In four years, Hammond-based Gnarly Barley Brewing has established itself as one of the fastest growing craft breweries in the United States and is planning a major expansion.
Gnarly Barley, based out of a small, nondescript warehouse, was ranked as the 43rd fastest growing brewery in the country, based on a survey of roughly 6,000 beer makers by the Brewers Association, a nonprofit that supports small breweries. It was the only Louisiana brewery to make the list. In 2016, the brewery made 1,400 barrels of beer. A barrel contains 31 gallons. Last year, the brewery produced 3,800 barrels. This year, Gnarly Barley is on track to manufacture more than 9,000 barrels, which is the current production capacity at the brewery.
“We’re putting in 5,000 barrels of additional production space during October,” said Zac Caramonta, lead brewer and co-founder. “That’s enough to double what we did in sales two years ago.”
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All of this growth has happened while Gnarly Barley has maintained a limited distribution area. The company’s beers are available only at stores, bars and restaurants in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, the north shore, the south shore and Houma. “We’re expanding to maintain our accounts,” he said. “We have not been able to contemplate new markets because it’s enough to keep up with our current markets.”
Caramonta, 36, who started Gnarly Barley with his wife Cari, has a long-standing love of craft beer.
“I grew up right outside of Abita Springs,” he said. While other teens were trying to get their hands on six-packs of Natty Light for their parties, he wanted to get the Abitas that his older siblings were drinking.
“There was not a lot of craft beer from out of state,” he said. “I was drinking mostly European stuff.”
By the time Caramonta went off to Southeastern Louisiana University, he had become a champion of quality beers.
Cari Caramonta, 34, who started dating Zac when they were students at Southeastern, said he regularly took her to a downtown bottle shop and bar not far from the university. “That’s how he got me into craft beer,” she said. “Before that, all I knew of beer was domestics. I realized what was out there and fell in love with it.”
After graduating from Southeastern, the Caramontas got jobs. Zac was working for State Farm, handling everything from auto insurance to financial planning. Cari was in retail, managing stores.
But in 2009, Zac started to get into brewing beer. The couple had recently gotten married and he used some Bed, Bath and Beyond gift cards to buy himself a kegerator, a fridge that has been modified to store a keg. “After having the kegerator for a little while, I decided I wanted to get into home brewing,” he said. “So I returned it for a home-brewing kit.”
His interest in brewing took off. For Caramonta, brewing was the perfect way he could combine working with his hands with drinking beer. “I went into it 100 miles per hour,” he said.
He started brewing beer on his stove. Three of Gnarly Barley’s four year-round flagship brews got their start in his kitchen: Catahoula Common, Korova Milk Porter and Radical Rye P.A.
Catahoula Common is the brewery’s take on a California Common, a style of beer that’s a cross between a lager and an ale. “Catahoula” is an Indian word that means “beautiful, clear water," which Zac said was appropriate.
Korova Milk Porter is a Baltic porter with notes of chocolate and coffee. The name is a tip of the hat to “A Clockwork Orange,” which features a Korova Milk Bar. “We thought ‘milk porter,' ‘milk bar’,” Cari said.
Radical Rye is an India Pale Ale, jazzed with a dose of rye. Like Gnarly Barley, the beer’s name comes from Zac’s past as a skateboarder. “He built skate ramps in every place he lived during college,” Cari said. “The half-pipe came down to make room for brewing equipment.”
Caramonta was spending so much time brewing beer, he started to think about opening a brewery. In 2011, at the urging of some friends, he decided to enter the New Orleans on Tap Beer Festival. People outside of his friends and family liked the beer, so he decided to enter more home-brewing competitions.
“We created a little bit of a following before we were ready to open,” Cari said.
After about five years of brewing beer at home, Caramonta decided it was time to go out and open his own brewery. His original plans were for a brewhouse, capable of producing five barrels of beer. To survive as a manufacturing brewery, he upped the capacity to 30 barrels. “That was the minimal we could have,” he said.
He borrowed $450,000 to open Gnarly Barley, which he said was on the low side in terms of an investment. That was about a fifth the amount that most other breweries spent initially. “We were lean,” Zac said. “We did most of the things a person could do legally in terms of installing and building equipment.”
That small investment has paid off for Gnarly Barley as the sales have increased. The Caramontas have been able to refinance and reinvest in their business over the past few years, while at the same time increasing their staffing to 15 employees and offering benefits such as health insurance and a 401(k) program.
“So much extra effort goes into keeping a small brewery operating,” Zac said. “We so heavily rely on the people who have come on board. They’ve done so much for us, that as soon as we could give back to them, we did.”
While the Caramontas were able to launch a brewery with an initial investment of $450,000, the craft brewery game has changed drastically in the past four years. Gnarly Barley was the 11th craft brewery in Louisiana; there are now 30 production breweries in the state and another 30 more in the planning stages.
“It’s a jungle out there,” Zac said. “For the consumer, it’s definitely better. The beer here has gotten so much better.”
But craft brewers are finding themselves competing for space on store shelves and on tap handles.
Cary Koch, executive director of the Louisiana Craft Brewers Guild, an alliance of 27 of the state’s independent breweries, said Gnarly Barley has done a great job of capturing a share of the craft beer market. Koch applauds the brewery for the huge success they’ve had with Jucifer IPA, a hazy, hoppy brew that was introduced a year ago and quickly established itself as a top seller.
“They’ve managed to keep the demand for Jucifer very high and the supply somewhat limited,” Koch said. “They’ve become the new brand of the season.”
One advantage small breweries like Gnarly Barley have is they can quickly transition to what sort of beverages customers are demanding, such as New England style IPAs like Jucifer, he said.
The next step for Gnarly Barley is the expansion that will give the brewery the creative freedom to begin making more beers. The first of those beers is Gnarvana, a citrusy double IPA that Zac called “Jucifer’s big brother” and the “best thing he ever brewed.”
Gnarvana was introduced earlier this month at Gnarly Barley’s fourth-anniversary celebration. It will be available off and on at the brewery. “Until we get some breathing room, we are not going to be able to brew it regularly,” he said.