When you sit down with Coelacanth owner Kevin Erskine, of course the first question that comes up is, “What’s with the name?”
“We wanted a name that stuck out from the crowd, much like what we try to do with our beers. I was a bit of a science geek growing up and I went through a bunch of science-related names and Coelacanth just stuck out,” Erskine said.
A Coelacanth is a prehistoric fish that wasn’t discover until 1938. The brewery is in the Ghent area of Norfolk and it opened in December of 2015. The facility off of West 22nd Street was the hard work of Kevin and his wife/muse Melissa.
Much like the fish, the brewery sticks out by combining two things that you necessarily wouldn’t think go together; beer and art.
“To me beer is art, and we wanted to bring the two communities together and support local artists. It’s important to give back to those who support us, helps build a sense of community,” Erskine said.
That communal feeling is very present in everything Coelacanth does. The last Sunday of every month is reserved for “Beer is Art,” where local artists have a chance to showcase their work. Live music from local musicians fills the schedule throughout the week, and trivia pops up on the 4th Thursday of every month. Coelacanth also recently held “The Day the Music Died,” a tribute to Buddy Holly, and “Robert Burns Day” as Kevin paid respects to his Scottish roots.
“When Melissa and I opened the brewery we wanted to make it more than just a place to grab a drink, we wanted this to be a place for people to hang out, and be a center of the community,” Erskine said.
With a career background of over 10 years in the beer & spirits industry, including working for a distillery in Scotland, Erskine stays ingrained in trade groups, such as the American Brewers Guild, and even policy-making for the industry. Last summer, Erskine and fellow brewers went before Virginia’s General Assembly when the state tried to classify breweries as restaurants, making them fall under Department of Health guidelines.
“We are trying to protect our rights as agriculture and manufacturing facilities, because that’s what we are. When we were trying to open, City Hall was treating us like a bar, and we are simply not that. If breweries went by restaurant guidelines then none of us would be open,” Erskine said.
In the State of Virginia, in order to serve alcohol restaurants have to follow a food-to-alcohol sales ratio that most breweries can’t; because there’s either no room, time or focus to build and staff a full-time restaurant. To accommodate food though, breweries like Coelacanth allow food trucks to setup shop on their grounds, which also supports other small business owners.
“We don’t keep bar/restaurant hours and we’re not trying to be one. We like supporting the restaurants that surround us in Ghent, and they love us for helping to attract attention to the area. It’s all about what we all can do to make everyone in the neighborhood feel comfortable,” Erskine said.
The New York native was brought to Hampton Roads when working for Amerigroup and now calls Norfolk home. He also currently sits on the Board of Directors for the Eggleston Group, which provides job opportunities for people with disabilities. So the community surrounding the location was an important aspect for Kevin and Melissa when they were searching for sites, and Ghent had everything they needed.
“We were driving around looking for an area that wasn’t cookie-cutter, we wanted uniqueness. I picked Ghent because of its history and a chance to be a part of the economic development the city is driving towards the area,” Erskine said.
But the Norfolk community was not the only one Erskine opened Coelacanth to serve. When it comes to the growth of the craft beer scene in Hampton Roads, he believes that the potential is there to rival surrounding regions such as Richmond and Ashville, N.C.
“The growth of the beer scene in Hampton Roads has been great to see. Some people are out there making beer just to make a buck and it doesn’t work that way with beer, because making beer is not easy. You tell there are a lot of authentic people in the region who are working to make this a beer region, and I’m proud that we can be a part of that,” Erskine said.
When it comes to the beer Erskine brought in Virginia Tech grad Matt Topping from nationally recognized Bells Brewery and Maui Brewing to serve as head brewer for the 15-barrel system; it was a move that had the whole region talking. Coelacanth’s focus, much like its name, is to make uncommon beers that don’t overdo-it on taste and you can drink more than one. Examples include the Rosemary Lemon Wheat and the Blonde Ale infused with peppers. You can see the full list here. For Erskine it’s all about the quality of beer over how many they offer.
Distribution to restaurants and beer stores in and around the region is one of the next major steps in the future of Coelacanth. Right now the brewery enjoys helping the community in which it lives, as well as contributing to the growth of the bigger picture of craft beer in Hampton Roads.
If you are interested in having your art showcased at Coelacanth or if you are a musician interested in playing a live music night, email Kevin at email@example.com.