When you meet Kelsie Cole, who began her career at Front Street Brewery as a hostess during her freshman year at UNC Wilmington, the first thing you notice is her brown locks, dusting her shoulders over a smoke-gray jumpsuit. The clothes aren’t the look most women go for, but that’s OK, because Cole is not like most women.
She’s a passionate, well-spoken young lady who happens to have a taste for the most bitter beers one can brew. Cole also moves bags of grain and kegs of beer, despite her petite frame, on a daily basis. She’s a certified beer server (the first of three levels in the Cicerone program), and she recently completed the Intensive Brewing Science and Engineering course hosted by The American Brewers Guild.
Before the turn of the new year, Cole accepted the position as head brewmaster at Front Street Brewery, replacing longtime brewer Kevin Kozak, who will now play a role as director of brewery operations. What began as a part-time job through college has turned into a career Cole never could have imagined.
“This was the first place I applied to when I moved down to Wilmington, so that’s a sign already,” Cole begins. “They hired me on the spot. I was a hostess for a couple years, then I started serving. Once I was legal to understand what I was serving and drinking, I really developed a palate for it. I realized that beer meant a lot more than just being Keystone Light.”
Cole graduated from UNC Wilmington and looked to expand her résumé, using her business degree in marketing. Remaining part-time at Front Street Brewery, she bartended and oversaw the newsletter at Cape Fear Wine and Beer. Meanwhile, Cole and Christopher McGarvey—then Front Street’s assistant brewer—developed a close friendship.
“He was equally as passionate about [brewing] as I am, probably more so,” she reminisces. “He just took me under his wing and taught me everything he knew, and he taught me how to homebrew. Once I started homebrewing, it was just like a bug. I would come in here on my days off and just follow him around closely while he was working. I realized I didn’t want to sell it anymore; making it was what I wanted to do.”
An alternative to her business degree, which easily could have landed Cole in an office, she now dons her gray jumpsuit and pink boots to work with the necessities of beer. “I am so grateful every day that I get to come in and play around with malted barley, hops, water and yeast, and it’s a bunch of burly, bearded dudes. They’re all super friendly, and it’s just a really laid back and awesome environment to be in.”
Cole touts Front Street Brewery’s regular lineup, as it appeals to a broad spectrum of taste buds. “We have a lot of people that come in here and get our Kolsch or our IPA—those are our two most popular staples,” she reveals. “But then we do our Wort Shops, which are our experimental batch series, where we brew different brews with nontraditional ingredients. Wort is what we use to create and ferment beer. We only make five gallons per single beer, so that brings in more of an exclusive crowd of craft-beer connoisseurs. Those beers have been kicking in 24 hours. But we always have styles to appeal to those who know what they like, because not everyone wants a spiced-gingerbread Scottish ale.”
Cole says she learned to brew the basics from Kozak. To create an imperial stout with coffee, it’s important to test brew a good ol’, regular stout first. “Kevin and I have a really good relationship, because he tends to be more traditional in his brewing practices and in the styles he makes, like Kolsch, ESB, Pilsner,” she assures. “Those are his favorite beers to drink and make, and they’re very traditional. I like them, and it really teaches me how to approach beer from a starting point. I definitely gravitate more toward the extreme spectrum of things. I like playing around with nontraditional ingredients, and I enjoy making beers that are really bitter and might be a little much for the palate to handle. I think it’s a good balance. He’s definitely taught me and is still teaching me so much, and I get to expand on it and be creative.”
The new brewmaster’s favorite Front Street beer on draft right now is The Galaxy Red Ale, a brew from their Single-Hop Project. It is actually the first beer Front Street has crafted using only one type of malt and one type of hop. With a jewel-like amber color and creamy head, the beer’s short list of ingredients meld beautifully on the tongue. Cole calls the Galaxy her baby, and like the other brews she’s created at Front Street thus far, it’s hop-driven.
The brewery will be releasing Untamed on Wednesday, January 14. It’s a chocolate coffee stout aged in Wild Turkey barrels. “The day after that I’m going to release an experimental batch of Untamed,” Cole notes of a Thursday reveal. “We’re going to do something with less coffee and a little bit of raspberry, so it will be interesting to try the two side by side.”
Again shying away from her usual hop-heavy dosage, Cole uses the Wort Shops to see if she can bring a more innovative beer onto a larger scale. She’ll test a Saison with cucumbers in just five gallons before hopefully brewing a 10-barrel batch; she says this beer likely will debut in the spring.
In the spirit of craft—both the brew and a passion for creating handmade product—Front Street Brewery will host its Lower Cape Fear Homebrew Competition on February 28. The winning beer will be brewed and served on tap at Front Street Brewery. The deadline for submissions, with a fee of $10 per beer, is February 25.
“We prefer that people hand in six-packs,” Cole asserts. “A six-pack is a sufficient amount for both judges and fellow homebrewers to sample the beer during the competition and after party. The Best in Show last year was a Black Lager brewed by Mike Howard. It won because Schwarzbiers are difficult to make. They ferment at colder temperatures, take longer and have minimal ingredients, exposing the beer of its true flavor (good or bad). Mike nailed the style.”
Last year over 100 people entered the contest—FSB was at capacity for the after party. The team expects it to continue growing.
“This year the after party will be held at Ziggy’s the day following the judging,” Cole explains. “This will enable us to accept more entries and to celebrate local, craft beer with more participants and people involved in the industry.”
With Kozak as the new director of brewery operations, focusing on equipment upgrades and possible expansion of Front Street’s reach, he need not worrk about turning over the reins. Cole’s initial brews have proven she can handle her position as North Carolina’s first female head brewer. Her passion, unexpectedly ignited from a part-time job, will only increase Wilmington’s grasp on the craft-beer movement.