When the weather gets hot, thoughts turn to things both cool and refreshing. Cold soups, chilled seafood and salads are all popular this time of year. And when it comes to washing it all down, beer is often the beverage of choice. It not only quenches the thirst but also goes extremely well with the local cuisine: a natural accompaniment to oysters and crawfish or anything spicy. Here in New Orleans, we are fortunate to have a small but excellent choice when it comes to locally-produced beer.
Beer takes many different forms and everybody has their favorite style. Beers can be roughly divided into two major categories: lagers and ales. The American public generally prefers lager-style beers. The flagship beers of all of the large American breweries are brewed in this style. But there is much more going on in the brewing arena than just Coors and Budweiser. The American brewing industry has survived a rather precarious time and is now undergoing a revolution of sorts and the brewing scene in New Orleans fairly reflects what is taking place around the country.
Not too long ago, there were thirteen breweries in the New Orleans area all in operation at the same time. Remember Jax, Regal and Falstaff? Jax was the most recently departed. The Dixie Brewing Company is the lone survivor in the city from the original list, some of which simply weren’t able to survive prohibition. Of the three breweries in the area, all of which brew distinctively different beers, Dixie is the oldest and perhaps the one with which locals are most familiar.
The Dixie Brewing Company is located at 2401 Tulane Avenue in a building that is hard to miss—just a stone’s throw from downtown. Dixie has been brewing since 1907 and survived prohibition by producing near beer and ice cream! They don’t make ice cream any longer but they are brewing some great beer. Folks are probably most familiar with their flagship Dixie brand but they produce several other beers as well. Dixie, a Premium American Lager, is brewed from a combination of barley and Louisiana-grown rice. The combination produces a relatively light, well-balanced brew that goes great with almost anything. Dixie’s Amber Light is very similar to their regular Dixie and is the brewery’s answer to the Light Beer craze. This beer has some flavor, though, unlike some of the nationally distributed light beers.
Dixie is also brewing a couple of other styles of beer that are both catching on. One of these has been on the market a scant nine months: their Blackened Voodoo Lager, which wins this writer’s award for the beer with the best name (Abita’s Turbo Dog runs a close second). Blackened Voodoo is a premium beer in every respect—top quality American and German malt and Mt. Hood hops. No rice or corn in this beer—it is pure malt. It is also aged twice as long as their Dixie beer, and has seen an excellent response in the short time it’s been available. Try this one when you’re in the mood for something a little heavier. Like Dixie’s other beers, Blackened Voodoo is well balanced and the malt flavor dominates both aroma and taste. Dixie, Amber Light and Blackened Voodoo Lager are available at many bars and restaurants around town.
In addition to these brews, brewmaster Kevin Stuart and assistant brewmaster Peter Caddoo periodically put their heads together to produce a specialty brew such as a stout, porter or an Oktoberfest. These specialty brews are produced in small batches and are kegged, never bottled. Their most recent endeavor was dubbed Hoppicker’s Ale and at the time of this writing was only available at Carrollton Station and running out fast. This brew was a hit among local beer aficionados and we are all hoping that they continue to brew similar beers. There is also the possibility that these same beers will be available in at least one other location sometime in the near future. During a recent tasting, a Yorkshire native dubbed this beer the closest thing to a true English Bitter that he had tried since moving to this country. Hoppicker’s Ale is truly an excellent product.
Lest you think that we are keeping Dixie all to ourselves in New Orleans, it is also available in over 30 states, although it’s true that the kegs do not leave New Orleans. Also, at last count it was being shipped to several other countries including England, France, Japan and Russia!
An entire article could be written about Dixie, their history and their beer, but there are two other breweries in the area. The newest member is the Crescent City Brewhouse located at 527 Decatur in the French Quarter. At this time, it’s also the city’s only brewpub. Their beer in fact is both brewed and served on the premises. Wolfram Koehler, the brewmaster, brews in the strictest German tradition. He adheres to the German Reinheitsgebot which is the purity law dictating that beer must be brewed from the four basic elements: water, malted barley, hops and yeast. Nothing else. The final result is a superior beer.
Wolfram is currently brewing four beers. His Pilsener, Red Stallion, and Black Forest are always available. In addition, he brews a seasonal beer; his Maibock is currently on tap. A Maibock is a super premium beer, pale in color, and brewed in celebration of spring. Hopefully Wolf’s Maibock will last into the summer—it’s a wonderful beer and a true Maibock. In fact, all of the beers at the Crescent City Brewhouse are traditional German beers. This is perhaps most evident with the Pilsener, a dry golden colored beer which Wolfram describes as being “light, crisp, and traditionally hoppy.” Not overly carbonated either as are some pilseners. This beer is a classic. Both his Red Stallion and his Black Forest are slightly darker and heavier beers, the Black Forest being the fullest bodied of the two. Both of these beers are on the sweet side yet they retain a nice balance between the sweetness of the malt and the bitterness of the hops, which is one sign of a quality beer. The Red Stallion is brewed as a “Marzenbier”, a beer traditionally brewed in March and laid down until Oktoberfest. Red Stallion does in fact have a reddish hue and is as aromatic as any of his beers.
Brewmaster Wolfram brews once or twice a week in his 17-barrel operation. He uses mostly German malt and hops in his brewing and is always willing to discuss his trade. His beer is not available in any other location—you have to visit the brewhouse to try it, although he is talking about the possibility of kegging it for some local festivals in the future. He is also bringing his beer to the Great American Beer Festival in Denver for the first time. But you won’t have to go to Denver to try it—real German beer is right here in the French Quarter.
The Abita Brewing Company across the lake in Abita Springs has been brewing beer since 1986, and has been bottling beer since 1988. Where the other two breweries discussed above brew predominantly lagers, Abita brews both lagers and ales. Their two mainstays are their Golden and Amber beers. Both of these are lagers and are brewed year round. The Golden is typical of a pilsener—light and refreshing but not as highly hopped as some. The Amber is different in that caramel malt is added, producing a slightly darker arid more complex beer which is rather sweet. Brewmaster and founder Jim Patton pointed out that all of his beers tend to emphasize the malt characteristics rather than the bitter characteristics of a beer which is heavily hopped. Abita is producing beers which are very different than those of either Dixie or the Crescent City Brewhouse.
Two reasons for this are the Abita Springs water and the British malt that they use. They are using primarily American hops. Yeasts, of course, are a trade secret and every brewer has his or her favorite, which they rarely divulge.
In addition to the Amber and Golden, Abita brews special seasonal beers, some of which are ales. They just sold out of their late spring beer which was a dark ale dubbed Turbo Dog. Turbo Dog turned out to be one of their most popular beers to date. In fact, while I was interviewing Jim Patton, several Turbo Dog fans showed up at the Brewery hoping to locate a few remaining bottles. No such luck. We’re talking about a very popular beer here. There is an outside possibility that it will be added to their regular line of beers.
Their current seasonal beer is a Wheat beer which is made from 50 percent malt and 50 percent wheat. Wheat beer is a traditional summer time drink, one that the Germans drink religiously this time of year. Abita’s is brewed as an ale and has a slightly fruity aroma and taste. This is truly one of the most refreshing beers on the market and is a must for anyone who has never tried one. It will be available for the remainder of the summer. Other seasonal beers include Fall Fest, Irish Red Ale, and Mardi Gras Bock. Personally, I am already looking forward to the beer that they make around Christmas time and which varies slightly from year top year a la Anchor Steam. It is one of the darker and heavier beers that they make—very appropriate for the winter months.
What’s new at the Abita brewery? Another expansion for one thing. They are currently in the process of increasing their brewing capacity to 8,000 barrels annually and yet another expansion is planned for the near future. They have also recently made Abita available for the first time outside the state. As of now, you can purchase Abita in Jackson, Mississippi. They are also looking at the possibility of other markets but for right now they are working just to satisfy the thirsty southern Louisiana palates. The popularity of Turbo Dog, along with Dixie’s Blackened Voodoo Lager is quickly dispelling the myth that we only enjoy lighter and paler varieties of beers in New Orleans.
Satisfied with the range of brews available to us here? Well, it’s possible that the choices will become even greater very soon. Bernard “Sonny” Day plans to begin operation of the Day Brewing Company, to be located in Jefferson Parish, by year’s end. The brewery has been three years in the planning. They will begin by offering a single beer—Day’s Louisiana’s Golden Lager, which will be distributed locally. It will be a Premium American Lager and will be brewed at the company’s 5,000 barrel brewery. Day’s will be the 23rd registered brewery in the state’s history of brewing, dating back to 1864. Let’s hope there will be more to come and that these breweries continue to make quality beer for us to enjoy.