Rikenjaks: An Icon Returns

By Warren Bujol

They brewed first beer, not me."
  - John Rambo

We make decisions everyday. Some good, some bad; some more important than others. Some of our decisions reach no further than the safety of our own personal life-bubble; some end up on the History Channel. For instance, Neil Armstrong decided one day he was going to be an astronaut; the Kardashians decided they were going to do absolutely nothing and be famous for it; and a young engineering student by the name of Rick Nyberg decided to go to Perkins Road Hardware instead of Lowe's. I'm grateful for most of those decisions and fascinated by the consequences of them. It is because of them, we live in a world that is orbited by a moon that has an American flag on it; my wonderful girlfriend can watch Kardashians literally do nothing on TV only to pretend she doesn't like it; and Lake Charles can always say, "at least we had Rikenjaks". Most people will never see the significance of one man's spontaneous decision to purchase a $30 home brew kit while waiting in the check out line of a hardware store in 1989, but this spontaneous decision would one day prove to be a giant leap for the culture of a smallish town in Southwest Louisiana. Beer itself is nothing new. According to the History Channel and Google, beer is the first recorded recipe in the universe; conversely, according to my often-unreliable memory, commercial beer brewing didn't make it to Lake Charles until 1999. It didn't start here, but it ended here...then went away for a while...and now it's back. Let's learn a little bit about the history of our humble town's very first microbrewery (probably). 

The Road to the History Channel
Photo from: 1994 Only in Louisiana: A Guide for the Adventurous Traveler

Photo from: 1994 Only in Louisiana: A Guide for the Adventurous Traveler

Rick Nyberg, long time lover/first time brewer of beer, purchased his first home brewing kit from a hardware store in 1989. I assume he spent a few days assembling his kit and a few more researching brewing methods, then neatly placed it in his closet for a few months. In 1990, Rick dug his brewing kit out of the closet and began brewing with co-worker, Jack Little; unofficially putting the "Jak" in Rikenjaks.* 1992; Rick and Jack officially form Rikenjaks in Jack's barn located in Jackson, Louisiana. The name and iconic Pileated woodpecker logo are the contributions (two of surely many) of Jack's wife, Theda Little. The beering duo quickly outgrew the home brewing kit, building a custom six barrel system from sheet metal. They began brewing Old Hardhead, ESB and American Ale. Early on, Rikenjaks beer was shipped in kegs and 22 oz bottles throughout the region, but it's ever-growing popularity demanded an upgraded facility. Rick and Jack move Rikenjaks to nearby Feliciana Cellars and began brewing 12 oz bottles. In 1993, The Chimes in Baton Rouge becomes the first bar to serve all Rikenjaks products on tap. Rick and Jack even won a Bronze medal for ESB at World Beer Cup competition in 1996. This year also marked the first major shift in the operation; Rick opened Laughing Pines Brewpub in Slidell, Louisiana while Jack continued to run Rikenjaks in Jackson. Three short years later, Laughing Pines would close and Rikenjaks would be sold to Tom Shearman, to make its Lake Charles debut with Rick as brewmaster. 

The Golden Years
Photo from: http://pics-about-space.com

Photo from: http://pics-about-space.com

2000 was a wonderful year; NASA was still running at moon-conquering levels, the Vietnam War still held the title of 'America's Longest Foreign Conflict', and Jay and Candace Ecker took over as the management team of Rikenjaks in Lake Chuck. Jay, an accomplished musician, knew that the only thing better than having a local micro-brewery, was having a micro-brewery with live music. Personally, I see this as one of the most significant additions to the company. Beer is wonderful, but by offering a platform for local musicians, Rikenjaks became an integral part of the local culture. Jay spoke of his fondest memories during that time; Reggae Nights (that started Sunday's at midnight and ended at sunrise), some of the earliest performances of Ashes of Babylon, Tracy Connover, and Fondue Monks; the list goes on. It just so happens that, at the same time, Jody Taylor was conveniently in the height of his local music rampage; relentlessly booking musicians at any and all local venues. I can't prove that Jody's efforts were directly responsible for the impact that Rikenjaks had on the Lake Charles music scene, but I doubt you can prove they weren't. I asked Jody about some of his favorite memories of Rikenjaks and he replied with, "let me think about it and I'll get back with you." 

If You Love Something, Let It Change Management And Die

2003; the era of tragedy. We could no longer carry regular amounts of fluids on airplanes; Ben Affleck's Daredevil movie was released; and Jay and Candace went their separate ways. Jay sold Rikenjaks to Candace, which she ran for a few years, but by 2006, Rikenjaks had seen many changes in management. At some point, Rikenjaks stopped brewing beer. A music venue that brews its own craft beer is unique; a music venue that serves alcohol is well, a music venue (nothing wrong with that unless you started out as a micro-brewery). When I speak to people about Rikenjaks, the first thing they mention is how much they loved the beer. In fact, they won't shut the hell up about it. I'm convinced it was the beer that made that place special; magical even. It was a product of Rick's undeniable passion for craft beer; it was a metaphor for pursuing your dreams. It boldly stated that nothing is impossible if you randomly purchase a starter kit of some sort. To take the beer out of Rikenjaks is to take the human element out of it, the heartbeat if you will; Rikenjaks shut its doors in 2006. I never even had the opportunity to throw up Old Hardhead the morning after a long night at Rikenjaks, let alone taste it. 

"The Goonies never say die...Neither does Rikenjaks."
                                         - Mikey Walsh

2014; Lake Charles' cultural scene was experiencing a subtle resurgence after many years of neglect; Botsky's had proved there was a demand for hand-crafted consumables the year before, and an unprecedented rise in the number of local bands left Tipitina's with no vacancies for months at a time; it was the perfect storm. Jay Ecker took note of this shift and began scouting locations while fine tuning a business plan for the Phoenix-like rebirth of the Woodpecker. In 2015, the rumors of Rikenjaks returning caught up to us, and within a day or so, we were talking about it with Rick Nyberg in our office. Somewhere around this time, Jay found the perfect location and pitched the plan to Texas restauranteurs, Frankie Randazzo and Buck Maraist. The three partners bought the old Italian Villa Restaurant building at 3716 Ryan Street and have been working tirelessly to have it ready for business by February, 8th 2016. The location didn't look like much on our first visit, but with the addition of some concrete, a bar, and an outdoor patio, the building is beginning to win my heart. On-site brewing will be delayed for roughly eight months due to permitting, but don’t worry, IT WILL HAPPEN. In the meantime we will have access to authentic Rikenjaks beer courtesy of Bayou Teche Brewing, brewed under the supervision of Rick. One of the most ingenious aspects of the Rikenjaks business model is the separation of the hospitality and brewing functions. While Jay will be focused on the service aspect, Rick will be able to expand the brewing operation to meet demand nation, no... worldwide. This means that even when Rikenjaks Old Hardhead is the most consumed beer in India, the venue itself can remain in Lake Charles, indefinitely serving as a source of pride among local residents. 

Signs Of Life

The decision to resuscitate Rikenjaks was not made haphazardly; it was based on statistics, probabilities, and conservatively measured optimism. I see much more significance to this decision than the rebirth of an institution, and one more venue for eating, drinking, and music; I see it as proof that this city is moving in the right direction (proof enough for someone to invest a large sum of money into). It is up to us to make Lake Charles a place where we can pursue our passions, and if the places that enhance our local culture fail, it is because we failed them. Only you can prevent people from wanting to move away; please don't screw this up for us... 

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