How Jon Renthrope started the first black-owned brewery in New Orleans
Less than one percent.
Less than one percent of the 6000+ craft breweries in the United States are owned by black people, even while they make up 13.4 percent of the U.S. population.
Just ask Jon Renthrope, a native black New Orleanian and founder of Cajun Fire Brewery, and he will tell you all about the underrepresentation of black folks in craft beer.
“You have about 35 plus brewers in Louisiana in total,” Renthrope said. “They employ 900 plus individuals, but when you look at the staff staffing statistics, it’s still only 1% that is black-owned. If you’re talking about gainfully employed, that number can get to zero outside of my company.”
Since 2011, Renthrope and his family-owned brewery Cajun Fire have carved out their niche of signature craft beer in New Orleans. As the first black-owned brewery in Louisiana and one of the first in the South, Cajun Fire has lofty goals to not only serve some of the most uniquely flavored beer in the country but also to improve socio-economic conditions along the way. In fact, the company has raised more than $500,000 for local philanthropies and non-profits in the Orleans Parish community.
Prior to the pandemic, Cajun Fire was selling their beer in over 130 different stores around New Orleans and the state of Louisiana. Although that number is now down to around 70 stores because of the toll of COVID-19, Renthrope says that they’re fortunate enough to be able to weather this storm and make it out stronger than they were before.
Setting the Bar High
The 32 year-old wants to set the bar high for future black-owned breweries and leave his legacy in a world where he looks different from most of his peers. He believes he’s setting the expectation for the future of black-owned breweries, especially in the South.
“There’s really no precedent for me outside of some of the historical companies, with one being People’s Brewing [Company] from the 1970s and another being Black Fire Brewing,” Renthrope explained. “I want to eventually surpass them, but today even given the landscape of the other 20 or so black-owned beer companies that are in operation right now, no one has yet surpassed the success of one company in particular: Peoples Brewing Company of the early 1970s.”
The story of Peoples Brewing is fascinating, yet tragic, and represents a microcosm of the 1970s existing racism. According to the book Bottoms Up: A Toast to Wisconsin’s Historic Bars and Breweries, in April of 1969, Ted Mack, a black 41-year-old business leader in Oshkash, Wisconsin, led a group of investors in the purchase of the Peoples Brewing Company to become the first black-owned brewery in the country.
Peoples Brewing struggled at the beginning because newspapers in Milwaukee falsely reported that Mack planned to fire all of the current white employees, which caused bar owners to cancel their purchases of Peoples beer. After setting the record straight, Mack was able to turn the business around for a time period before ultimately shutting down the business in late 1972 due to outstanding debt from the original purchase.
How does this relate back to Renthrope and Cajun Fire? Renthrope has been in business for nearly 10 years (8 years longer than Peoples). This shows the progress we have made in the past 50 years, but the continued systemic racism that black people still face, such as the tragic George Floyd killing by the police in May, shows that we still have a long way to go.
After being displaced from Hurricane Katrina, the St. Augustine High School alumna received a partnership scholarship to attend the University of Florida as a freshman in 2006. Renthrope had to keep all of his belongings with him following the displacement, including pots and pans that he would use to create his first batch of beer inspired by New Orleans-style cuisine.
“It was still very niche and expensive at a time,” Renthrope said. “So I went on YouTube and learned how to make my own beer. My first batch came out well. Thankfully it did or I might have been discouraged going forward. I kept going and going and luckily had an endless amount of people to try out the product.”
“Fast forward to 2010 when I came back to New Orleans. After I graduated, I looked at the scene; the craft beer landscape was still very much decimated by hurricane Katrina. We really didn’t have many manufacturing businesses that bounced back from that. The only company that came back to the scene was the NOLA Brewing Company, they were created in 2008. I reached out to them for apprenticeship and did an apprenticeship under them. In 2011, I decided that I’m going to take my shot at it and create my own LLC. The rest is history.”
As a 22-year old craft brewery owner with no facial hair, Renthrope says that he had a tough time starting out and convincing people that he was legitimate. Along with the fact that he was black in an industry that was predominantly led by white people, Renthrope had an immediate disadvantage but did not let this stop him. He entered into every business competition that he could to “add extra steps of validation” to his company and let people know that he runs a sophisticated business.
“As a black small business owner, I still get the same encounters and challenges I found almost a decade ago. They’re very much still here today. As a business owner, I matured and learned how to actually navigate around them as they come,” Renthrope said.
The Future of Cajun Fire
Renthrope, a member of the United Nation of Houma Indians, works hard to make sure that Cajun Fire’s beer flavors match the unique cuisine and blend of cultures in New Orleans. In fact, they are launching an entire new beer later this summer, the Milkshake Raspberry IPA, which he says will pay homage to the Gentilly community in New Orleans.
“From the flavor profile perspective, the most important thing is to have our products be synonymous with the New Orleans food culture.” Renthrope said. “We’ve got one of the most progressive and exploratory food cultures in the world. So it would be a missed opportunity if we just bored people to death with the level of technicality we can go with the beers.”
While Renthrope currently doesn’t own his own brick-and-mortar brewery (choosing to outsource production to facilities in Virginia and Oregon, who help promote and sell their beers to other areas around the country), they have plans to construct and open a 5,000 square-foot brewing facility (along with a museum) in New Orleans East early next year.
“It’s an area that’s mostly deprived of any breweries. There are around 80,000 people in the New Orleans East community and right now there’s only one other brewery in town in that district. There are a lot of opportunities specifically for us being right off the interstate. We just did a traffic impact study and 20,000 cars pass us on each side per day. So it’s a very viable piece of land and ultimately it will open up other manufacturing opportunities for other business owners as well.”
Furthermore, Renthrope plans to expand internationally to countries such as Canada, China, Japan, and South Africa with the help of trade organizations such as the Southern United States Trade Association.
It’s fair to say that Cajun Fire has already surpassed the success that the Peoples Brewing had in the 1970s. Renthrope has set an example not only for future black brewery owners to follow but for any business owner. With his grit and passion for brewing beers, Renthrope looks to inspire the next generation of black craft brewers in New Orleans.
“My brewing style incorporates soul because I’m a black brewer first, and those experiences have a way of diving into whatever I touch with the company,” he told Face 2 Face Africa. “You recognize that you might have a lot more hurdles than your competition. For me it’s healthy because it allows me to express myself and create something that can infuse civic pride into an area that has often been neglected.”