In 2011, Jon Renthrope launched Cajun Fire Brewing Company, which at the time was the fifth black-owned brewery in the country and the first in the South. Limited amounts of Cajun Fire are brewed elsewhere and distributed in some areas on the West and East coasts, and Renthrope’s beers will hit Louisiana shelves this fall.
Renthrope and his team are working on a 10,000-square-foot brewing facility and taproom in New Orleans East, and last month the company won first prize at Propeller’s PitchNOLA Health & Food Challenge. Renthrope spoke to Gambit about the business.
Gambit: What got you interested in brewing beer?
Renthrope: Hurricane Katrina happened in my senior year of high school, so I was in Baton Rouge and I got a scholarship to the University of Florida. I moved there and was interested in the culinary (field), but I went into political science. I was cooking the foods that I missed from back home — I mean, I was in Gainesville, Florida, and it wasn’t exactly known for good food. So I was experimenting, and then my interest shifted to craft beer. I started making my own — teaching myself by reading books and watching YouTube videos. When I moved back to (New Orleans), I saw that there was a void in the industry, so I decided to forgo any kind of masters program and instead invested the money I had into my own company. I started investigating my family’s background and learned that we came from a long line of moonshiners. I did some apprenticeships from New York to NOLA Brewing with (its founder) Kirk Coco.
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When we started in 2011, there wasn’t too much of a craft brewing scene, but there also wasn’t too much of an understanding of craft breweries and what is being produced, tasting styles or even the economic importance of craft breweries. We’ve been chiseling away at it. We’ve gotten a good bit of national attention, but it wasn’t until 2014 that laws started to shift and the state and local administrations started to notice how important craft breweries were for providing economic opportunities across the state.
G: What styles of beers are you brewing?
R: We have different styles, but the one that will debut in August is a honey ale. It’s been testing well outside of Louisiana, and we’ve been serving it at festivals. It’s a nice amber-style ale with traditional Munich malts. We also have Big Chief Cream Stout, which is a mellow stout that pairs well with seafood and desserts. We try to make beers that pair well with all of the robust flavors in Southeast Louisiana.
G: Tell us about the plans for the New Orleans East brewery and taproom.
R: We’re developing a facility that’s going to be about 10,000 square feet. We’re about a year away from opening, but we have gotten the property up to grade, and it took about a year and a half to two years just to get that one.
(New Orleans East) is 60 percent of the city’s land mass but it’s an area that’s been neglected economically. Most of the people that live there are born and raised in that area. I remember how it was pre-Katrina and I envision how it can be going forward, because there’s not anywhere else to expand. There will be a taproom right off the interstate. Most importantly, it will create jobs.
It’s going to be called the New Orleans Culture Hub, and it will encompass the manufacturing of food products like hot sausage and spices — the anchor being beer. What’s good about the property is that not only is it commercially zoned, but we have full site control. A lot of people in neighboring communities have shown support. It’s come with its share of difficulties, including a lot of restoration of a blighted area … it’s a work in progress. We believe it’s a catalyst for other industries looking to invest in that area.
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