Two weeks ago we made our first visit to NOLA Brewing in New Orleans, LA on 3001 Tchoupitoulas Street (pronounced chop-a-too-lass or Chop for simplicity sake). Each Friday they open the brewery at 2pm for tours and free samples of their beers. Once again we found ourselves in a very long line for beer, but as I’ve mentioned before, if it’s free then I can wait. Besides, sometimes you just have to wait in line for a good thing, and NOLA was well worth it! Towards the end of the day I had the opportunity to meet Melanie Knepp, the Head Brewer for NOLA and a fellow Pink Boots Member. We told her about our journey, traded a few stickers and the following week I sent her some questions about the brewery that I didn’t have time to ask her while we were there. She’s very busy so I feel honored that she took the time to answer my questions so we could share a little more about her story and her time with NOLA.
Nola brewery was founded in 2008 by Kirk Coco and Peter Caddoo. Kirk, originally from New Orleans, was working as a Surface Warfare Officer in the United States Navy when Katrina hit. After seeing the devastation he decided he wanted to come back home to help rebuild and create a new business in his beloved Crescent City. He shared his plans with his friend Byron, an experienced home brewer, who put Kirk in contact with Peter Caddo, former Brew Master for Dixie Beer.
After Hurricane Katrina, the very famous New Orleans brewery, Dixie Brewing Company, was left destroyed, but the building was still standing. According to NOLA Brew History’s website: “During the first couple of months after the storm, the [Dixie] building was looted and a lot of the expensive brewing equipment was stolen. The company had announced that they would rebuild and begin brewing in New Orleans again; however, the building has still not been restored.”
Melanie, tell us a little bit about your background in craft beer, 10 years strong, how did you get started? Where else have you brewed?
My background in craft beer began first and foremost as an appreciator of great beers. That led me to bar tending positions at places like Old Chicago, and then Papago Brewing Co. in Scottsdale AZ. One of my customers at Papago, Ken Saxe, owned the Homebrew Depot in Mesa, AZ and he encouraged me to start brewing my own beer. I began home brewing and really enjoyed it.
I moved to New Orleans in 2006 and my first job was at Crescent City Brewhouse in the French Quarter. Although I was hired as a server, I let management there know that I fully intended to brew their beer, but that I would wait tables until that time came. I worked a little bit with the Brewmaster there, but eventually was hired for a brewer’s position at Abita in Covington. It was there at Abita that I learned all of the necessary skills to be a commercial brewer. After driving a 90 mile commute for almost 9 months, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I left Abita, and due to the debt I had acquired putting myself through “college” at Abita, I moved back to Arizona to manage Papago Brewing Co.
While I was back in AZ I began the cicerone program which had just recently started. I took the first certified cicerone exam in San Diego at the Craft Brewer’s Conference in 2008. I stowed away in my boss, Ron Kloth’s room at the Town and Country while the conference was going on and took the Cicerone exam. While I was there at the CBC, of course I did some networking. My good friend Dylan Lintern, VP here at NOLA, was out there with Kirk Coco, owner and founder of NOLA, and he introduced me to Kirk. When Kirk told me he was opening a brewery in New Orleans, I told him that i was going to come work for him. I also told him that i would be in New Orleans the following week for Jazz Fest and would definitely stop by for a visit.
When you started with NOLA, like many others, you started as a volunteer. Tell us more about your decision to do that.
I ended up volunteering with them at NOLA and actually extended my stay to brew with Peter. After a couple of days at NOLA I let Kirk know that I would be moving back to New Orleans, and that I would volunteer with them as long as needed until they were ready to put me on the payroll. I intended to wait tables at Crescent City Brewhouse until then, but within 2 weeks, Kirk offered me a position. It’s has been one of the best things that has ever happened to me. I work with an amazing group of people, we make an incredible product, have the opportunity to be unbelievably creative and the best part of my job is that we are able to donate beer for various events and causes around town and give something back to our community which is the reason we all live here, because we love New Orleans. I am truly blessed.
What exactly does it mean to be the head brewer? How does that role differ from the brew master?
As far as my position here at NOLA, I am the head brewer…aka Head of Brewing Operations, which is actually a little more accurate these days. I only brew when someone is on vacation, or sick, or we are doing something like the Stone collaboration. Pretty much I am managing our brewery employees, training new hires, setting production and packaging schedules, ordering and researching new equipment, and delegating responsibilities. All of that, along with filling in where needed. Some days I’m the keg washer, some days I’m the can herder, some days sales rep, you name it I want to do it. As you can tell by my long winded [responses], I am a consummate work-a-holic, and love every minute of it. I work with my Brewmaster in helping create new brews, but mostly as someone to bounce ideas off of and as a voice of encouragement, or the one that says, “yes, as much as we would like to use those hops, they just aren’t available to us.” I like to put everyone where they are strongest, and my brew master has been brewing for over 30 years. I’m confident that he knows more about recipe formulation, and ingredients than myself, so I let him run with it. I on the other hand, am better at managing our time and crew, so that’s what I do. It’s a lot of fun, and always challenging. Every day is something new. I love it.
Speaking of the Stone Collaboration, how did that come about? Were you involved in the recipe/brewing process?
Our Stone collaboration beer got its start at the Craft Brewer’s Conference last year in San Francisco. My good friend, and Louisiana Stone rep at the time Jason Armstrong introduced me to Mitch Steele, the Brew Master at Stone, and afterwards, Jason mentioned how cool it would be for our breweries to collaborate. Of course I agreed whole heartedly! Jason planted a bug in Mitch’s ear and by the end of the conference Mitch was asking when he was going to New Orleans!
Jason and I started working on ideas for the project like when to release, when to brew etc. My Brew Master, Peter, and I started corresponding with Mitch via email in November, discussing beer style, ingredients, etc. We decided to brew the beer in January, in time to release it the first weekend of Mardi Gras. We also decided to use some local LA ingredients to set the brew apart from anything any of us had ever made. Peter brewed a test batch in Dec playing around with the tentative recipe we worked out. We used some organic dried satsuma peels and Steen’s molasses in an Imperial Porter. A few days before Mitch was to fly out he had a family emergency, and was unable to make the trip. He proposed that Stone send Jeremy Moynier, their Head Brewer. It worked out tremendously. Jeremey flew out, Jason was here to brew with us, and so was Shawn Geiser, our current LA Stone rep.
The three of them, Peter, and myself started our brew day at 6am. Indy, our Asst. Brewer came in around 1pm and worked on the second brew with us. We did 2 19 bbl batches, and it took us 18 hours!!! Quite a day, but a true labor of love. Everyone was a trooper, and we powered through and made quite possibly the best beer we’ve ever made on our system. It was an unbelievable project. Mitch flew out for the release which we did at the Avenue Pub on Feb 11, where we released our Pour Me Something Mistah Imperial Porter on the balcony above St. Charles Avenue as the Mardi Gras floats rolled by! [It was] quite the experience!
Have you done other collaborations or have any new ones in the works?
We don’t currently have any other collaborations in the works, but I’ve been thinking that it might be fun to do something similar every year for Mardi Gras, if for no other reason, but to get some of our friends in the craft beer community down to New Orleans for Mardi Gras! I’m thinking, who wouldn’t want to have an excuse to come down and “work” in New Orleans for Mardi Gras?! Plus it would be a fun project for us to step out of our daily routine and be able to flex our creative muscles!
When we visited the brewery we only noticed Brown and Blonde cans, when did you start canning? And what’s the plans for your cans? Do you have more that I missed?
We started canning our Blonde ale the week before Halloween. We rolled the cans out with a stellar party and show at the world famous Tipitina’s, just up the street from the brewery. We had our good friend Colin Lake open the show and followed with Flow Tribe and closed with Big Sam’s Funky Nation.
It was great! The first beer was on us with your entrance to the club. Members of the brewery handed out cans of Blonde ale in koozies designed by the winner of a koozie contest we set up through our Facebook. Just this week we released the Brown ale in cans. Those were are two flagship beers, and that is why we chose to can them first. We are working on a can design for our IPA, Hopitoulas and look to release those in early summer. Currently our cans and kegs are available in Louisiana and Alabama, and our kegs are also available in the panhandle of Florida.
What was your production last year? What do you forecast this year?
Last year, our 2nd year in production, we put out almost 3,500 bbls of beer on our 20bbl system. This year we have projected for 6,000bbls. With the release of our canned products, and the tremendous representation by our distributor, Crescent Crown, we intend to hit the 6.000bbl mark.
What have been the biggest challenges with NOLA – what’s the expectations for growth over the next 2-5 years?
The challenges we have faced were initially [with] our distribution. We locked ourselves into a contract with an unnamed distributor that we later realized was primarily a wine and spirit house, and not as focused on craft beer as we were going to need. When we illegally broke our contract, we had many obstacles to overcome, and could have potentially gone out of business. We made our way through a couple distribution hurdles, and came out smelling like roses. The best thing that happened to us last year was our brand distribution rights being purchased by Crescent Crown. The second best thing was finding a bank to finance new tanks and our canning line, which was a direct result of the success and sales we had with Crescent Crown. With our cans rolling out, things are looking great for us.
We have hired four new people since October, and will be looking to hire one or two more by the end of the year. We are doing exactly what we set out to do, making what we feel is the best beer to represent our city, hiring folks who take pride in their work and city, and getting involved with our community every chance we get, one beer at a time. We are getting ready to spread out on April 1st to the building next door to us. It is identical in space and is much needed with the increase in raw ingredient we are keeping on hand, as well as our kegs and cans, and cold storage. We hope to get more tanks in the near future, roll out more of our brands in cans, and sooner than later, purchase a larger brewhouse.
What advice would you give to women wanting to get into brewing?
My advice to women interested in getting into brewing and working in a brewery, all I can say is just do it. Don’t be discouraged from doing anything you feel passionate about because someone else feels it’s not a woman’s job. We are all humans, and we are all capable of doing anything we set our minds to. I have never let my gender discourage me from doing anything, and my best advice is to follow your heart, work hard, and be the person you want to be regardless of what anyone else says or feels, no matter what the endeavor. There are more women than people realize in the craft beer community, and I feel that we are a huge part of the success of this industry here in the U.S. Because we have the opportunity to break down stereotypes and sexual barriers, we should exercise that right. I feel that the craft beer world is a perfect example of people (male and female) working together for a common greater good and superior quality of life and standards.
And lastly, for our TRP fans: What are your favorite watering holes in New Orleans?
My favorite bars in New Orleans tend to be ones that have live music and are beer centric. When I’m downtown, I’m at d.b.a, when I’m uptown I’m at the Maple Leaf and when I’m close to home, in the Irish Channel, I like to go to Tipitina’s. Although Tip’s isn’t open unless there is a show going on, they tend to have live music 3-4nights a week.
Hands On New Orleans – rebuilding of schools, homes and parks; offers housing for 50 out-of-town visitors in a hostel setting.
New Orleans Habitat for Humanity – new home construction
Phoenix of New Orleans – Construction and renovation of homes in the lower Mid-City neighborhood
Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans – rebuilding of homes for low-income elderly and disabled
Saint Bernard Project – Construction and renovation of homes in St Bernard Parish, adjacent to New Orleans.
I got the volunteer information from the Lonely Planet New Orleans City Guide. If anyone has volunteer opportunities for neighboring states, please send along and I would be happy to add to this list.
I’d like to thank Melanie again for welcoming us at NOLA Brewing and taking the time to sit down and answer our questions. Special thanks to Kirk and Peter and the entire team for making great beer. The brown is one of the best I’ve had and one of my favorite styles. If you can’t make it to New Orleans check out their website to see if you can get their beer in a city near you.