Today’s craft breweries are quickly becoming integral parts of the communities they reside in. Between the jobs they create, the tax revenue generated, and the generous donations to local nonprofits, craft brewers provide a shining example of the American Dream while many industries are struggling. Many brewers start out with just the dream of pursuing their life-long ambition of starting a brewery, some have that combined with a driven altruism, and some, as is the case with NOLA Brewing Company, have all of that fused with a desire to help rebuild their community.
NOLA (New Orleans Lagers and Ales) Brewing was conceived from the beginning as both a way to bring brewing back into New Orleans proper and a way to contribute to the rebuilding of the city after Hurricane Katrina. Kirk Coco came back to Louisiana after the storm and 11 years in the Navy aching to do something to help the town he was born and raised in rise from the ashes. In the months following his return, and while contemplating what he planned to do, he found himself looking at a bottle of Dixie Beer. He had been drinking Dixie with the assumption that he was supporting a local business; what he saw printed on it’s label gave him the idea he was looking for.
The beer of his youth was now contract brewed in Wisconsin, making Crescent City Brewpub the only entity actually brewing within the city limits. That fact, along with his friendship with former Dixie brewer Peter Caddoo, convinced Kirk that he should open a brewery. Even though Kirk had been a homebrewer, it was Peter’s 18 years at Dixie and 32 years of homebrewing that provided the expertise in getting things up and running; that is after quite a few challenges got in the way.
Acquiring a warehouse in the Irish Channel neighborhood in June of 2008 was almost the easy part. Coco chose the neighborhood not only for its history, but also because of it having an elevation almost 15 feet above the river, one of the highest in the city.
We arrived at the brewery on Tchoupitoulas Street on a Monday morning this past April with breezes coming over the concrete levee across the street, and container ships lazily looming on the river. The building’s large garage door was open revealing a flurry of activity contrasting with the quiet of the neighborhood of warehouses interspersed with the homes that predominate Irish Channel.
Buck, one of NOLA’s employees, greeted us at the door and invited us in since we were expected. Even though they normally only do tours on Friday afternoons, Kirk graciously allowed us in to see the operations and chat with him after I had contacted him prior to our annual trip down. Southern hospitality was evident over the next hour and a half as we were plied with their sumptuous beers and shown around.
Our first stop was the beer taps, attached to their keg cooler in the midst of a glittering cave filled to the brim with empty cans waiting to be filled. As the late morning sunlight streamed in, glinting off the cans all around, Buck related that they had just acquired the building next door, giving them much needed storage and to expand the cooler which seemed more appropriate to a largish taproom rather than a brewery who supplied beer for a region. As we sampled NOLA’s mainstays, the Brown and Blonde Ales, he told us that he was originally from Mississippi and was ecstatic to be in Nawlins working in the craft beer industry. His easy going manner and readiness of answers made him a perfect guide and representative for the brewery.
As with most of their beers, the Brown and Blonde are both somewhat understated as compared with brews from the rest of the country, complimenting both the local cuisine and weather. The Brown is a perfect example of that most misunderstood style, the English Mild, a truly sessionable beer if there ever was one. Their IPA, Hopitoulas (a play on the name of the street they reside on) isn’t the hop bomb of the West, but is more hop-forward than many of its East Coast brethren; what Kirk later jokingly described as Gulf Coast style.
The more we tasted, the more we realized that these were truly beers indicative of a region, meant to be enjoyed in the South. I highly commend their choice to not pasteurize, even though that limits their distribution, it means the beer can be enjoyed with the climate south of the Mason-Dixon line. An exemplar of this philosophy is their 7th Street Wheat which has lemon basil added later in the fermentation and really adds a unique taste that fits the laid back culture.
Buck informed us, as we moved farther into the brewery, that the brew house was purchased from Left Hand Brewing here in Colorado. I have to admit that the Wife and I felt a little pride that our state helped out in providing New Orleans with a new era in craft beer. They had quite the challenge though in figuring out all of the connections when it arrived on its 32 pallets; in the early days Kirk worked full time hooking everything up while Peter worked a full time job, only coming in on the weekends to help out. But in the end Kirk was glad to have a mainly manual system, feeling that better beer is brewed when it’s hands on, much to the chagrin of his brewers who would like a more modern automated system.
We saw that hands on approach as we continued the tour to the small canning line. While the line is automated, workers still had to ‘babysit’ as the occasional can went awry or got mangled in the filler. The canning line itself was financed through a local entity, Idea Village, that helps finance small businesses expand in the Big Easy.
We rounded off our visit by sitting down for a conversation Kirk and his thoughts on not only the brewery, but the craft beer scene in New Orleans, what his favorite beers are right now, and what it means to be a New Orleanian. An amiable, natural talker, his enthusiasm for the brewery and craft beer culture came through during our talk.
While we sipped the last of the beers from the tour, he told of the hoops they jumped through under the Nagin administration just to get a water meter installed. During the six months he waited and cajoled city hall, a clerk actually told him it would have been easier opening up in nearby Jefferson Parish, luckily for the community, Kirk was adamant that he wanted to be in Orleans Parish. It was only after a call to his councilwoman that he saw any action. He told her that not only was he providing local jobs and revenue, but that he had renovated a warehouse that previously was a crack den. It was only then that he finally saw any movement, the next day the meter was in place. We’ve talked to many residents on our trips down over the past seven years, and not a one has had a good word to say about the previous administration. Most, like Kirk, are overjoyed with Mayor Landrieu, or at least willing to give him the benefit of the doubt in rebuilding the Crescent City.
Coco feels that the influx of volunteers who inundated the city to help it rebuild and then decided to stay, have revitalized it. He feels that it’s just a state of mind that makes you a New Orleanian, or as he said “You’re not born into New Orleans, you’re born and you realize that you were suppose to be born in New Orleans.” And he credits these new émigrés with some of the success of the brewery and craft beer as a whole in the city, feeling that they have added an educated palate for good beer.
While talking beer in general, we learned that one of his favorite places to expand his own personal palate is a beer bar that is near to us in both location and admiration: the Cheeky Monk on Colfax, which he wishes would open a location in New Orleans. We also learned what his top non-NOLA beers are: Pliny the Elder, Bell’s Two Hearted Ale, Brooklyn’s Local 1, Chimay’s Blanche, and Unibroue’s La Fin du Monde.
Kirk also told us of his plans for the future. Sometime this Summer he hopes to be opening a taproom in the newly acquired space next door; they’ve got the paperwork filed that would allow them to that. Among the new releases planned is a double IPA, Hopzilla, slated to be ready in the next few months. His expansion plans include a 60 barrel system that will give them the volume to distribute in Texas, Tennessee, and his dream location of North Carolina where he sees craft brewing being defined in the South.
As we made ready to go, NOLA Vice president Dylan Lintern came in to say hello, telling us he had gone to school at CU Boulder. Kirk credits NOLA’s early success to Dylan and head brewer Melanie Knepp, both of whom he met at the Craft Brewers Conference while he was still in the planning stages.
With thanks given and goodbyes said, we headed out to stroll through the Irish Channel and Garden District, eventually making our way via streetcar to the Avenue Pub. The NOLA Brewing inspired artwork that we had seen there the previous year had special meanings to us that day as we sipped their beers before sampling one of the many other brands on tap. We talked about spending a future afternoon enjoying NOLA’s beers in their new taproom when we come down to visit in the years to come. It’s not called the Big Easy for nothing.