Ben Hallock had to leave JMU to tend to his father’s mystery disease, but he came away from it with a newfound passion for brewing
As Ben Hallock walks through the production rooms at Chaos Mountain Brewing, he could probably tell you more about beer than the average 20-year-old. For every large container or machine he passes, Ben has an anecdote about how it works or where it’s from. His nose has become tuned to the strong smell of hops that envelopes the facility, and he can tell you what every beer that is brewing is going to taste and smell like — even though he’s not legally allowed to drink it.
With a smile on his face, he describes the brewing process with a beaming sense of pride. He follows every description by saying this is where his father does whatever task at hand.
A true family business, Chaos Mountain Brewing was conceived by Ben’s father, Joe. Ben and his mother, Wendy, help run the business with an incredible level of dedication and diligence, making the operation seem like a success even before its official opening.
But only two years ago, this venture seemed like a pipe dream. There’s no way Ben could’ve envisioned the grand opening of his family’s brand new brewery in May while starting his freshman year at JMU.
Ben’s freshman year at JMU started like most. When the 18-year-old from Franklin County arrived on campus, he was excited about his life as a college student. He made new friends, played Super Smash Bros. and went to class. Unfortunately those times had to come to a premature end.
After a few months of being at JMU, Ben started to realize there were some problems at home. He knew his father was sick but his parents would not tell him precisely what was wrong.
“Knowing that dad was sick and he wasn’t getting better was the worst thing in the world” Ben says. And, of course, every time you talk to him, ‘oh yeah, I’m fine, everything’s great,’ and then he puts mom on the phone: ‘he’s sick, he hasn’t eaten in two days.’ And obviously you know which one is the true one, it’s obviously mom, and dad is trying to make me feel better.”
Ben’s father, Joe, was rapidly losing weight. Once at a healthy weight of 160 pounds, Joe had thinned out to a mere 128. Every time Ben visited home, his condition would be worse.
It became impossible for him to focus on his studies and college life. Ben describes himself as “notoriously a warrior” — to a fault, in this situation. Attempting to keep his happy demeanor ate at him on the inside, wondering if there was anything that he could do to help his father. This inner-conflict was reflected in his schoolwork.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was when Ben’s father began traveling out of state for treatment. He knew something was seriously wrong, even if nobody would tell him.
“When I realized that I thought my father was dying at the time, I really wasn’t concerned for my classes, in all honesty,” Ben says.
The family first noticed the problems in April 2011 on a business trip in California.
“I stopped to have lunch and I sat down to eat and I couldn’t swallow my food,” Joe says. “It was kind of completely out of the blue.”
The Hallocks were unsure of what this meant and if the problem would repeat itself.
“That’s when he started getting sick and he wasn’t able to swallow,” Wendy Hallock, Ben’s mother, says. “At first you just think it’s a one-time occurrence so you don’t pay a lot of attention to it but later he literally couldn’t swallow water so we began to get concerned.”
While Joe had been seeing a couple of doctors, he got to the point where he couldn’t eat at all. The doctors around the Roanoke area had no idea what was wrong with him, so they sent him to a specialist, Dr. John Pandolfino at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, Illinois. He stayed there for ten days, had a surgical biopsy on his esophagus, and had a J-tube inserted through his stomach so he could be fed with a pump.
Joe was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He was told the survival rate for esophageal cancer after five years is about 20 percent.
“To go home with that diagnosis and then wait to see what they were going to say was not exactly the high point of my life, let’s put it that way,” Joe says.
Ben was left with an excruciating decision to make: to stay at JMU or leave to stay with his dad, who could be in the last stages of his life. Ben spoke with his professors about his situation, and they allowed him to receive incompletes on his classes. His parents, however, took some convincing.
“We had to sit down and I just had to look at them and say ‘I feel like I’m not responsible enough to get my head wrapped around everything at JMU,’” Ben says. “Also, I had been dealing with depression at that time, which, depression mixed in with an actual serious illness in the family, is something we should really deal with right now.”
Ben’s parents, Joe and Wendy, eventually agreed with Ben’s decision to leave JMU.
“It probably wasn’t an easy decision and no parent likes their kid coming home from school,” Wendy says. “But it was good timing on his part.”
Because of the cancer, Joe faced the possibility of having his esophagus removed. Dr. Pandolfino was skeptical of the original diagnosis. Dr. Pandolfino checked with the Mayo Clinic, a not-for-profit medical practice group that specializes in advanced cases. The clinic confirmed what Dr. Pandolfino had suspected. Joe’s esophagus actually did not have a tumor.
Joe’s esophagus had actually squeezed shut entirely due to periodical spasms. His esophagus was about four times bigger than normal, which kept him from swallowing any food or liquid. Joe had a disease called Acute Spastic Achalasia.
“It’s like 1/100,000 people get Achalasia. Out of the 1/100,000, 1/250,000 gets the variety I have,” Joe says. “It’s something that they only see once or twice a year.”
Now that Joe was correctly diagnosed, it was time for surgery. He had his esophageal muscles cut in order to decrease pressure.
“I don’t swallow, basically,” he says. “When I eat it’s just gravity, and it will be for the rest of my life.”
The surgery was more invasive than Joe had anticipated. He was unable to eat for six weeks and afterward could only eat soup, yogurt, Ensure and other soft substances.
“If I ever see another Ensure, I’ll probably shoot myself,” Joe says.
The recovery was very difficult, not only for Joe, but also for the rest of the family. They felt helpless while Joe was suffering.
“It’s not like someone’s who’s sick where you can get someone to help them along the way. He couldn’t even take medicine for pain because it was a matter of swallowing” Wendy says.
Joe had to carry a backpack with him all day long that would pump food into his system because he couldn’t eat enough. Without the backpack, he would have continued to lose weight, but wearing it was not a pleasant experience.
“There was not a time where he had that feeding tube hooked up to him and he was really happy,” Ben says.
The whole recovery process had put the family in a stressful and difficult place. Getting the backpack off was the turning point that would lead the family into a new and exciting venture.
The foundations of Chaos Mountain Brewing started long before the appearance of any illness. Sixteen years ago, Wendy bought him a home brewing kit.
“I feel like he needed a hobby, honestly,” Wendy says. “The kids were really young at the time. He was doing residential construction of sorts and it was just something nice to do in between, so I bought him a brewing kit.”
Joe’s microbrewing career started with this miniature set, and he kept at it consistently while he wasn’t busy with his job at SleepSafe, a company he started that designs and creates special beds for those with special needs. He joined the local craft brewers association in Roanoke, where he met Will Landy.
Landy would eventually become the head brewer for the Hallock’s new venture.
Joe’s interest in SleepSafe faded while he was sidelined with his disease, but his interest in brewing had only grown. He decided to sell his share of the company and considered retiring to devote his free time to his passion.
According to Ben, it’s not a surprise that Joe sidestepped retirement for something bigger.
“I know my dad, he’s not the kind of guy who can just sit down and stop doing stuff. He’s wired,” Ben says. “He wakes up at 6 a.m. every day without an alarm clock, without error — unless he’s been drinking, which has happened more since we’ve gotten more into beer, of course. … I loved the fact that he wanted to stay busy, and the fact this was something I could actually help with was awesome. After so long of him being sick and just not being able to help at all outside of house sitting while he gone getting treatment, It was a good feeling.”
The family spent about a year researching the brewing industry. When they decided it was feasible they wrote a check to pay for their brew house and headed off to Germany and Belgium for more research.
Thus came the beginning of Chaos Mountain Brewing.
The name originates from Cahas Mountain, located near the brewery. Cahas Mountain Brewing was slated to be the original name until they changed it to better fit the brewery’s personality.
“Somebody suggested to us after we started fixing up Cahas that we go with Chaos instead,” Ben says. “Considering we have a very relaxed, prank-filled environment — well, a little chaos in general — it seemed to fit.”
This name has also led to the fitting slogan “Chaos is Brewing” that the newly found business has adopted.
Now Joe’s old 20,000 square foot Sleepsafe building has been renovated into a fully operational brew house. According to the Roanoke Regional Partnership, the plant’s long term production capacity is more than 325,000 cases of bottled beer per year.
Chaos Mountain Brewing will have six to eight beers year round with two more rotating seasonally. Its main beers are a scotch ale, a Belgian special dark, a Belgian blonde, a Belgian tripel, an IPA and a Belgian quadrupel. Its first seasonal beer will be a chocolate stout.
The brewery runs like a family band, with more alcohol, of course. Each of the family members has their roles. Joe handles most of the brewing process along with Landy, the head brewer, and Ben serving as an assistant brewer. Wendy runs all of the marketing, including the branding of the beers. She enlisted the help of Okay Yellow, a design company that created the intricate designs for Devils Backbone, Three Notch’d and Starr Hill. A Scottish sasquatch, a group of crazed chefs and a mad biker bunny comprise the characters that line the walls of the tap room at Chaos Mountain Brewing.
The family that has endured the long suffering of one of their members is finally able to look forward to better and brighter things. Joe, Wendy and Ben are now closer together than ever.
“I think that we deserved it after everything,” Ben says. “We’ve been through enough hardship that this was really just what we needed at the end of it. Some success, some happiness, some new life, something new to try and do. I couldn’t be happier with it.”
Ben is now fully on board with Chaos Mountain for the forseeable future, which means his return to JMU is unlikely. His current plan is to take as long as he can to learn the tricks of the trade from his dad and the other brewers around him. But once he’s comfortable, he might try to apply his skills beyond the family business.
“I feel like once I have the skills I’d need to work a brewery or a bottling line or brew beer on a large scale, I would go and get the education to confirm it and get a license for it … and then try my luck and see where I end up,” Ben says.
If Chaos Mountain Brewing reaches the success the family expects, who knows? Ben could find his way back to Harrisonburg once again — or at least his beer.
“If our beer became really popular at JMU as time passes, I would be incredibly proud. I think it would be awesome to have a presence in the state and a town that I had a lot of fun, and I know that there are more than a few avid beer drinkers.”