NOLA Brewing Co. turns out beers with names like 7th Street Wheat and Hopitoulas from an Irish Channel warehouse at the corner of 7th and Tchoupitoulas streets. At bars and restaurants, a rainbow spectrum of different draft handles pour an array of beers from Abita Brewing, while out in Cajun country Bayou Teche Brewing is making beers specifically to pair with traditional Louisiana cooking. Meanwhile, budding entrepreneurs across the area have tiny, new “nano breweries” scheduled to come on line in the next few months, including one called 40 Arpent Brewing Co. with an ale based on red beans and rice.
These are a few signs of a local renaissance now gaining stride for the ancient art of brewing. Blending creativity and Old-World expertise, tapping local traditions and often using local ingredients, this new tide of crafts beers, as they’re called, is sweeping New Orleans and Southern Louisiana. It adds up to a profusion of interesting options for local beer aficionados, an invitation to branch out for those who are merely curious and, overall, a resurgence for a local industry that seemed to be scraping bottom just a few years ago.
“It used to be that beer was what you drank when you couldn’t afford the good stuff,” says Polly Watts, owner of the Avenue Pub, a Lower Garden District bar that has lately become a destination for craft beers. “But as we get more high-quality local brewers, people are more likely to try them because they’re local. Once they do that, they can make the leap and can explore a lot more, and today there is a lot more available to them.”
A Tradition Resurgent
New Orleans was once a Southern brewing hub, thanks in part to a large and influential German immigrant population and the city’s legendary thirst. Brands such as Jax, Union, Falstaff, Regal and Dixie were all part of the city’s brewing history. They fell away one by one however, and, after flooding from the Hurricane Katrina levee failures wrecked Dixie’s rambling old Tulane Avenue facility, New Orleans no longer had a single functioning, commercial-scale brewery. Dixie is once again being distributed, though today the beer is made under license by the Minhas Craft Brewery in Monroe, Wis.
From that post-Katrina nadir, however, things began to improve rapidly. The Northshore-based Abita Brewing has grown to become a regional force in craft brewing circles and now ranks No. 17 by sales volume among all American craft brewers, while a great many more local grassroots breweries have cropped up to energize the field.
NOLA Brewing was formed in 2009 and has already increased its volume nearly 10-fold. In downtown Covington, just down the road from Abita Brewing, a company originally formed in 2005 as Heiner Brau is now undergoing a re-branding to become Covington Brewhouse, a name that emphasizes its local bona fides. Meanwhile, Crescent City Brewhouse, a restaurant that makes its own beer on premises, is still going strong after more than 20 years in business in the French Quarter.
On the “nano” side of the scene, there are at least five very small start-up breweries that expect to begin commercial production soon and are now testing their first beers at local events. These include 40 Arpent Brewing in Arabi, Chafunkta Brewing Co. in Mandeville, Gnarly Barley Brewing in Ponchatoula, Cajun Fire Brewing in New Orleans and Mudbug Brewery in Thibodaux.
And more great beer is pouring in from the nearby region. From Baton Rouge, Blonde Ale of Tin Roof Brewing Co., formed in 2010, arrives in cans bearing the purple and gold colors of Louisiana State University, while the company’s other varieties, like a seasonal watermelon wheat ale, are turning up on more New Orleans taps. Cajun country brings unique brews from Bayou Teche Brewing in Arnaudville and a sugar cane-based ale called Canebrake from Parish Brewing in Broussard. Meanwhile, just over the state line in Kiln, Miss., Lazy Magnolia Brewing Co. has been in business since 2003 and has built a significant local presence.
Much of the movement can be traced to the passion of dedicated home brewers who see a market opportunity to turn their hobbies into businesses.
“I started to consider going pro back in 2010 when I realized that our area really had a shortage of small, local craft breweries, like the ones that have been sprouting up all over the rest of the country,” says Josh Erickson, a software developer and veteran home brewer who expects to start selling his Chafunkta brand of beers later this year.
“People want something with flavor, character, complexity and even personality, just like in their food,” Erickson says. “So why can’t they have that in their beer?”
Local Flavor, Options Galore
The new boom time for local beer isn’t just about the surge in new brewers. Each of these new companies is bringing distinctive – and in some cases intensely Louisiana-themed – beers to the market.
For instance, Canebrake from Parish Brewing is a Louisiana-style wheat ale brewed with sugarcane syrup procured from the century-old Steen’s Syrup Mill in Abbeville.
“I drive down to Steen’s and get drums of it,” says Parish Brewing founder and brewmaster Andrew Godley. “I felt it was really important to utilize local ingredients and farm products. We can’t compete with Miller or Budweiser on marketing, so we’re going to compete by having a great product with a local connection. That’s our niche.”
Godley, a chemical engineer by training, founded Parish Brewing in 2008 as a side business and he initially supplied just a handful of bars near its headquarters around the Lafayette area. But the brand has taken off in the past few months, greatly increased its production capacity with new equipment and now has wide distribution in New Orleans. Another Parish Brewing beer, called Envie and styled as an American pale ale, is also in the works.
Michael Naquin expects his 40 Arpent Brewing to get started later this year, when it will debut a beer called Creole Red Beans and Rice Ale. Naquin explains it’s his take on an Irish-style red ale, in this case made with brewer’s rice and New Orleans’ own Camellia brand red beans, that Monday staple.
“One of the things that makes craft beer so unique is the variety,” Naquin says. “The average craft beer drinker, if they see something new, that’s what they’ll pick to drink.”
Erickson at Chafunkta says one of his first beers will be a “coffee-infused, vanilla robust porter” called Old 504 and made with coffee beans roasted in New Orleans. Even when Louisiana grocery items don’t necessarily make it into the beer recipes, some of these new local brews are designed from the start to jibe with local cooking.
For instance, the first beer that Bayou Teche Brewing produced in 2010 was its LA 31 Bière Pâle, which brewmaster Karlos Knott describes as a “general purpose beer that will go with any food and especially crawfish boils.” From there, the Cajun country brewer released its Boucanèe, an ale made with cherry wood-smoked barley that shares a smoky flavor common to many rustic Louisiana dishes; a Bière Noire inspired by the strong, slightly bitter black coffee favored around the region; and its Passionné, a wheat beer brewed with passion fruit that Knott says is “a good brunch beer, something lighter that goes well with seafood.”
Such particular varieties help new breweries stand out, and they also speak to an underlying culture in craft brewing circles that spur the nascent industry on.
“Craft beer drinkers are very promiscuous,” says Kirk Coco, founder and president of NOLA Brewing. “There’s not a craft beer aficionado who just sticks with one beer, just like wine lovers don’t just drink one wine. And that’s the whole point of craft beers: You want to see what’s out there and what people are doing next.”
NOLA has introduced nine different beers in just three years, from its NOLA Blonde to its seasonal Hurricane Saison, a Belgian-style ale. Similarly, while Abita Brewing’s biggest seller is its original Amber ale, the Northshore brewery makes some two dozen different products throughout the year, including seasonal brews, limited run “select” beers and seven “flagship” varieties that are offered at all times.
“It’s not the most profitable or efficient way of doing things, it makes everything from marketing to inventory and packaging more complicated,” says Abita president David Blossman. “But we just like making different beers. It’s fun and that’s why most of us got into the business anyway, we like brewing different beers.”
These are indeed heady times for local beer lovers. Even with all the recent growth and new prospects, the rise of craft brewers is still a case of the mouse that burped when compared to the giant corporate brewers, especially industry leaders Anheuser-Busch Inc. and MillerCoors.
The Brewers Association, an industry group, reports that there are now 2,000 breweries active across the United States, up from just 42 nationwide in 1978. But while 97 percent of these companies qualify as small, independent craft brewers, altogether they account for just 6 percent of national beer sales. Still, the craft movement continues to grow, and the Brewers Association reports that some 1,100 more breweries are in the planning stages now across the country.
“It seems like every day we are hearing about a brewery in planning,” says Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association. “Will they all make it? No, but many will if they produce high-quality, interesting craft beers and can get them to market through self-distribution and beer wholesalers and beer retailers.”
Getting a commercial brewery off the ground requires many layers of approvals and permitting, and next generation local craft brewers agree that maneuvering their requirements can be confusing and time consuming. These new brewers also report that it’s been harder to find the right equipment as the growing interest in brewing has eaten up suppliers’ inventories.
But once they clear such start-up hurdles, local craft brewers are finding a more receptive marketplace for their beers. “Local” is a hot buzzword in food and drink circles all over the country, and in the New Orleans region, beverage distributors have responded by offering more local brands and educating their own clients about the sales potential they represent. The upshot is a proliferation of shiny new draft beer systems at the area’s restaurants and bars, bringing more options to accommodate customers’ growing interest in new and different brews that have the local and taste of home.
“When you’re going out to dinner, people want something with more flavor than the mass-produced beer, something that will pair better with the food,” says Blossman at Abita. “They’re trading up to better beers, and when you go out to bars and restaurants now, you see that reflected in a lot more local choices.”