art on Betty IPA, a Stinson Reliant on Orange Wheat, and a DC–3 on Wheels Up Helles Lager. One beer, Pugachev’s Cobra, is named for famed Sukhoi test pilot Victor Pugachev. More than 40 varieties are brewed each year, and the brewery has won accolades for several. In 2017, more than 1.1 million gallons of beer were brewed; 188,420 cases were shipped throughout Arizona, Nevada, and California; and tap handles were pulled more than 357,000 times as patrons watched some of the 44,000 takeoffs and landings at the airport.
“We get a lot of people through the brewery who are sitting there experiencing aviation firsthand—people who would have never sat and looked at small planes coming and going,” he said. “It would be really cool to know how many pilots have come out of that, of just being there and seeing it and being so close.”
In 2016, Hangar 24 opened a second tap house at Lake Havasu City Airport in Arizona. Just off the ramp, it boasts a swimming pool and restaurant, with a biplane hanging over picnic tables. Cook, now a 300-hour pilot, often flies his 1980 Cessna TR182 between Redlands and Havasu.
“Having brick and mortar locations allows people to experience our brand, not just see it on a package or online,” he said. “They get to experience aviation. See it. Smell it. Dream about it.”