Kirk Coco is building a little brewery on Tchoupitoulas. Along with his partner Peter Caddoo, a former brewer at Dixie, the New Orleans native is installing equipment in a warehouse on the corner of 7th Street, picking out the right design for tap handles and perfecting his recipes. In the fall, New Orleans Lager and Ale—or NOLA—Brewing Company will introduce their blond and brown brews. “A very small, city-wide brewery,” Coco says. “A brewery for New Orleans.”
NOLA Brewing Company has its roots in the days after Katrina. Coco, a Navy man stationed in Seattle at the time, watched on TV as the city filled with water. “I had this really horrible, guilty feeling,” he says. “God, I´m up here, not doing anything and all my friends and family are down there dealing with the problem.” He told his wife that after he left the Navy, they were moving back to New Orleans. And he vowed to start a company that made something in Orleans Parish. Too many manufactures, he thought, had left the city. Even products identified with New Orleans like Abita, Zatarain and now Crystal Hot Sauce are made outside the city.
“The more I studied the city and tried to figure out what at one time we were good at,” Coco says, “the more it came up that this city was the brewing capital of the South.” Jax, Regal, Falstaff, XXXX, Union and Dixie all brewed beer in New Orleans. By the 1960s, all but Dixie had closed. Even that survivor was limping before the storm.
“There was only one problem,” he says. “I don´t really know how to brew beer.”
He found a master brewer in Dixie´s Peter Caddoo, who along with most of Dixie´s staff was laid off the March before Katrina. In 1980, while a student at the Culinary Institute of America, Caddoo began his first batch of homebrew the day John Lennon died. Brewing was Caddoo´s hobby until Emeril Lagasse asked him to be the sous chef at Commander´s Palace. Instead of rising in the culinary ranks, Caddoo turned down the offer and took up brewing full time. NOLA Brewing Company will initially introduce itself to local drinkers with two easy-to-sip brews aimed to please most palates. Over the next year, though, look for some of Caddoo´s unique beers, like a hoppy Indiana Pale Ale sweetened with sweet potatoes.
But before a New Orleans bartender can pour a pint of NOLA Brewing Company´s beer, even at a bar down the street from the brewery, the kegs must travel to Jefferson Parish and back. In many other states, microbreweries like Coco´s can sell directly to customers. In New Orleans, all beer must pass through one of two local liquor distributors, either Glazer´s or Republic. Coco thinks that the extra hurdle has prevented microbreweries from sprouting in New Orleans. If NOLA Brewing Company succeeds, though, he hopes others follow his lead and start crafting beers for local taste.
The blond ale will be an upgrade for folks used to light American lagers. The brown, although dark as chicory coffee, is designed to quench the thirst of a city where it rarely gets cold. The head is almost effervescent, and the flavor hints at caramel without being heavy or lingering too long on the tongue. “The idea,” Coco says, “was to make a brown ale that people in New Orleans would drink with crawfish or barbecue.”
At first, NOLA Brewing Company will make no more than 3,000 barrels (the equivalent of 6,000 kegs) and they never plan to make more than 10,000 barrels. The first year, they´ll just sell kegs to bars in New Orleans. The next year, they´ll add bottles. “We´re going to try to put out the best beer that we can. I hope the city embraces it,” Coco says. “Or at least a very small portion. We don´t need a lot of people to drink it.”