Browse through any of the numerous beer publications and blogs out there and you’ll notice a lack of music culture represented. Beer and music culture are so intertwined that it’s always baffled us to see them rarely if ever highlighted together in beer publications. Watching a concert is especially enjoyable when you’re sipping on a tasty brew, and hanging at the bar or the tap room surely isn’t the same when there are no tunes playing over the speakers. So where’s the love?! Of course, all of that stuff is kind of a given, but what has always fascinated us is the deeper relationships between beer and music, and specifically how a love of music comes across in so many areas of the craft beer world.
Whether it be Dogfish Head brewing beers specifically inspired by the Grateful Dead or Miles Davis, Lagunitas sponsoring artists like James McMurtry, or the myriad of breweries that incorporate music into their beer names, labeling and general brand philosophy, the intimate connection between beer and music is undeniable. It is this connection that we are excited to explore in our brand new column Suds & Sounds. Each edition will turn the spotlight on a specific brewery, focusing on the role of music in that brewery’s history, packaging, tastes, and in its city or town as a whole. The idea is to get beer and music lovers to connect with a side of the brewery that may often go overlooked, but one that we think is absolutely vital. To accomplish this, we will be talking to the brewers themselves about their own love of music and the role it plays in how they approach their beer. And who knows, maybe we’ll even talk to a musicians from time to time to give a perspective from the other side.
For the very first edition of Suds & Sounds, it feels only right to turn the spotlight on a brewery located in the best music town in America, if not the world – New Orleans! Founded in 2008, NOLA Brewing was the Crescent City’s first craft brewery and has quickly grown alongside the insatiable thirst for craft beer of an ever-changing, post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. Once a city dominated by cocktails and cheap lagers, New Orleans now has a vibrant craft beer scene, and NOLA Brewing is leading the charge. You can find their flagship NOLA Blonde as well as favorites like Hopitoulas (an IPA referencing the street the brewery is located on), 7th Street Wheat and Flambeau Red among others on tap at legendary venues like Tipitina’s, the Maple Leaf, Howlin’ Wolf, and at the numerous haunts on Frenchman Street. NOLA Brewing is also a fixture at the parades and festivals that happen all year round in New Orleans. Besides a devotion to putting this city on the map as a craft beer destination, the team at NOLA Brewing are deeply passionate about music, and it’s not uncommon to catch them at a funk show still wearing their brewery uniforms. That enthusiasm towards music, beer and the New Orleans cultural community came across in our recent conversation with NOLA Brewing founder and New Orleans native Kirk Coco, who was happy to talk about just how extensively the brewery embodies the fun-loving, vibrant musical culture of its city.
Can you give us a little background on the brewery and how it began?
We were the first brewery to open up in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I was a naval officer when Katrina hit New Orleans – I was born and raised in New Orleans – and if you’re from this city it’s like a family member to you. When the hurricane hit and the city was flooded, I knew that I had to get back as soon as I could, so I got out of the Navy, came back home and just started helping friends and family gut their houses because all of the houses were flooded. During that time I was working on a business plan to start a business because I wanted to create jobs, but that business plan was to create a jam and preserve company. I was drinking Dixie Beer, which is the New Orleans beer and it’s an early 1900’s American lager made with rice. It’s not the best beer you’ll have. I came back from Seattle where I had been drinking ridiculously good beer but I had been drinking Dixie for months because I wanted to support the local brewery. Then one day I read on the bottle that it was being brewed in Wisconsin and it got me really mad that [New Orleans] didn’t have a brewery anymore. That night I said, man, somebody needs to open a brewery, and then after a few more beers I said, man, I need to open a brewery. I woke up the next morning and the idea still sounded good so I started switching my business plan from preserves to beer. I [was put in touch with] Peter Caddoo, who at that time was a chef and a really good homebrewer and he had worked at Dixie for a long time before they closed in New Orleans.
What kind of beers did you specialize in when you started out and what kind do you specialize in now?
When we started we had two beers. [At the time] 95% of beer sales in Louisiana were either Budweiser or Miller. The remaining 5% were mostly imports, and then under 1% was all of craft beer, so a very small percentage of drinkers. We started with a blonde ale because we thought that would be a good gateway craft beer, and then we made an English mild brown ale that was 3.9% abv and it was really dark. The blonde took off and became our flagship. Realistically as a business person I probably shouldn’t make a brown ale because we don’t sell a lot of it and it’s not very profitable – but we keep it because it’s my favorite beer.
What is the beer culture like in New Orleans now and is the craft beer scene linked to the music scene?
Well first off, the change in the brewing scene was dramatic. Part of that was because people were moving into New Orleans from outside of the city for the first time in a long long time. From the time I was a kid in the 70’s all the way up until Katrina, people just left the city. After Katrina you had a bunch of people come in to help rebuild from [places like] Colorado, the West Coast, New York – it was really amazing the kindness of people coming after the storm – but when they came they saw the city and experienced the people and the culture here. There’s so much live music, food, and it’s just the most culturally rich city in the United States. I think they started to fall in love with the city and then move back within a year of visiting. So there was an influx of people from outside of the regular population, and they were all used to drinking craft beer, so then all of the sudden they were looking for it and creating a demand right there. At the same time a wonderful person – Polly who owns the Avenue Pub here – took an old seedy pub and turned it into the #1 beer bar in the state of Louisiana and a top 10 beer bar in the country.
A lot of breweries seem to incorporate their own musical tastes into their packaging and presentation, whether it be a collaboration with a band, a tribute label, or a beer name that references something they like. Has your brewery ever done something like this, and if so can you tell us about it?
First of all, it’s an understanding that New Orleans exists clearly as a transportation device of alcohol, food and music. That’s what this city is and people come here for those three things, and people live here for those three things! We love to party, we throw Mardi Gras which is basically a month-long giant party, and in between Mardi Gras we have Jazz Fest and every festival you can possibly imagine. We have a tomato festival, crawfish festival, Po Boy festival, snow ball festival, daiquiri festival – anything you can imagine, there’s a festival for it. That’s just an excuse to go party more. At those parties we like to drink, eat great food, and listen to live music. Nobody in New Orleans calls it the Big Easy, but the reason you hear that name is because the musicians always called it the Big Easy. They would go do gigs in Atlanta, Nashville, Memphis, Dallas, and in between those gigs they would come to New Orleans and play for 4 or 5 days because it was so easy to get a gig in New Orleans because there’s live music every day of the week in almost every bar in the city. So on a Monday night I can go out here and catch maybe 20 live bands, whereas even if you go to a great music town like Memphis there is not much going on. [Live music] is almost a need for us, like if I go out at night and I’m not listening to live music, I don’t really feel like I’m out. It’s tied into our culture and it’s kind of hardwired into our brains.
So when we started the brewery our big thing was that we wanted to have our beer at all the music events. I think we got recognized being involved like that very early. As we were growing, Rebirth Brass Band contacted me and asked me to sit on a board for an organization called the Roots of Music. In the old days kids would start playing the bars at like 12 or 13, so that’s how people learned to play all of this great jazz and brass music. Of course, it’s good that they’re not playing bars at 12 now, but what we found is that we were losing the music of the city because nobody young was learning it. Only a few kids in big music families were learning some of it from their parents and grandparents, but it was dying away. Roots of Music got kids after school and trained them on traditional jazz and brass music from musicians that play it. So it takes these kids and teaches them the music every day after school like they would’ve gotten if they were going to play a bar on Bourbon Street, but they don’t go sit in a bar. I was asked to sit on the board and they wanted ideas to help them raise money because it’s a non-profit. So I said we could do a beer, so [Rebirth drummer] Derrick Tabb said, how would you like to have Rebirth’s name on the beer? The band donated their name and we donate the profits of the beer to the Roots of Music! We feel great because we’re actually maintaining and building that culture of brass and jazz music here.
In general, we’re all ridiculous live music fans here so you’ll see music stuff in a bunch of our beers, including our whole sour line, The Funk Series. Most beers are named after streets, but we did one that was a collaboration with 7th Sun that we named House of the Rising and it was because of the great song about New Orleans. We’ve tried to tie it in a lot, and what it comes down to most is that when we’re not making beer we’re listening to and watching music. Peter our brewmaster is starting a Grateful Dead cover band in the city, our old brewer Brian Broussard who now works for Covington is the bass player for Cowboy Mouth, which is a really big band here in the city. Everybody plays music in their off time – I play the drums and I’m slightly better at drumming than brewing beer – not good at either. I think everybody in New Orleans has an instrument somewhere and pulls it out and plays.
So when everyone is working in the brewery or people come for a tour, is there a default band that is just always playing?
Yeah, the Grateful Dead is playing constantly. Peter is a ridiculous Deadhead – he’s our brewmaster. If I was picking it would be Elvis Costello or Tom Waits. Most of the time it’s the Grateful Dead or we listen to WWOZ, which is an amazing local music station where you’ll get a lot of traditional New Orleans bands playing. Right now everybody has gone home except our nighttime brewer and there’s still music blasting here.
NOLA Brewmaster Peter Caddoo
Some breweries have gotten more into music through sponsoring tours, festivals, or even throwing their own versions of those. How do you think live music fits into the fabric of craft beer, and is this something your brewery has done?
We have two big festivals where we are major sponsors. One is Hogs for the Cause, which we started sponsoring the year that we started the brewery and that was like three guys out at a city park and we brought out some brown ale and poured it for free, and it was a fundraiser for a child that had brain cancer. That has grown in the seven years we’ve been around to a giant 3-day music festival here in town. So that’s our big one, but we also sponsor a festival in Larose, Louisiana that is probably unlike any festival you’ve gone to. It’s a pay-one-price ticket, you camp out, and all of the food and beer is free. It’s a called T-Bois Blues Fest. There’s music around the clock, you get to drink all of the free beer you want, food comes out the whole time. The music’s great, and half the people that are there are musicians, so you’re just hanging out with a bunch of really cool musicians listening to amazing music. To me it’s one of the best weekends of the year.
Do you have any musicians or noteworthy people that you can say are fans of any of your beers?
Probably our most famous fan isn’t really a musician. A while back when Brad Pitt passed a beer to Matthew McConaughey across a balcony in New Orleans that was our beer. A lot of local musicians drink our beer. Anders Osborne doesn’t drink our beer but his whole crew does – because Anders doesn’t drink at all – but he’s a close friend to the brewery. Another guy named Colin Lake who is a great blues guitarist drinks our beer all the time, Big Sam from Big Sam’s Funky Nation drinks it, Trombone Shorty has had it before. Most people in New Orleans drink our beer, especially the blonde. I’ve never seen like Bruce Springsteen or anyone come in and drink our beer, but I would love it.
NOLA Brewing is located at 3001 Tchoupitoulas St in New Orleans. For information on their beers, tap room and brewery tours check out nolabrewing.com.