Hoppy Talk, or the Beers of Summer

As any good chef knows, at some point you simply have to write down the recipe. You can pass that special combination of ingredients verbally and by demonstration from generation to generation, but writing it down preserves the intent and the integrity of the final product.

An example of passing on to others a path to replicate is the Alulu Tablet, an engraved stone dating from about 2500 BC in Sumeria, ancient Iraq, which outlined the recipe and the process for making beer.

In truth, beer, along with wine, is one of the oldest beverages made by man. Keep in mind that while beer was a great discovery, judged to have occurred about 7,000 years ago, it was a real no-brainer. Anything from nature that contains sugar wants to eventually go bad and spoil. That spoiling process for grains and fruit is aided by naturally occurring yeasts, and the end result is alcohol.

My guess is that the guy who invented the wheel was pretty full of himself and was BMOC until along comes the guy who invented beer and stole the show. Getting around is good. Drinking fermented beverages is better.

The history of beer in New Orleans does not quite go back to the era of discovery in the ancient world, but we have nothing to be ashamed of in this area. At one time, New Orleans was considered the capital of beer brewing in the entire South, boasting a long line of beers born here or settling here, such as Eagle, Union, Old Union, XXXX, Dixie, Falstaff, Regal and Jax, among others.

Of course, they are all gone, due to lack of market demand or owning real estate worth more for other purposes or having a product that just could not compete with large multinational corporations. Some of New Orleans’ most famous names, such as Jax and Dixie, are still in the market, pale shadows of their former selves as far as market presence is concerned and made in places like San Antonio and Minnesota.

Yet the spirit of brewing has never left our midst, and one of the most active home-brewing organizations in the nation is alive and well, the Crescent City Homebrewers’ Club.

From within their ranks have come a few labels that are now commercially available and starting to gain the attention of local consumers who desire a local product. And that, thankfully for these entrepreneurs, is no small number of folks.

What we will be doing in this space this week and next is exploring the made-close-to-home malt-beverage options for our thirsty city and reviewing “new” local developments about the best beverage to slake an angry thirst on a hot, humid summer day.   

This week, we’ll look at a few breweries now in full-scale operation, and next week we’ll check out a couple of brewpubs and great spots to enjoy a tall, cold one.

Any recent discussion of New Orleans beers has to list Abita Brewing Co. early on. The company was founded in 1986, and today David Blossman, president, and Mark Wilson, brew master, preside over the 17th largest craft brewer and 31st overall in brewing output in the U.S.

What began as 1,500 barrels has grown to more than 90,000 barrels, as well as more than 5,000 barrels of root beer. The brewery’s original brew house is now a popular pub in the pretty little town of Abita Springs, about 30 miles across the lake from New Orleans.

As any brew master will quickly tell you, there is no secret to making beer; it’s all about the water. And the water of Abita Springs is renowned for purity and excellent taste. It’s from deep artesian wells. Other than that, Abita uses only British and American barleys, German and American yeast strains and hops from the cold-climate Pacific Northwest, all brought together in a cold-filtration process. That’s it.

Seven brews are available year-round, including the popular Amber and Purple Haze varities, as well as Light; Golden; Turbodog; Jockamo; and Restoration Pale Ale, created after Katrina to assist in the rebuilding effort and to honor the spirit of area residents who are dedicated to putting South Louisiana back together again. More than $550,000 has been donated by Abita to the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation.

Seasonal brews, available only during certain times of year, include Fall Fest, Christmas Ale, Bock, Red Ale and Wheat. During harvest time for satsumas, pecans and strawberries, Abita creates special limited amounts of beer using these local ingredients.

Abita also contracts with certain local establishments to craft beers that reflect their goals, such as the Whole Grain Mustard brew served at chef Donald Link’s restaurant, Cochon.

Stuff Magazine, in 2005, named Abita Turbodog the best beer in America. And in keeping with the corporate founding principle to honor Louisiana and use her products, Abita’s root beer is made with this state’s raw sugar cane, instead of the usual corn fructose syrup used by other makers.

It’s only 4 miles from Abita Springs to Covington, but stylistically when it comes to beer, you will have crossed an entire ocean.

Henryk “Heiner” Orlik is a true German beer master. He obtained his degree from the Doemens School of Brewers and Malsters, founded in 1896 to assure continued quality in the fine art of making German beer. I can’t believe I wasted my time in school with liberal arts when this sort of course of study was available. I was certainly drinking enough; I might as well have gotten course credit.

Anyway, Orlik’s aptly named brewing operation, Heiner Brau, is dedicated to making German-style brews of the highest quality, and he has admirably succeeded. The names may be as confusing as some French wine appellations, and you should follow the same regime as learning about wine: Just taste what’s in the bottle.

Heiner strictly follows the codicils of the German Purity Law of 1516, the Reinheitsgebot. The law allows for no additives into the process, only the four usual ingredients: water, malted barley, hops and yeast. Then there is the all-important element that an experienced brew master brings to the process: judgment.

Heiner Brau Kölsch is unfiltered, using natural yeast, and is a light golden beer, very clean.

Maerzen, which means the month of March in German, is available year-round and is a heavier brew, presenting the distinctive aroma of freshly baked bread.

The Heiner Brau Strawberry Ale is available year-round and sells very well in this region.

Seasonal beers include those crafted to honor certain celebrations, such as Mardi Gras Festbier, Maibock (May Day) and Oktoberfest. Heiner also does a Hefe-Weisse, made with wheat and released in the summer months. 

The last entry in our let’s-get-brewin’-beer roundup is the most recent operation to open. NOLA Brewing Co. is located right in the city on Tchoupitoulas. Founder and local dude Kirk Coco has a juris doctorate degree from LSU, an excellent background for a brewery founder.

He was kicking back one night, enjoying a few brews, and wondered aloud, “Why doesn’t New Orleans have a lot of small breweries offering a variety of locally brewed beers, like Seattle and Portland?” Careful what you wish for, Kirk.

He teamed up with Peter Caddoo, who sports a culinary degree and was, at one time, the brew master for Dixie. Talk about full circle.

It seems it took some time to open NOLA because no one knew exactly what types of permits were needed. It’s been awhile since a brewery opened in the city of New Orleans.

Anyway, it’s been here almost a year, and it’s been a great ride. The ales have taken bar taps by storm. And what has been particularly successful, given that NOLA does not bottle any of its ales, is the introduction of a 2.25-gallon draft pack, a bladder-type container held in place by a cardboard outer structure, complete with tap. It’s a full case of product that slides easily onto a refrigerator shelf or can be placed in an ice chest. This thing is fun.

The guys say the ales can keep in this package, under refrigeration, for more than four months after the first beer is poured. But with ale this good, I can’t imagine anyone pushing that claim to the limit. Draft packs are available at many of the regular retail wine and spirits outlets around town.

NOLA Blonde Ale is the flagship of the line and is a medium-weight American-style brew, golden in color with a citrus hop aroma.

NOLA Brown Ale is more English in structure and color, with the aromas and flavors of chocolate, coffee and nuts, which is to be expected from this style.

Then there is one of the great refreshment names in our area, Hopitoulas, emblazoned with the sidewalk-tile look one expects on an Uptown street corner. This India pale ale style, with the addition of more malt and more hops, takes more than a month to make and age.

Just introduced is the Hurricane Saison, a seasonal pilsner using three different varieties of hops, noting that we are in … never mind.

The joy of all of these breweries is that they are into the culture and the mood of our area. They are fun companies, making a local product for us to enjoy while also calling attention to what makes us unique.

To prove it, NOLA Brewing’s motto is, “Laissez la bonne biere verser.” Let the good beer pour. 

Abita Brewing Co.
21084 Highway 36
Abita Springs, LA 70433
(985) 893-3143
Heiner Brau
226 E. Lockwood St.
Covington, LA 70433
(985) 893-2884
NOLA Brewing Co.
New Orleans Lager & Ale Brewing Co. LLC
3001 Tchoupitoulas St.
New Orleans, LA 70130

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