Signifiers

Confusion is Craft — The Courtyard Brewery in New Orleans, LA

It’s slowly creeping up on the edge of unbearably hot—though it’ll certainly get there in a couple hours—on a steamy Friday New Orleans morning in July, and I’m watching a guy using a shaky-ass ladder to climb on top of a brewery’s shipping-container-esque restroom so he can fix its busted air conditioning system. His foot slips a bit, the ladder wobbles, and a few gasps fill the room before he steadies himself and scramble-crawls to his intended destination.

“Welcome to Courtyard Brewery,” Scott Wood says, shaking his head with a bemused and exhausted relief. “We’re a fuckin’ mess.”

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Wood speaks with a particular brand of shrug-it-off honesty, displaying an amount of confident sincerity that’s refreshingly frank, “truthiness” in its native form. He’ll says things like, “I love Saison, but we can’t seem to make one that’s worth a shit,” adding an admirable smirk after, as if to say, “We’ll get there, though. Or maybe we won’t.” 

He’s sweat-soaked in a t-shirt, board shorts, and flip flops when we talk, and he kicks off his footwear as we get deeper into conversation. He started selling beer at 21, but didn’t drink until he was 30. 

I was like, ‘Oh my god, now I see why people drink.’ Smirnoff Ice tastes like candy in a bottle, and I love candy. It was amazing.
— Scott Wood

Seven years later, he’s running a nanobrewery in New Orleans, a city known for cocktails. As of this sticky, sweaty morning that demands cold Berliner Weisse on repeat, it’s also a city that’s yet to truly establish a proper beer scene. But folks like Wood are helping. He makes a hazy, aromatic, delicious IPA called “Sonic Youth in 1983.” There’s no reason this weird, little brewery—the first of its kind in NoLa—should be working. And yet.

“We’ve been getting an increasing number of beer geeks. We hear we’re the number one or two spot for them. It’s Avenue Pub and us,” he says, looking a little confused at the fact that his young brewery could be considered in the same sentence with NoLa’s best beer bar. “It’s weird. I don’t know even know why you guys are here, to be honest. We’re just a tiny little neighborhood bar that makes beer.”

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Wood, who was born and raised in San Diego, worked in a retirement home during college. He was serving in its restaurant and doing odd jobs around the facility when his brother called and asked him if he wanted to make more money. Ready to get out and do something new, it was an obvious chance to quit a gig with no real future.

As it turned out, his brother had lined up a position where they’d work together, handling merchandising in the beer industry. Wood joined him at Mesa Distributing, a Miller wholesaler in San Diego.

“We had a decent craft portfolio for the time, which was 2001,” he says. “Craft hadn’t really taken off yet in San Diego. There was definitely a presence—Ballast Point, Pizza Port, Stone, Karl Strauss, Green Flash, the OGs were there. But you could certainly walk into any bar and not see any local beers. I would see the Stone rep, but other than that, I didn’t see local anybody.”

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He got his start dragging 18-pack can stacks of Miller Genuine Draft and Miller Lite around a military base, stacking mountains of cans higher than his 6’4” frame. He was 21 and trying to work his way up through sales, running a route in east San Diego County that was “all Steel Reserve and Mickey’s grenades,” not that he really drew much of a distinction between cheap malt liquor and the fancier beer he’d one day make. “I didn’t really know or give a shit about the liquid for almost a decade,” Wood says.

He kept slugging it out, but it wore on him. He’d quit, then go back. He was worried he “wasn’t doing any good in the world.” He didn’t have a connection to the job, wasn’t particularly enjoying life, and it was starting to dawn on him that his existence was supported by selling stacks of cheap beer to disadvantaged people who didn’t seem to be enjoying life, either. 

“It’s cheap beer for a consumer who can afford it,” he says of brands that made up his beat. “And it’s all they can afford. I didn’t wanna keep feeding this small segment of the population poison.”

During one of his unemployed periods, he attended Naropa University in Boulder, CO to study religion. He transferred some credits from a previous college, spent three years at Naropa, and ended up with a degree in Religious Studies with an emphasis in Tibeto-Himalayan Buddhism and a Peace Studies minor. 

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“I’m not religious, I’m just interested in it,” he says. “It does tie back a little to wanting to feel like I was doing something worthwhile. I never had a visceral understanding of faith when I was young, and I felt as though it was continually forced on me. People seemed to keep pointing me towards Buddhism, and I took heed once I found Burroughs, Kerouac and the other Beat writers. I really liked what I read in Burroughs, as he seemed, to me, like Bertrand Russell on drugs, and I had been a Russell fanatic since I was like 14. Kerouac wasn't really my favorite, but he was interesting and could definitely turn a phrase. We now use Desolation Angels and Naked Lunch and other books as inspiration for many of our beer names.”

While in school, he had a beer epiphany in The Centennial State. “I wasn’t drinking, but I was going to bars and it was all craft beer,” he says. “And the culture was just different. In Colorado, I really got to see people enjoying beer and enjoying life around it. It being a part of the culture, but not the sole focus. It was not a means to an end.”

When he went back to beer sales in 2008, he asked for a better gig with growth opportunities and a craft-savvy route. He’d seen craft beer in action in Colorado and wanted to be a part of it. That beer he’d seen in San Diego was now exploding in popularity.

“I was one of the first people to put Ballast Point on a shelf,” he says.

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Given some sense of purpose by his newfound interest in craft beer, he gained some perspective. Maybe selling beer wasn’t so bad after all. But he’d still try to get out again. In fact, in one particularly disillusioned moment, he got in a car with a woman in 2010 and started driving across the country, running from his problems. He decided he wanted to be a photographer. 

About halfway into the trip, the pair stopped in New Orleans. They ended up at a music venue and bar, d.b.a., where they watched legendary Delta bluesman Little Freddie King. It was there that Wood would have another beer epiphany.

Scott Wood didn’t drink a drop of alcohol for the first 30 years of his life.

“When I was really young, I saw someone who was drunk crawling on the floor, and I always equated alcohol with over-intoxication,” he says. “From a very early age, I just never wanted to be out of control. I always ended up being the DD for my friends.”

But that all changed when he embarked on that fateful road trip with “a very platonic, very cool, and artsy friend” named Ariel. Their lives needed to be aired out, and the best way to do that was to roll down a car’s windows and ring up numbers on the odometer. 

“There wasn’t much of a thought process, but I threw myself into it fully,” Wood says. “I figured I’d land somewhere and get to start over, and that felt promising.”

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Along the way, he’s taking photos all over the South, thinking that maybe this new passion would be the one that turned into the career that finally got him out of the beer business for good. “I’m a surrealist at my core, and I take photos with the hope to reveal underlying truth of the human condition,” he says.

The pair’s meandering eventually brings them to New Orleans and d.b.a., because that’s the place everyone told to them to go to. At the bar, Ariel nods to Wood’s knowledge of all things hops and barley: “Pick a beer for me.” 

Wood panics.

“In the back of my mind, I’m like, ‘I don’t know shit about beer,’” he remembers. “‘I know how to sell it, but I don’t know what it tastes like.’”

[But wait a second, how is it possible that a guy who “doesn’t know shit about beer”—indeed, had never even drank it—previously spent years successfully selling it around San Diego? Good question.

“There's a dirty secret in the beer industry that is still as true today as it was when I was working for the distribution tier: most distributors don't know and don't care how a beer tastes,” Wood says.]

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So he looks at the menu, sees Rogue’s Dead Guy Ale, and thinks about how he’s sold a lot of that beer. If he’s going to recommend a beer to his friend, it should probably be one that was easy to sell in San Diego. He goes ahead and orders two.

“It was fucking wretched,” he says. “I thought it was horrible. I tasted it a second time just to make sure, and I was right.”

Weirdly intrigued, and perhaps moved by the spirit of his road trip adventure, he tried Sam Adams Lager and Dos Equis Lager in New Orleans, but found them unremarkable. From there, the road trip continued. They stopped in Shreveport, and he had a Smirnoff Ice.

“I thought that was fucking rad,” he says. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, now I see why people drink.’ Smirnoff Ice tastes like candy in a bottle, and I love candy. It was amazing. I had, like, two of those, and I got tipsy for the first time ever.”

Courtyard Brewery fills the need that the Auberge or local tavern does in Europe. Scott keeps the rest of the breweries in New Orleans striving to innovate instead of resting on our laurels.
— Kirk Coco, NoLa Brewing Company

The road trip took Scott and Ariel all over, and they tried different beers along the way. Miller Lite in St. Louis to thumb his nose at Anheuser-Busch on the megabrewer’s home turf. Pliny the Elder in Vegas, “the sixth or seventh beer I ever tasted,” Wood says. An exciting and varied lineup of brews at Southern Sun, a small brewpub in Boulder, CO. Like a lot of people discovering craft, Wood went from 0-60 in beer drinking, and when he got back to San Diego, none of his friends could believe it—but they were into it. They started taking him out and on a fateful night of partying, stopped at one of San Diego’s legendary beer bars.

“I remember walking into Toronado for the first time, not knowing the difference between a RIS and an IPA, and the bartender treating me really well,” he says. “That was a totally new experience to me. She had a long-ass line, and she took the time to slow down and walk me through the beers. I have always held onto that. We try to treat people that well every single time they come to our brewery now. It was that level of kindness around something so mundane that enamored me, made me want to go make it myself.”

Within six months, he’d move to New Orleans permanently and start homebrewing.

Scott Wood doesn’t make beer for everybody.

“I don’t make Pilsners. I hate Lagers. I fucking hate them,” he begins a mini-rant. “I know there’s some super geek asshole out there who’s gonna read this and hate my guts. But I fuckin’ hate ‘em. I just don’t like sulphur. I’m super sensitive to it, and I taste it in just about every Lager. It’s a yeast byproduct, and even in the cleanest Lagers I can still taste it and it bugs me.”

Of course, he sells Lagers. On the day I visit, in a cooler that’s well-stocked with the likes of 3 Fonteinen,Tilquin, a couple Crooked Staves and Jolly Pumpkins, some Orval, and a bunch of Prairie and Grimm, there’s also plenty of yellow cans filled with Founders PC Pils.

“We’ve had a lot of investment offers, but I’m a firm believer in slow growth,” he says, explaining why he’s not out to please every palate, or do the kind of volume that might require him to develop a flagship or crank out a bunch of beer that’s not to his taste. “I’d much rather make good shit.”

When Wood moved to New Orleans in 2011, there weren’t any tiny breweries—let alone many breweries at all, really—like his, which features more than 25 taps, including house-made, Double Dry-Hopped IPAs served alongside Belgian specialities in the cooler. The scene was, well, a little more primitive.

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“It was insane,” Wood says of the city’s lack of beer. “There was one brewery, which is NoLa. There were two brewpubs, which were Gordon Biersch and Crescent City Brewhouse. And that was it. There was one bottle shop that was worth a shit, and that was Stein’s. There was a homebrew shop, Brewstop. Avenue was here, but it was mostly Belgians. There was no real American craft to be found in Louisiana. Nothing of note. I remember when I moved to the French Quarter, the only beer that I recognized and the one I drank the most of was Stone Smoked Porter.”

At the time, he says, New Orleans was a beer desert. But that played to his advantage.

“The reason I did it here was because nobody else was doing it,” Wood says. “I was waiting for them to, but nobody would. When I would ask why nobody was, everybody told me you couldn’t. ‘The laws are terrible. Nobody will drink it.’ That’s just not an acceptable answer, that you can’t do something. That just pisses me off. It makes me wanna do it more.”

Wood started looking into state laws, and he couldn’t find anything that stopped him from making a small production brewery that sold beer out of a garage door. He had to get a couple different licenses to operate as a bar and a brewery, but it could be done. The laws weren’t great, but they also didn’t completely stand in his way. “I had to make sure that we could sell other people’s beer,” he says. “That was paramount to what we wanted to do.”

I hate Lagers. I fucking hate them. I know there’s some super geek asshole out there who’s gonna read this and hate my guts. But I fuckin’ hate ‘em.
— Scott Wood

Meanwhile, by 2011, he was homebrewing. He started working on a business plan about a year into it, and Courtyard would open its doors in 2014. He went pro pretty quickly, even though he wouldn’t exactly call it that.

“I laugh at the idea,” Wood says. “We still joke that we're basically homebrewers here, though I don't really see a problem with that if the beer is good and people enjoy themselves. I was completely full of shit and I was fully aware of that fact, but I figured I needed to do something with myself and I knew that I could emulate what we had seen in San Diego for the simple fact that nobody seemed to be catching on in Louisiana.”

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Because New Orleans’ beer scene was still so underdeveloped in 2014, Wood opened as a 3-BBL nanobrewery. He didn’t really know what he could pull off—or what was possible. Breweries like Tree House, Monkish, and Trillium had yet to start cashing in on the “own premise” craze—lines around the building, people carrying out cases of fresh tallboys. Plus, he was just overwhelmed.

“I wanted to maximize profit margin and be able to sell as much as possible, but I also wasn’t expecting to sell this much,” he says. “If I knew what we were doing, I would’ve opened a 10-barrel. When you’re opening a brewery, you only know what’s right in front of you. So, when I was trying to get money, that was the most difficult thing I’d ever done in my life. And then, right after I got money, zoning became the most difficult thing I’d ever done in my life. After that, it was construction. Right now, looking back, the money wasn’t that hard to get compared to dealing with the city. But when you’re in it, you don’t have that knowledge.”

Courtyard opened with  $80,000—a fairly shockingly low amount of money for a craft brewery—in late 2014. His friends and family lent him most of that sum, which he says has been paid back with interest, making him the sole owner of the business at this point. Three years later, he’s got nine employees.

Courtyard made around 100 BBLs of beer the first year. In 2017, Wood expects Courtyard to top out around 350. He’s currently in negotiations on another property in New Orleans that will likely house a 15-BBL brewhouse, canning line, barrel aging space, plus a full bar and kitchen. He’s aiming for upward of 1,500 BBLs annually in the first three years of that location.

But despite all this growth, he’s still not sure distribution makes sense.

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“If I thought we could take on investment and go do it and actually keep the beer fresh and sell it, I would do it,” Wood says. “But I’m worried about it—that we can’t get the hops, that we can’t sell it for a price that’s reasonable. I don’t want it to sit. I don’t want people to get sticker shock. I know how prices work out at retailers with distribution, and there is no self-distribution in the state right now. If there was self-distribution, it would be a different game. We would grow very, very quickly. If we were in a different market, we would have a very different story.”

Hearing him talk about quality and the vagaries of beer law and retail expectations is a far cry from the way things started out a few years ago. When asked about the first time she tried Courtyard’s beer, Avenue Pub owner Polly Watts balks. 

“It’s not fair to ask about the first time I had a Courtyard beer!” she writes via email. “They started on a shoestring with no professional experience and they had to learn their craft.”

Located in a massive, classically Southern old house just a half-mile walk from Courtyard, Avenue is New Orleans’ preeminent beer bar. It’s a fantastic place to drink and eat, a space with character—that upstairs porch, ugh—and a staff with great taste, but it’s also a down-to-earth neighborhood joint ideal for communing with the locals.

“It's been a lot of fun watching Courtyard's style develop,” Watts says. “[Wood’s] beers are a great addition to the city’s beer community. [The brewery’s] passion has made them successful and will continue to do so! Their small size means they can experiment and play with new beers in a way that's just not practical for production breweries, and that makes things exciting.”

Of course, Watts isn’t saying anything Wood won’t. He admits that the brewery’s first year was rough.

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“New Orleans has, like, 1,500 bars or something outrageous,” he says. “Making bad beer was not an option, but we wouldn't have to serve it if it sucked because we had the bar license. After we opened, we did end up dumping a lot of beer. I think we went for three full months dumping beer, blaming it publicly on faulty pumps or shipping errors or whatever I could think up. Really, though, I was dumping batch after batch but I didn't want people losing faith in the brand."

"I remember that I'd finally figure out how to mash properly, and then I'd scorch the batch," he continues. "Or I'd get an infection or the yeast would get stressed and the beer would be all soapy and dogshit. It fucking sucked. We committed to serving good beer, even if I couldn't figure out how to make it, so we just served other good beer in lieu of our own. But we didn't quit, and we're three years in, and looking at opening a second facility and, holy shit, it's starting to work.”

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Courtyard’s size—not to mention its bar-and-food-truck business model—is an advantage, but Wood doesn’t think it’s a realistic plan for the future.

“We have to grow, because we’re killing ourselves,” he says. “There’s just too much work for how much money we make. I’m interested in multiple brewpubs. I love Pizza Port. Any time I step into one of their facilities, it reinvigorates me. They have that location where they’re pumping out cans, and now those cans are in every facility. But the facilities still have the ability to do whatever the fuck they want. And that’s a beautiful thing. That’s what I want. I’m not super interested in being on store shelves, but being the Pizza Port of the Southeast would be rad.” 

Wood insists he’s running “just a bar,” but when things start to get hectic at 2:30 p.m. on a Friday, he’ll also joke with a regular that “maybe we’re not just a bar.” His afternoon is about to get interesting. 

A group of filthy, young white guys show up, wearing Third Eye Blind hats pulled over fancifully colored hair shaped into mullets. They order an array of beers and sit on the front porch to yell internet catchphrases like “We out here!” while exchanging high-fives.

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Inside, a couple of young Israelis named Shaked and Dor, fresh off a stint in the military, are galavanting about the U.S., enjoying beers everywhere they go. After visiting places like Brooklyn Brewery and Other Half in New York and hunting for Zombie Dust in Chicago, they’d planned to drink bourbon in New Orleans. But then Courtyard happened.

"We had the Minimum Effort IPA," Shaked says while holding up his glass. "We were like, 'I think we are going to come here again.' They have some very good beers. I don’t really know about the beer scene here, but if there are other breweries like Courtyard in New Orleans, then it should be considered. I’m glad we came here."

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The Lower Garden District has come a long way. Back in the 1970s, when Courtyard Brewery was an old shrimp warehouse, Wood says this neighborhood “wasn’t the best part of town, but the people who now live here really care. They want a nice, clean neighborhood, and they actively work for it. The neighborhood association is very, very active, and they wield a large stick. We had to beg them, and they welcomed us in. With their blessing, they got us through city council.”

I was one of the first people to put Ballast Point on a shelf.
— Scott Wood

He choose this area with purpose. He wanted a part of town that didn’t have that place for congregation, where people would come in with kids and dogs—and they do. When I first visited in 2015, some people came in with their pig. It’s that kind of establishment.

“People in New Orleans, they generally don’t go to each other’s houses to hang out,” Wood says. “They go to bars. Business is done at bars. Family hangs out at bars. It’s really cultural.”

Wood says that Courtyard’s clientele is “mostly normal, neighborhood people” as opposed to the beer geeks that might patronize a lot of similarly hyped breweries. And in a town so built on cocktails that many of the drinks created here have namesake establishments like Arnaud’s French 75 Bar, The Sazerac Bar, and more, perhaps that demographic is helpful.

One of those neighborhood folks is Whit Himel. While Shaked is very politely asking one of the bartenders if it’s OK if he takes off his shirt (It is, apparently, and so he does.), nearby is the 75-year-old Himel, who tells me that he ends up at Courtyard fairly often since his wife goes to the seamstress right around the corner. 

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A self-described “Cajun boy from the bayou country,” Himel is a retired information technology consultant who’s lived in NoLa his whole life. He’s quick to praise the city’s uniqueness, and it’s clear that he thinks Courtyard is a part of that. He walked in a few weeks after they opened, and has been coming ever since.

“I need me a place that I can come and have me a good time,” Himel says, remarking that he’s glad Courtyard opens in the afternoon on Thursdays and Fridays. It works well with his wife’s appointments. “I just sit here and I drink my Porter until she calls.”

The last time Wood tapped Preach!, a hazy double IPA that’s one of his best sellers, it was gone in eight days. On the day I visit, the double dry-hopped version of Sonic Youth in 1983 is the hit, a bartender telling me that “it just went on, and people see these things on Instagram.”

Wood says he’s named most—“at least 50,” he clarifies—of his beers using Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels novel. There’s a worn copy of it sitting on the bar, filled with tiny post-it notes that mark notable phrases that could be used for future beer names. 

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As we’re thumbing through the book and cracking jokes, I ask him to tell me about his mentors. Who helped him get this place open? Who gave him important advice? Who motivated him? 

He tells me about the time he sat down with NOLA Brewing Company owner Kirk Coco. They were drinking “literally in a cage” upstairs at a bar that’s been open for decades just off Bourbon Street called The Dungeon. When Wood mentioned to Coco that he was thinking of opening a brewery, the Louisiana brewing veteran was adamant. 

“You need to do this,” Wood recalls being told. “I will help you any way I can.” Wood says that hearing those words from someone who’d already made it as a Louisiana brewer meant the world to him, that they helped carry him to where he is today. For his part, Coco remembers the night fondly as well, and stands by his words years later.

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“Courtyard Brewery fills the need that the Auberge or local tavern does in Europe,” he says. “It’s a place where families can come and eat, enjoy great beers, and converse about the day’s events. It’s all about Scott’s personality and creativity. His persona is everywhere, especially in the creative and wonderful beers he produces. Scott keeps the rest of the breweries in New Orleans striving to innovate instead of resting on our laurels.”

And that might be the best distillation of Courtyard Brewery, actually. Two guys sitting in a cage upstairs at an old bar that’s blasting metal. It’s seedy and unorthodox, loud and smelly, maybe not exactly the kinda place from which you’d expect to launch a burgeoning small business that will help put a city’s beer scene on the map in a few years.

“It’s always interesting meeting somebody and trying to figure out what their palate’s like,” Wood says at one pensive moment during our afternoon. “What’s going to give them a pleasurable experience—or at least a unique experience. They might not like it. It’s like art. If you’re just not moved by something, who gives a shit. But if you don’t like something? That’s still important.”

Words by, Austin L. Ray Photos by, Michael Kiser