Drinking Cajun Fire:  Jon Renthrope

Drinking Cajun Fire: Jon Renthrope

Posted by Morgan Maschler on Jul 19th 2020

Who doesn’t love a nice cold beer on a hot summer’s day? Here is Cajun Fire Brewing Company! Since 2011, they have served up craft beer with authentic New Orleans flavors. CEO Jon Renthrope started Cajun Fire during his time at the University of Florida in the years following Hurricane Katrina.

New Orleans is extremely important to Renthrope as he was born and raised in New Orleans East. He became interested in craft beer in college, and when he moved back to New Orleans after school, he started his business in the city to follow his new-found passion for craft beer combined with his lifelong passion for his city.

Throughout the years, Cajun Fire has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for different local nonprofits, some of which Renthope is heavily involved in himself. Cajun Fire, along with their amazingly unique beer, is a company that truly cares about giving back to their community. This year, Renthrope is starting construction on a Cajun Fire brewing facility and taproom that will serve as an attraction with tours and a museum, with hopes to bring investment and manufacturing to the New Orleans East area called the New Orleans Culture Hub.

I sat down with Renthrope to hear more about his story, Cajun Fire, and the importance of family and community to his business.

Questions for Renthrope from Morgan Maschler at Freret & Napoleon

Masked Renthrope pouring a glass of Big Chief Creme Stout

You are clearly passionate about brewing and making great beer. Where did your idea to get into this industry come from, and how did Cajun Fire get its start?

That’s a lot to unpack there. So, when I first got started with the company initially, it is important to note, at the time, I was going through reconstruction with Hurricane Katrina. That happened during my senior year of high school, so it impacted my decisions during undergrad and when I came back to the city to start my business. I was fortunate enough to receive a partial scholarship to the University of Florida after I graduated high school in 2006.

When I moved out there, I planned on going to culinary school, but I instead majored in political science. Because I was displaced [from Katrina], I had a lot of kettle pots to make foods that I missed from back home like Gumbo. I started trying to make New Orleans cuisine, but I sucked at that [laughs], so I started trying out craft beer for the first time. I was drinking cheap beer at the time, but when I tried craft beer for the first time, it was amazing. The taste was complex, the branding was unique, it was local, and I was just so impressed that beer could be that complex and have such an interesting taste profile.

Craft beer was expensive for a college budget, so I went to YouTube and other sites to look at videos of different torrents and zips and home brewing videos. I started learning how to make beer by watching these videos and trying to recreate them. Thankfully enough, my first batch came out pretty good, and I was hooked. Fast forward to 2010, I graduated from University of Florida with a major in Political Science and a minor in Environmental Studies, and I moved back to New Orleans. I wanted to make an impact, and I particularly looked at the craft beer market. The only other beer company in Orleans Parish that had opened post-Katrina was Nola Brewing. I decided to make my company, but also start an apprenticeship and mentorship program there and at other breweries. In 2011, I filed my own LLC, and from there, I got my family on board to start the Cajun Fire journey.

Renthrope winning UF's 40 under 40 award in 2019

How has Cajun Fire being a family owned business factor into the brand as a whole and how you run your business?

It is in the fabric of business because we are from the community. We do have an obligation to keep the community first and to be mindful, particularly with alcohol, because there is a level of responsibility to perform well. It makes it easier when it is family oriented and you can lean on that community for guidance and support.

All in all, from the styles that we come out with and what we want to roll out in the future, I have a lot of influence from my family’s lineage. I am a member of the Houma Nation, which is an indigenous Native American community, as well as my own heritage of being a descendant of slaves. Having those two kinds of diasporas mix definitely makes our products authentic and very unique in the market that we operate in, which is pretty homogenous for the most part.

My lineage shines all the way through. Even in some of the stories we tell in our content, some of the recipe profiles, all of that comes full circle when it is based on family orientation.

Take us through your brewing process and what makes your beer unique.

Let’s start it off with the beers. I have been brewing for a little under a decade. With New Orleans, there is a very rich culture with food. The biggest challenge when I was making a product is that I was doing a lot of home brewing competitions. We want to make our product on the commercial side stand out on a retail level. Through that, we wanted to differentiate ourselves by making beers that chefs can add to their own repertoire of ingredients, or even create a historic taste profile.

When we were shopping Honey Ale, it was a no brainer that that would be one of our flagship beers because the city of New Orleans has such a rich German history that allowed this influence and taste profile when it comes to beverages and beers. It has kind of an amber style. We’ve seen companies like Abita Amber really flourish in that flavor rage, so when we came to the market, we wanted to add our own twist to that, therefore we added honey to our barrel, and that led to us creating our Honey Ale.

We shopped for that for quite some time. We have showcased other kinds of beers, but that has been our most consistent flavor for a while now in New Orleans as well as some other markets throughout the US.

As for our Big Chief Creme Stout, that was the first beer I created. We kept amping it and amping it, and then in 2015, people started adding lactose to a lot of different beers. So, we added lactose sugar to the creme stout, which gave it kind of a smooth aftertaste for some of that earthy taste that you get in a lot of stouts.

For people that are novices in the craft beer world, I like to compare it to Guinness. We wanted something that would be a great jumping off point to introduce people to the craft beer world. It takes away some of the stigmas. It’s darker, so people assume that it is going to taste really strong when, in fact, pigment does not really influence the taste profile. It is more of a perception thing. It serves well as a learning vehicle, and it is tasty. It also pairs really well with French cuisine like croissants, french bread, poboys, even desserts like beignets. It pairs well with this authentic culture. It comes full circle again with that food culture.

We even had chefs make cakes this past Father’s Day with our beer. There are a lot of ways that you can incorporate it into your food programs for restaurants. It is not too high in ABV, so it pairs nicely on a day like today when the heat index is 110. With our products, we take time to really critique the details that make a good product.

Honey Ale in production

You have raised over $500 thousand for local charities and nonprofits in the city. Why is giving back to the community so important to you and Cajun Fire as a whole?

It is the most important thing to me. If you have a healthy ecosystem, you have a healthy community, you want that help and support system. As a small business, it is our lifeblood. Word of mouth and New Orleans festival culture is a very effective way to advertise your product without breaking the bank.

I was born and raised in New Orleans East. There are a ton of blighted warehouses here. I am aiming to make an impact in my own little way. With a beer company, from what I have seen through traveling to old steel mill towns and breweries, even going back five years, there is a full ecosystem around it. Breweries have potential to make a very big impact as far as economics, fundraising, fellowship, camaraderie, and so much more.

One of my favorite things about being in this area and in this industry is that you can really make an impact with your company. Everybody wants to partner with breweries because of their ability to raise capital and also find their way in every little niche.

Of the many nonprofits that you work with, is there a particular one that is your favorite, or one that you want to highlight?

Yes! I am on the Executive Board of 100 Black Men as the Secretary. That nonprofit is very near and dear to my heart. Its aim is to promote mentorship and engagement in meaningful mentorship with the youth. It is especially important in our city right now with the lack of education systems due to COVID to actively find ways to keep mentorship alive. There is a lot of disparity that shows that it is needed more so than ever. This organization is very important to me.

If Cajun Fire was based in a city other than New Orleans, what would be different about it?

Not too much to be honest with you. Right now we are headquartered in New Orleans, but we co-pack in a company based in Sterling, Virginia. We have established ourselves in different cities. We got a start in Portland Oregon, so no matter what side of the U.S. you’re on, what is most important about the company is that it is from New Orleans.

When you go around the country and the world, people know New Orleans before they even know Louisiana. During Katrina, people from New Orleans were peppered all throughout the country, where many started businesses that still operate today. There is something very hypnotic about New Orleans history. We have such a rich culture with such deep lineages. It is the most authentic culture and experience you can get when it is tapped into right. There is something raw and uncut about it.

Serving Cajun Fire to the community at festivals, etc.

Where do you get your inspiration for new flavors?

I am still very passionate about beer. I haven’t suffered burnout by trying out. It’s interesting that you never know what you can get in a can. There are so many different designs, people creating them, and creativity and influences going into the beers. I can still be a fan when I walk down the aisles.

I always get a feeling of excitement when I try a new beer for the first time. This keeps me engaged as well as aware of what is trending in taste profiles that I can have for my own brand. Attending festivals is the best because you meet different brewers that are all like their own mad scientist. Everyone has their own process and ideas that you may not even know about that you can incorporate in your band.

I am always learning. It is very hard to be at the point in their industry that you cannot learn anything more. We always have due diligence at the forefront of our research and development departments.

You are currently in the process of creating a 10 thousand square foot brewing facility and taproom in New Orleans East called the New Orleans Culture Hub. Why is it important to you to create a space like this in New Orleans East?

We have the property up to grade. With everything going on with COVID, it has slowed our production. We are planning on breaking ground in August and getting all of the contracting up and running. We are sitting on grounds that have no pre-existing infrastructure, so the more saturated it is with rainfall and hurricane season, it presents more challenges.

We have weathered the storm of getting finances in order. In that area of the city, there are not a lot of businesses in the manufacturing sector that are visible to the general public. Young black men, particularly with the men in [100 Black Men], it is important for them to see this kind of work being done where they live. They call it the “Food Desert” or a “Food Swamp” because of the lack of investment in an area with 80,000 residents.

A lot of people’s first impression of New Orleans when they drive to the city is through the East, where people see just residences and no commerce. This shows the disparity from New Orleans East to different parts of the city. With this, we hope to create a momentum for investment in that area. The area that we are particularly in, has people that are looking at our progress to see if they will build there. I’m no millionaire, so there is a lot of weight on my shoulders, but someone needs to do it, and I’m not going to wait around until someone else does it first.

What can we expect from both Cajun Fire and the New Orleans Culture Hub in the upcoming months?

I hope and pray that soon we are in a better situation than we are in now to make more progress on construction. We will still be operating, but it may not have the museum and larger scale items on the taproom just yet. We have a lot of land, and we are still exploring options.

Brewing is usually a competitive market, so we have all hands on deck normally. Hopefully soon, we will have the whole facility like other ones throughout the country. Right now, it is all hands on deck to get us up and running as fast and as efficiently as possible. Also, we are servicing different retailers without products, so we are busy and hoping that things continue to move forward for the future.

What is the biggest challenge you have had, and the biggest surprise you have had, since starting this business?

When I was first getting into the industry, I was researching where to get my mentorship, and I was surprised to learn that I am the fifth black-owned brewing company in the U.S.

There were not many options of mentors that looked liked me. I found Celeste Beatty from Harlem Brewing Company. Sharing stories with her was a lot to wrap my head around that there were 6,000 craft breweries in operation, and my company, one other, and three starting out were starting out were the only black-owned breweries in business, which is daunting, any way you slice it.

As far as women-owned, there were only like ten, so it is a very white male dominated industry from top to bottom. I think the biggest surprise, even a decade later, is that those numbers have not gotten better. In fact, they have gotten worse because now there are 8,000 breweries. It goes for employment opportunities too, because there are over 35 breweries in Louisiana, and less than 10 black employees, and it creates a lot of hurdles that I have to go through.

How I approach it is that we are pioneers, and we have a lot of people looking behind us that are looking to see us succeed so that they can enter the industry. We try to make sure we set the right tone and example, so we make sure we are strategic. What is surprising is that there are a lack of resources to thrive.

With all of the racial injustices being shown right now, it extends to my business which is seen as “apolitical”. We have many hurdles to pass that our competition does not think about. Getting the manufacturing facility was difficult as we dealt with redlining and other issues that come with obtaining property for black people. One thing that I will say is that we have been diligent, and my partners and community have been very supportive of me.

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To learn more about for Renthrope's Cajun Fire Brewing Company, click here.

Follow their day-to-day and behind-the-scenes on Instagram at @drinkcajunfire!

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Morgan Maschler is a Marketing and Social Media intern with Freret & Napoleon. She is from New Jersey, but goes to school at Tulane University in New Orleans. She’s a foodie, and she loves music and travelling. She loves exploring New Orleans and all that it has to offer. See what she's up to on Instagram @morganmaschler!