From student to teacher: Kelsie Cole’s quick climb to Front Street brewmaster

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At 26, Kelsie Cole of Front Street Brewery is the youngest female brewer in the state. Courtesy photos.
At 26, Kelsie Cole of Front Street Brewery is the youngest female brewer in the state. Courtesy photos.

Like the yeast that first fascinated her nearly a decade ago, Kelsie Cole has grown into her own brew of beer maker.

Eight years after she discovered her zest for suds, Cole has quickly gone from cleaning out tubs to crafting recipes. When the 26-year-old was named head brewer at Front Street Brewery, she became the youngest female in the state to hold that title.

Looking back over the last year at the helm of the longstanding downtown brewhouse, Cole said she is still trying to get her footing on running the operation.

“I’m constantly learning something new every day…there are always going to be new problems to solve and things to fix,” she noted.

But, she added, she embraces the challenges because, for her, beer is a true passion, even if it was an accidental calling.

Cole moved to Wilmington when she was 18 to attend UNC-Wilmington for a marketing degree. Soon after, she took a job as a hostess at Front Street Brewery. It was then that she developed a taste for brewing.

Cole's passion for craft beer was borne eight years ago, while working as a hostess at Front Street.
Cole’s passion for craft beer was born eight years ago, while working as a hostess at Front Street.

“I became interested in craft beer before I was even legal to drink it,” she recalled. “I really fell in love with the craft beer community here and the atmosphere it had to offer.”

By the time she hit drinking age, she was working as a waitress, and the more she tasted and talked about beer to customers, the more interested she became in the brewing process.

In 2012, she was hired on at Front Street as an apprentice under then-brewmaster Christopher McGarvey.

“He took me under his wing and basically taught me everything I know about craft brewing,” she said.

Cut to nearly three years later and she found herself in the role of assistant brewer under Kevin Kozak, where she continued to hone her skills, even completing an intensive, 23-week program through the American Brewers Guild in Vermont.

“There’s so much science, engineering and problem solving involved,” she said.

But that isn’t a problem for Cole.

“I like the science aspect of it, and brewing really is a science,” she said. “As I’ve advanced in brewing, the whole fermenting science part is really the catch factor for me. Yeast is a fascinating microrganism. I honestly don’t feel like I’m the one making the beer; the yeast does all the work.”

Kozak, now Front Street’s operations manager, knows that enthusiasm all too well. He felt it himself when he found his own passion for professional brewing 13 years ago. And he has watched it grow in Cole since she first arrived at Front Street Brewery.

“I’ve known her from day one, so it’s kind of cool to see the progress of her from a hostess to a server to suddenly having an interest one day in beer,” he recalled.

Understanding the importance of the mentor relationship in brewing, Kozak said he decided to give his “teammate” a shot. Like Cole, Kozak had a supportive team of experienced brewers to learn from and he also went through the same American Brewers Guild training as his protege.

“It’s been amazing to watch her blossom,” he noted.

Even more amazing to Kozak is how quickly Cole moved up the ladder, a move that takes most brewers years longer to complete.

“It was pretty clear early on that she was 100 percent serious about making this her career,” he said. “She’s such a smart girl and she has such a potential to do so much more.”

She may get that chance, as the Port City continues its rapid climb to becoming a beer drinker’s destination. For now, she is thrilled to be part of a community with which she fell in love eight years earlier, a community that continues to thrive and evolve.

“I think it’s great,” she said of the boom. “Between the bottle shops, breweries and bars, we’ve built a community. And luckily it’s a supportive crowd.”

Support is what she is showing now that the former student has become the master. With an assistant brewer and a recently hired apprentice under her, Cole is more than happy to pass down the wisdom instilled at her within Front Street Brewery’s four walls.

“He is totally new to all this,” she said of her apprentice. “He’s doing what I started out doing–cleaning tubs and mopping and things like that. But it’s really cool to be inspired by Chris and then take on his role and to now be the one to teach what he taught me and encourage someone else.”

Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at hilary.s@portcitydaily.com.