Visit the Abita Brewing Company’s Northshore tasting room any given weekend, and you’ll likely be met with a parking lot jammed with cars and a throng of fans waiting in the French Quarter-style courtyard for a tour and a chance to pull the taps for free beer.
Inside, still more people are buying T-shirts, sweatshirts, posters, glassware and growlers filled to take home. Flat-screen televisions display information about Abita’s history and beer-making process before visitors shuffle through the brewery itself, past towering stainless steel fermentation tanks.
It wasn’t always so happening here. Not long ago, taking a tour at Abita was more low key. You could sip beer outside at an aging picnic table, and it’s likely you’d only be joined by a handful of other people. Tours started and ended in an employee break room with a few taps and an old couch. “Luckily grunge was in back then,” says company president David Blossman. Abita’s original site is now a 100-seat restaurant, the Abita Brewpub.
Abita is growing still, about 15 percent a year in terms of production, says Blossman. Visitors continue to pour into the brew house – so much so that Abita has already outgrown its “new” space, which is only a few years old. A $12 million expansion is in the works, which will increase the brewery’s beer-making capacity significantly and give visitors more elbow room. Abita’s continued expansion has made it the 14th-largest craft brewing company in the country based on volume.
Abita’s growth isn’t happening in a vacuum. In 2006, Abita was the state’s only craft brewery (generally defined as a smaller, independently owned brewery with an emphasis on tastes and techniques). Today, there are seven in Louisiana: Abita, Bayou Teche Biere in Arnaudville, Covington Brewhouse, Chafunkta Brewing Company in Mandeville, NOLA Brewing in New Orleans, Parish Brewing Company in Broussard and Tin Roof Brewing Company in Baton Rouge. More are slated to open throughout this year, including Gnarly Barley in the Hammond area, 40 Arpent in Arabi, Mudbug Brewery in Thibodaux, and Courtyard Brewery and Cajun Fire Brewing in New Orleans. What was once a latent industry is suddenly booming.
The Story Behind the Growth
Every beer nerd seems to have a slightly different take on the reasons fueling this growth. In New Orleans, brewers point to the city’s rebounding after Katrina and the influx of young entrepreneurs from other places – beer-loving places like Washington State, Oregon and California. Abita is certainly benefiting from the Northshore’s post-Katrina growth. And others point to Louisiana’s slow, cautious approach when following national trends.
For Kirk Coco, who started NOLA Brewing, New Orleans’ post-Katrina atmosphere drove him to start a business.
“I was a naval officer and was stationed up in Seattle when Katrina hit,” Coco says. “I was born and raised in New Orleans, and I had to come back home as soon as the levees broke. I made a vow to come back, but I had no idea what I was going to do.” Coco helped friends and family members gut their homes while tossing around ideas for his next move.
“I was drinking Dixie beer pretty religiously just to support the local brewery, and one day I read on the bottle it was being made in Wisconsin. I was like, I can’t believe we don’t have a brewery in the city anymore,” he says. Little by little, he gathered supporters and got started, though Coco says banks were dubious about supporting a new business in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction.
“You had to convince people in fact there would be a city, and it was going to continue to grow again – and then you had to hopefully sell people on the idea you knew what the hell you were doing,” Coco says.
NOLA Brewing is alone no longer. They’ll soon be joined by Cajun Fire Brewing, which founder and brewmaster Jon Renthrope hopes will open later this year. Renthrope, a New Orleans native, won a grant from Idea Village, a business incubator, for his brewery.
Renthrope’s journey reflects the experience of a growing number of people –nationally and in Louisiana – who are interested in local, craft food and beverages either as consumers or as hobbyists. More and more are turning a foodie passion into a hobby into a business. For Renthrope, it was going to college in Gainesville, Fla., that ignited a passion for his hometown’s cuisine.
“When I moved out there, the first thing I wanted was to find some seafood,” Renthrope says.
“Gainesville is in central Florida, so it doesn’t have access to fresh seafood. I’m a bayou boy so I need my fresh seafood. I had to learn how to cook a lot, and I just started developing a passion for culinary arts.” Craft beer seemed like a natural extension of his growing interest, especially given his limited college-student budget.
“My first batch came out extremely well. The batch after that turned out trash,” Renthrope says. “But that first batch inspired me to keep going. I moved back to the city and kept home brewing, looking into the market and noticing a huge void. I took the risk and it’s been paying off since.”
A Natural Progression
It stands to reason that Louisiana, with its nationally respected cuisine, would add beer to the mix eventually, says Josh Erickson, who started Mandeville’s Chafunkta Brewing Co. with his wife, Jamie.
“We have the best food in the country, why can’t we have the best beer? A lot of the same art, creativity, and passion you find in great chefs and the foods they prepare, you can also find in great brewers and the beer they brew,” Erickson says.
Chafunkta opened in June 2011 with just two beers, the Voo Ka Ray IPA, and the Old 504 coffee porter. They’ve since added a third, a cream ale called Kingfish Ale, which will be sold on draft and in six packs throughout the southeastern part of the state starting this May.
Renthrope says Louisiana residents are so thirsty for craft beer, outsiders are taking note.
“Right now it’s a situation where if a local company doesn’t capitalize on it, we’re seeing outside companies looking in and trying to capitalize on the market,” he says, pointing to out-of-town craft breweries like New Belgium Brewing, the Fort Collins, Colo.-based company that is a favorite in other areas but only started distributing in Louisiana last spring. “They’re breaking into the market and doing well.”
Craft beer is growing, and consumers’ palates are evolving too. They’re not just reaching for a generic, Budweiser-style lager; they’re increasingly curious, and increasingly educated about styles previously thought to be exotic and thus not marketable here.
“If you think about it when Abita Amber first came out it was a radical beer for the market. It really was,” says Blossman. “There wasn’t anything like it out at that time and I think that our consumer has evolved with us. I think we’ll see more of that and I find the craft consumer really enjoys experimenting with different flavors and styles. And we want to make sure we have something to offer them.”
NOLA Brewing’s Coco says his time in Seattle gave him a unique perspective on the industry. In the Northwest, bitter, hoppy India Pale Ales (IPAs) are common. That’s not the case in Louisiana, but things, naturally are evolving.
“We started with our brown and blonde ales which are really approachable beer,” Coco says of his brewery’s first products. “We were dealing with a ridiculously unknowledgeable customer base at the start. Any time anybody tried to introduce hops or any unusual style it completely died. The first time we made an IPA it was seasonal because we didn’t think people would buy it.” Coco says NOLA’s IPA is now its second most popular beer.
Coco says he was seeing New Orleanians’ taste buds evolving in part because of the influx of out-of-town newcomers, people from beer-loving places like Colorado and Oregon who moved temporarily or permanently to help out after the storm, or to help revive what they viewed as a national treasure in the city of New Orleans.
“Those people who came in – they were like, ‘Where the hell’s all the craft beer?’ So it worked out great because they kind of built our customer base themselves,” Coco says. NOLA has since branched out even beyond the basic IPA, producing an imperial IPA, which is even hoppier and typically has an alcohol content above 7.5 percent by volume and a cask-conditioned ale, which is unfiltered and unpasteurized and is not bottled.
“When we did it, no one knew what the hell it was,” Coco recalls. “But it was a huge success.”
This meteoric growth in the Louisiana’s craft beer industry is following a national trend of an increase in small-producer beer. The U.S. craft beer industry grew by 15 percent by volume in 2012 and 17 percent in retail dollars, reports the Brewers Association. And 48 states brewed more craft beer in 2012 than in 2011.
But until lately, much of that growth has centered around the West Coast, where craft breweries are plentiful. Louisiana’s seven craft breweries pale in comparison to Washington State’s over 150, and California’s over 300. Still, Louisiana is getting there.
“The Gulf South is like the last bastion of tradition, whatever it is,” Coco says. “My dad used to tell me when I was a kid, ‘You want to find out what’s going to happen in Louisiana 10 years from now, look at what California is doing now. We were just very slow to change and we take a look at everything a little closer than the rest of the country does and we make our decisions very slowly. But part of that is a good thing, I think. Certainly keeps us steeped in our traditions, which is something our tourists love and we love and makes us distinctive in the country.”
Pushing the Flavor Envelope
Louisiana may be following a national trend, but our local breweries are putting a unique spin on beer flavors, creating brews unique to what’s grown and eaten locally.
This state’s craft brewers are putting their own stamp on the industry, from what they put in their beer to what they name their creations: Cajun Fire plans to release a Praline Ale, with praline mix added to the boil; upcoming brewery 40 Arpent, set to open in Arabi this spring, will brew a café au lait beer and Red Bean Ale, a red ale made with red beans; Abita brews seasonal beers with Louisiana-grown strawberries, grapefruit, satsumas and pecans; and NOLA’s 7th Street Wheat is made with lemon and basil. These beers are often designed to complement dishes unique to Louisiana: Abita hopes you’ll pair their Amber with boudin or the Andygator with crawfish or fried foods.
You won’t find a grapefruit or praline beer on the West Coast.
“We tend to not follow rules very well,” Coco says of Louisianians. “That helps, too, because some people will go, ‘You can’t do that to beer.’ And we go, ‘Yeah, we can. Look, we just did it.’”
Chafunkta’s Erickson thrives on that anything-goes philosophy. “This is what we really enjoy about our jobs,” he says. “There are no limits, no boundaries, no rules on how far you can take a beer. Granted, it does need to sell, but the trend continues that people out there – besides us – want these crazy, creative, unique beers, things that they’ve never tried or would ever think of, and this makes our job that much easier. Creativity, personality, uniqueness, all things that thrive in Louisiana and the craft beer industry.”
A growing number of Louisianans will gladly drink to that.