There’s nothing like a cold beer on a hot New Orleans summer day. The condensation on the bottle can or glass is a visual reminder of the refreshment that’s sure to follow. The aroma varies from bread to bananas to pine to citrus to coffee and everything in between. The color ranges from the palest straw gold to burnished copper to the satisfying black of a well-seasoned cast iron skillet.
Beer’s no longer just for summer days, crawfish boils and football games—it’s found a place at fine dining restaurants as well as casual eateries, from the beer geek bar to the neighborhood dive. Events and festivals and beer-themed weeks are now part of the annual calendar.
Local beer drinkers suddenly find themselves in heaven with the new, vast array of beer styles created by a multitude of breweries throughout the state. The ever-increasing sophistication of Louisiana beer aficionados has led to a large variety of production breweries, brewpubs and tiny “nano” breweries opening in the area, with each brewer contributing something unique and dynamic, sharing a vision of not just beer, but a philosophy of life in the South.
But where did this come from? And how did we get here?
By the end of 2016, over 5,300 breweries were in business nationwide, according to the Brewers Association, a non-profit organization that tracks data on a national as well as statewide level. That’s 17 percent more than the year before—an incredible growth. Looking further back, the change is even more dramatic. In 2012, the U.S had 2,475 breweries—less than half of what we have today.
The number of Louisiana breweries has increased in similar fashion over the past five years. By the end of 2012, Louisiana had eight breweries: six production breweries and two brewpubs. New Orleans at that time had only one production brewery (NOLA Brewing) along with two brewpub-restaurants downtown: Crescent City Brewhouse in the French Quarter and the New Orleans location of the national chain Gordon Biersch in the Warehouse District.
Today, the total number of production breweries, brewpubs and service-only microbreweries has risen to 34 in Louisiana and 12 just in New Orleans. More than half of the growth in New Orleans has occurred since March 2016, a veritable explosion.
Urban South Brewery in the Lower Garden District opened to the public in March 2016, followed by Wayward Owl Brewing Company in Broadmoor in December, and then Brieux Carré Brewing Company, Parleaux Beer Lab, Port Orleans Brewing Co. and Royal Brewery since April this year. They’re scattered throughout the city: Brieux Carré is just off Frenchmen Street in the Marigny, Parleaux Beer Lab is in the Bywater, Port Orleans has set up on the river side of Tchoupitoulas just off Napoleon Avenue and Royal Brewery is in New Orleans East.
Urban South, Wayward Owl, Port Orleans and Royal Brewery are all production breweries, meaning they do not only sell beer in their on-site tasting rooms; the bulk of their brews are packaged in kegs, bottles and/or cans for wider distribution. Brieux Carré and Parleaux Beer Lab fall under a different category—they only serve their beers to customers in their own taprooms; they’re not distributed to other retailers. The only way to try their product is to go to the brewery and check it out.
The New Orleans and Louisiana beer scene might have been slow to grow at first, compared to national trends, but the number of breweries is now growing at an exponential rate. Part of this development has involved educating local palates and building a steady customer base looking for flavorful, well-made and locally brewed beer—and willing to pay a little extra for it. The Gulf South has traditionally been partial to American light lagers from big breweries such as Budweiser, Miller and Coors. They’re easy to drink in the heat and humidity and the low amount of alcohol in them means people can drink them all day long (like at a parade or a tailgate), and they’re considered perfect crawfish beers.
Local breweries are now having a lot of success brewing alternative styles, but it did take a while to widen the comfort zone. Early on, German styles were popular at places like Crescent City Brewhouse, Gordon Biersch, Covington Brewhouse (formerly Heiner Brau) and even Abita, whose Amber (the most well-known beer from Louisiana) is a Munich-style lager.
Moving into other styles, like IPAs, stouts, porters, saisons and sour/wild beers, took some time, but the area’s adapting palate wasn’t the biggest hurdle to overcome. Instead, it was state and city bureaucracy.
The appointed position of the Louisiana Alcohol and Tobacco Commission (ATC) head has given one person the authority to interpret the laws as he/she sees fit, and enforce them accordingly. With beer and brewing, there are many gray areas shifting back and forth, depending on who’s in charge. Without naming names, it’s safe to say that there haven’t been a lot of beer-positive people in the ATC over the years, which has influenced the industry in fits and starts. Although it’s been legal for a brewery to obtain a retail license and sell its beer directly to customers in a taproom or tasting room environment since 1993, it was widely discouraged to such an extent that, by the time new breweries started popping up post-Katrina, brewers and owners believed selling any beer on-site was illegal.
The Louisiana statute that permitted on-site sales, R.S. 26:273C, was finally clarified by the ATC in 2012 under the leadership of former commissioner Troy Hebert. Since then, breweries around the state have been able to take advantage of the law, which increases profit margins and makes new business plans more financially viable.
The City of New Orleans has been catching on over the past couple of years, and newer breweries have reaped the benefits of their predecessors’ hard work. NOLA Brewing and Courtyard Brewery in particular have worked patiently with city employees trying to get a handle on these new businesses. To hear the tales, it was rough going at the start, but now, expectations for permits are more clearly explained by city staff, and there’s a template to follow, shaped by the growing local industry, where everything doesn’t have to be figured out from scratch. It’s been a challenge, but the current process is a marked improvement compared to just two years ago.
For some time, local distributors weren’t sure how to sell these small breweries’ beers—they required a radical shift from the brewing conglomerates the distributors were used to marketing and selling around town. It took significant collaboration between brewers, retailers and distributors to get a handle on the product and its potential market.
The saving grace for local breweries was always the city and state’s entrenched food culture—breweries made beer to pair with food, and restaurants slowly began embracing this in the context of their beer lists and menus. Beer-pairing dinners have become a popular way to introduce inexperienced beer drinkers to the flavor diversity and food-friendliness of Louisiana beers.
As noted, six breweries have reshaped New Orleans’ beer scene in swift measure over the past 15 months.
Urban South Brewery found immediate success with its three flagship beers—Charming Wit, Holy Roller IPA and Coop’d Up—along with a wide variety of seasonal selections and special releases. The brewery doubled its capacity within the first six months of operation due to market demand. It took a year for them to produce enough beer to be able to distribute outside of New Orleans to the Northshore and Baton Rouge. Each new release further solidifies the brewing chops of the Urban South team, and their family-friendly and dog-welcoming tasting room has become a popular spot for local events and fundraisers.
Wayward Owl Brewing Company opened late last year to holiday cheer in the stunningly renovated Gem Theater in Broadmoor. The former neighborhood movie theater is now a huge open space with the bar and communal tables toward the front and the brewing equipment in the back. The two sections are divided by a row of theater seats—a nod to the building’s history. Co-founder Justin Boswell returned home to Louisiana after brewing beer in the Pacific Northwest with a mission to bring his experience and knowledge to New Orleans.
“It’s an exciting time to be making beer here,” says Boswell. “People are listening to the brewing community [in the state legislature], the Brewers Guild has banded together stronger than it ever has before, and we’re making progress every day.”
“The culture of the beer consumer in Louisiana is so new compared to Washington State, where it’s established and entrenched,” he continues. “People here are so excited when they discover new beer—not that there wasn’t excitement in Washington, but it’s the difference between getting excited about a new beer release in a huge sea of beer and breweries, and getting excited about new beer because it’s new.”
Brieux Carré Brewing Company is poised to become the top go-cup craft brewery with its heavily trafficked, pedestrian-friendly location. It’s a tiny space for both patrons and brewing equipment (even with the outdoor space), but the ever-changing selection of beer keeps people coming back. Founder Robert Bostick says expansion into the upstairs space will happen sooner than anticipated, but in the meantime, the camaraderie, fun names of tasty beers and—most importantly—New Orleans’ alcohol consumption laws will keep this place jamming. Beer is only sold on-site and not distributed to other retailers.
Parleaux Beer Lab, true to its name, is a brewery dedicated to tinkering with ingredients and flavor profiles. Out by the Industrial Canal next to the deep Bywater train tracks, Parleaux offers an inviting space with a huge beer garden surrounded by fruit trees. Both the inside and outside have a DYI, repurposed vibe that makes the experience almost intimate, like you’re hanging out in a friend’s backyard. Parleaux only sells its beer on-site, but has the leeway to distribute down the line.
Port Orleans Brewing Co. is in an enormous converted warehouse near the Port of New Orleans building—thus its name. This brewery has six 60-barrel horizontal lagering tanks in addition to eight upright 60-barrel fermenters (a barrel is roughly 31 gallons), and has an in-house kitchen called Stokehold, with a menu that complements the beers on tap.
Royal Brewery hopes to be part of the revitalization of New Orleans East’s Lakefront area. With entertainment venues and restaurants scheduled to open in the next year, it’s in a great spot to capitalize on an area of the city long left neglected. With a newly opened taproom, Royal Brewery is working on perfecting its first beer, Culicidae Ale, before starting on any new ones.
“We’re a natural fit for this area,” co-owner Mandy Pumilia says. “The zoning has accommodated companies like Folgers, Luzianne and Bunny Bread and when the City Council issued a proclamation for us, they officially described the area as the ‘Beverage and Yeast Belt of New Orleans.’”
“We realized we wanted to open a taproom for the community and have done a lot of outreach,” Pumilia continues. “Two local neighborhood associations want to hold meetings here, the Pines Village community wants to walk over all together one day to hang out in the tap room, and we’ve distributed about 300 flyers in the area that offer a dollar off the first beer.”
Breweries have brought economic opportunities for adjacent industries as well, such as the three different beer bus tour companies and the increasing number of food trucks and pop-ups.
The New Orleans Brewery Tour (brought to you by the folks behind the Gators and Guns swamp tour) was the first to take advantage of the fact that breweries opening in industrial areas don’t lend themselves to a pedestrian-friendly experience. They launched after Urban South opened in March 2016 and now tour Courtyard Brewery, Urban South and NOLA Brewing every day.
NOLA Brew Bus is a party bus that books a lot of bachelor’s parties and other private tours focused on local history, and not just beer history. NOLA Brew Bus goes to three different breweries in New Orleans twice a week, and to Abita Brewing each Friday. The company runs a walking go-cup tour of the French Quarter and Marigny once a week as well.
New Orleans Brews Cruise, meanwhile, is the newest player and offers tours to three rotating New Orleans area breweries (chosen with client consultation) four times a week. It also offers weekly tours to the Northshore to visit Abita, Covington Brewhouse, Chafunkta Brewing and Old Rail as well as monthly tours to Baton Rouge–area breweries Gnarly Barley Brewing, Tin Roof Brewing and Southern Craft Brewing.
As far as food is concerned, the only area breweries that have a permanent kitchen are NOLA Brewing (with McClure’s BBQ) and Port Orleans (with Stokehold). Others—Courtyard Brewery, Parleaux Beer Lab, Second Line Brewing, 40 Arpent, Wayward Owl and Brieux Carré—employ food trucks and pop-ups to provide food for hungry customers. Some of the food trucks found regularly at one or more of these breweries include Saigon Slim’s, Taylor Made Wings, Taceaux Loceaux, Foodies Destination, Bonafried, La Cocinita, Diva Dawg, and The Red Stove. Pop-ups include Brügger’s BBQ, Skillet Pop Up, Lucille’s Roti Shop, Midnight Noodle, We’ve Got Big Bowls and La Monita. Schedules change, so check social media (both the food truck/pop-up and the brewery) to see who’s where when. Food trucks and pop-ups have become such a regular feature that newer breweries like Parleaux Beer Lab include a dedicated space (and power!) in their building plans. More and more, small breweries try to connect with their immediate neighborhood communities to be a solid partner there. With at least two more breweries and one cidery due to open within the next year, it’s safe to say that the appeal and availability of local brews will continue to grow and increasingly influence our social calendars.