New Orleans still shows the scars of Hurricane Katrina. Look closely at the buildings in the Central Business District and you will see the faint stain of water lines, marking the height of the flood waters from torrential rainfall and breached levees; a badge of pride by a city that took its punches, stood back up and declared, “We’re still here.”
Venture out of the Central Business District and French Quarter to a neighborhood such as the Lower Ninth Ward, and you will still find abandoned homes, empty lots and unrepaired roads. Tourism took a decade to rebound, with visitors and hotel capacity finally returning to previous levels in 2016, though its overall economic recovery is a complicated story to tell.
Instead, look at the New Orleans brewing scene through the same lens. Katrina’s waters were the final blow for Dixie Brewing Company, the only production brewery in Orleans Parish at the time. It flooded and never reopened. New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson has since bought the brewery with the intent of eventually returning contract brewing to a plant in Orleans Parish and restoring the 110-year-old brand.
Abita Brewing Company, synonymous with New Orleans culture, is actually brewed in Covington, across the 24-mile Lake Ponchartrain Causeway, in St. Tammany Parish. Bottles of Abita Amber are easier to find than bottled water in the French Quarter, where hurricanes and shots are poured from streetside bar counters.
"The craft beer boom is just starting here. I usually tell everybody Louisiana's about nine years behind the rest of the country."”
The tide began to turn with the 2008 opening of NOLA Brewing Company—the first post-Katrina production brewery—and a fractured craft beer industry slowly clawed its way into the conversation. That momentum continues to build.
“The craft beer boom is just starting here,” said Robert Bostick, owner of Brieux Carré Brewing Company. “I usually tell everybody Louisiana's about nine years behind the rest of the country. From an economic standpoint, it wasn't until early 2015, when tourism revenue actually surpassed that of pre-Katrina. It wouldn't have made sense financially; it would have been more of a passion project you hope catches on.”
Change was needed in state government as well.
“Abita was the pioneer for craft beer here in Louisiana,” according to Jacob Landry, founder and president of Urban South Brewery. “And even until five or so years ago, they were almost the only game around. They've done a wonderful job kind of stewarding craft beer here, but it was kind of one-dimensional up until the recent expansion of breweries.”
That expansion required a shift in state laws. As recently as four-years-ago, Louisiana limited taproom sales for manufacturing brewers to 10 percent of their annual production. Before opening Urban South, Landry worked with distributors and championed a 2014 law to lift the cap to 3,000 barrels or 10 percent of volume, whatever is greater.
“That opened the doors wide open for a whole new model of brewery here, where you could be a taproom first and foremost, and maybe eventually distribute some beer,” Landry said. “But, you didn't have to make that choice of either being a brew pub or a manufacturing brewery.”
Since then, the number of breweries in Louisiana has doubled. Five years ago, the city had three breweries and two brewpubs. Today, nine breweries operate in Orleans Parish, five of them are along a 4.7-mile stretch of roadway following Decatur and Tchoupitoulas Streets along the Mississippi River.
Brieux Carré Brewing Company
The easternmost of the five is Brieux Carre. Its Northeast-style double IPA called Dad Jokes debuted the day before my visit. Bostick and his brewers used four pounds of hops in the batch, blending Victoria’s Secret with Pekko. Bostick sees the hazy juice bomb as a gateway to West Coast IPAs, such as his Falcon Warrior, brewed with Falconer’s Flight and Warrior hops.
“You're getting a lot of flavor and aroma from the hops,” Bostick said. “So, it seems like the logical step to getting people more into traditional West Coast styles.”
Those uncomfortable in tight quarters might want to skip Brieux Carre, though its breadth of beer makes up for the lack of space. There are few seats at the bar and a handful of tables inside the tiny tasting room. A courtyard in back relieves elbow-rubbing, when the weather cooperates, but the brewery is space-limited—the seven-barrel system, four fermenters and one bright tank squeeze into 300-square-feet.
Crescent City Brewhouse
It’s a short walk to the next stop, Crescent City Brewhouse. We were greeted at the door by the aroma emanating from an open mash tun behind the bar. Crescent City brews four year-round beers and one seasonal. For winter 2018, it is an imperial pilsner. The regular pilsner is bright and floral, though not particularly crisp. The imperial pilsner is simply a heavier, boozier version, lacking the character and flavor profile of a pilsner.
Urban South Brewery
Urban South Brewery is two miles away from the French Quarter in the Lower Garden District. Holy Roller, its flagship IPA, was rolling off the canning line during my visit and it recently launched its newest beer for distribution, a lager called Paradise Park. Pink flamingos adorn the bright teal cans, which Landry named after a trailer park in his hometown of Jennings, Louisiana.
“We're trying to get all these people drinking these macro lagers to come over to craft beer,” Landry said. “But in order to do that you gotta at least start them in the vicinity, flavorwise. So, we're trying to give them a local option.”
Landry boasts about his tasting room with pride. Rows of brightly painted picnic tables fill the space. We sat next to a table with dog bowls and coloring books.
“It’s a place people can just come and hang out,” he said. “We're family-friendly and we push that hard. We have kids birthday parties here on weekends, run a bounce house every Sunday and do a Sunday family day, so that's a huge part of our culture. I've got three kids of my own. My business partner has twin daughters. We’ve got juice boxes in the fridge, too.”
The effort has worked. Urban South was voted the number one taproom experience in the state by the Church of the Sacred Brew, a Louisiana craft beer group on Facebook.
Taproom culture is important, especially in a city dependant on tourism, but, at the end of the day, a taproom is only as good as its beer. NOLA Brewing is credited for the rebirth of beer in the Big Easy. It opened in 2008 in a converted warehouse on a former scrap metal yard—the first production brewery to open in the city post-storm. In 2015, after years of regional distribution and a brush with celebrity, NOLA built a new taproom adjacent to its Irish Channel brewhouse, complete with a copper-topped bar and walk-up counter for barbecue. It also has rooftop bar that was closed when we dropped in.
The NOLA Funk Series of wild ales is its calling card. A dry-hopped version of its Lowerline sour drank quite easily. Lactobacillus gave it a sour pucker and Galaxy hops brought out notes of tropical fruit in the finish.
Port Orleans Brewing Company
The newest brewery in New Orleans was the last stop on the riverfront tour. Port Orleans Brewing Company opened in 2017. It was the most polished brewery on our stop, literally and figuratively. The taproom felt like a franchised sports bar. Music blared overhead, while televisions showed every single ESPN network. The shiny, stainless steel tanks, visible through the windows behind the beer taps, offered the only clue you were at a brewery.
While the environment was rather sterile, the beers were exceptional. Storyville is an easy-drinking IPA bursting with grapefruit. The King, an American strong ale by style, is an amber brewed with locally-roasted coffee beans. Its Pusher Stout is poured on nitro and features a rich body with notes of coffee and chocolate. Though less than a year old, it is already running a 30-barrel brewhouse with eight 60-barrel fermenters and six 60-barrel lagering tanks, as well as its own canning line.
New Orleans’ beauty is in its diversity. It was founded by the French, ceded to the Spanish and retaken by the French, before being sold to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. It’s a blend of Anglo, French, African and European cultures, evident in breadth of the local cuisine that counts beignets, etouffees, muffalettas and red beans and rice among its signatures.
The diversity among the breweries along Decatur and Tchoupitoulas Streets is equally as wide. New Orleans may be nine years behind in the craft beer game, but it should be fun watching it catch up.