My first question for Kevin Erskine, founder of Coelacanth Brewing, was an easy one: what’s up with that name?
The only things I know about coelacanths is that they are a very old, very ugly fish and their name is very hard to pronounce (turns out it’s “seel-uh-kanth”).
As I spent some time with Kevin in the warehouse on 22nd street that later this year will be Norfolk’s newest craft brewery, I quickly learned that the choice of that odd name says a lot. First, Kevin is clearly fascinated by them.
“I love the story,” he said while searching for a Coelacanth key chain to give me. “This creature that had been presumed extinct for 65 million years is alive and well at the bottom of the sea; it reminds me how big the world is and what things we have yet to discover.”
Beyond the fascination, there are equal parts careful thought and business savvy. Don’t look for Coelacanth to be doing what’s trendy in the craft beer industry–throw in more hops and pumpkin!–but rather return to some old world classics that perhaps don’t get the attention they deserve. Everyone has a mouth-puckering double IPA, but not everyone has a traditional bock or an English bitter. This is not to say that Kevin has any disdain for what most craft brewers are doing, as he clearly has a lot of respect for his counterparts and their quality products, he just sees a potential for a different niche: a tried and true 360-million-year-old fish and some tried and true beer styles.
Also, there is no danger of having a trademark battle over the word Coelacanth (timely, as VB’s Beach Brewing has just had to proactively change their name to Reaver Beach Brewing due to licensing concerns). One less potential headache and a recognizable marketing tool. It’s actually kind of a fun word to say when you figure it out. Seel-uh-kanth.
My immediate reaction when I see a new craft brewery opening is that it is the classic tale of homebrewer deciding they can make it in the big game. All of us homebrewers think that at some point. While Kevin is a homebrewer, what makes him different is a good deal of time spent in the distribution business for wine and spirits, experience that should prove invaluable as the brewery grows. He was also a former partner in a distillery, wrote a successful whiskey blog, and had a day job in the insurance business, but a passion for beer has always been pulling him in his current direction. When asked why he wanted to open a brewery, Kevin jokingly said it’s for the never-ending supply of beer.
“I love the beer, wine, and spirits industry,” he added more seriously. “It’s real — the people in it are generally cool, and in very few jobs do you get to watch people enjoy your product.” To further understand the craft, he went through commercial brewing training at the Brewer’s Guild and seems to have made a home run hire for a head brewer, Virginia native Matt Topping, who is coming home after stints at Bell’s Brewing and Maui Brewing. His homecoming is a win not only for Coelacanth, but for our area as a whole.
I asked Kevin what has been the biggest challenge in his endeavor, and he readily admitted that the biggest obstacle so far was finding the perfect spot for the brewery. Since he lives in Virginia Beach the search initially focused on spots at the Oceanfront and other areas in that city. He hadn’t really considered Norfolk until he was contacted by the Economic Development department for the city. He now feels confident that he’s found the perfect spot, a warehouse on 22nd street located between Baker’s Jewelry and Rowena’s. I met with Kevin while the ink was still drying on the deal, but it is easy to see the potential of the space. The plan is to have the production and tasting bar in the wide open warehouse, allowing patrons to get the full brewery experience when they visit Coelacanth Brewing. Location settled, things should start moving relatively quickly at this point; in fact, during my visit I had the opportunity to participate in the delivery of the first of the fermenters. The original timeline was for a scheduled opening in October of this year, but Kevin now hopes to be able to open as soon as late summer.
Can there ever be too many breweries? Probably not. Especially exciting is a new brewery that is going to be doing things a little differently, heralding a return to some more traditional and lesser known styles. Kevin summed it up best: “It’s tough to be different in this industry–so many creative people trying new things all the time–new flavors, new tastes. To me it’s not so much about being ‘different’ as it is about being authentic.”
Ageless classics, much like the ancient fish that lends its name to the brewery.