New Craft Brewery on Greenway Combines Tradition and Innovation
A military career might seem like an unlikely launchpad for starting a craft brewery – especially a career spent largely in the Middle East – but this is exactly the path followed by Aaron Merrill, founder and managing partner of Skeeta Hawk Brewing.
That path has led to the recently-opened location next to the Lafitte Greenway, just riverside of North Broad Street. Merrill’s journey began in Portland, Oregon, one of the original incubators of the whole craft brewing scene and now home to some 140 taprooms and brewpubs. And it covered some interesting ground along the way.
“I was in the army for 29 years, primarily as a foreign area officer,” Merrill recounted. “Mostly I was a link to other militaries. My specialty was the Middle East.”
As much a diplomat as a soldier, Merrill quickly determined that in the largely non-drinking Arab nations in that zone, “I needed to brew beer to be successful. I taught myself how to home brew, and worked with American home brew groups in the region.”
This not only helped build relationships with other militaries, it created a variety of local connections as well. As Merrill’s reputation and contacts grew, he ended up working with the first craft breweries ever established in both Lebanon and Jordan.
Eventually Merrill decided it was time to move on from military life, and began pondering what was next.
“When I retired, I was looking for something different to do,” he recalled. “I thought that opening a brewery would be a good fit.”
Merrill had been a frequent visitor to New Orleans since 1999, and he and his wife decided to relocate here. So he got some military friends together – collectively, they have more than 80 years of service – and began working on his new project.
Merrill’s approach to beer tends towards the traditional. “We’re geared towards beer-flavored beers,” he explained, “and less toward fruit-flavored and sours. We’re set to produce a lot of lagers, predominantly in the German and Czech style. We have our Belgian Ale, called 28-3. We’ll always have some IPAs, we’ll usually have a brown ale. But we’re flexible.”
For those who missed the Belgian Ale reference, watch a replay of the infamous Atlanta Falcons – New England Patriots Super Bowl ….
As beer aficionados know, lagers require more time and special equipment, and half of Skeeta Hawk’s fermentation capacity is tailored to lager production. But mostly, Merrill just has a strong commitment to making really good beer. This is exemplified by a recent quality control override he imposed.
“Each batch of beer has a retail value of eight thousand dollars,” said Merrill, “yet we just pitched two batches down the drain because we didn’t think they were good enough for our customers.”
What’s not traditional about Skeeta Hawk is its approach to people, both those who work for the brewery and those who patronize it. The tasting room is a no-tip establishment; the price on the menu includes taxes and tip.
“This is partly to improve the experience for our customers,” explained Merrill, “and partly for our staff. All our employees are salaried [at a living wage], which gives us a lot more flexibility. The brewers spend some time in the front of the house serving customers, and the bar staff spends some time in the brewing process. This gives everyone a better understanding and perspective on the business and the beer.”
With its Greenway location and its pleasant patio right outside the bar area, Skeeta Hawk is already carving itself a nice little niche in the neighborhood beverage scene. But for Merrill, this is merely the beginning.
“One of my objectives in opening Skeeta Hawk is to contribute to the overall craft brewing environment and culture here,” he elaborated. “We think New Orleans can sustain quite a few more breweries. We would like to see this become a great beer city.”
To this end, he envisions opening neighborhood breweries throughout the city. They would not be copies of Skeeta Hawk, but would have their own individual character. And Merrill hopes to have his current employees become future business partners in the new establishments, and is working towards that goal.
That local flavor that means so much to Merrill provided the inspiration for the Brewery’s distinctive name.
“It’s an old-school Yat term for dragonfly, something that reflects the culture of New Orleans. From my time in the Middle East, I understand the importance of language and culture. It invokes the outdoors, like our little beer patio on the Greenway.
“Plus it’s kinda fun to say – it rolls right off the tongue.”
Skeeta Hawk’s varied selection of beers, carefully crafted by the entire team, are something that rolls quite well onto the tongue and taste buds. Keep an eye out for the official grand opening on October 8, with some special-release ales and lagers in honor of Oktoberfest, food trucks (a regular Skeeta Hawk staple) and hopefully some live music.
Expect good beer, a thoroughly invested staff and happy neighborhood people. Just don’t look for some cumquat-oregano-cardamon sour ….