New Orleans on Tap: Big Easy Breweries

Cheers to the brewing capital of the South.

During the 1850s, New Orleans was known as the brewing capital of the South. Famous for creating (or at least popularizing) cocktails such as the Sazerac, New Orleans also had a well-regarded reputation for creating and consuming suds. Locals have loved lagers since the first wave of German immigration hit the city in the mid 19th century—and that passion for good food, good drink and good times continues in the 21st, thanks to a new generation of brewers intent on helping the city reclaim its former title.

According to Jeremy Labadie and Argyle Wolf-Knapp’s meticulously researched New Orleans Beer: A Hoppy History of Big Easy Brewing, the city’s first brewery, the Brasserie, opened in 1726 in what is now the Bywater neighborhood. Throughout the 1800s breweries sprung up all over—in the Tremé, Marigny, Uptown, Warehouse District, Algiers and Mid-City. In all, almost 40 breweries operated in New Orleans (with varying degrees of success) until Prohibition was enacted in 1920.

Notable breweries, whose faded advertisements can still be seen painted on buildings all over town, include: JAX Brewery, which opened on Decatur Street as Jackson Brewery in 1890; American Brewing Company, makers of Regal Beer, which opened in 1891 on Bienville Street, where the Royal Sonesta Hotel now stands; Falstaff, which began operation in 1936; and Dixie Brewing, which opened in 1907 in Mid-City and kept brewing until Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

Jax Beer sign in New Orleans(©Shawn Fink)

Today Jax is a shopping mall, the former Falstaff plant is an apartment building and Dixie (now produced in Wisconsin) is part of a massive medical complex. Yet, there’s a new wave of beer-making taking hold. With 20 breweries and brewpubs across the state, and nine in the greater New Orleans area, Louisiana may lag behind others in the national craft beer movement. But New Orleans is not Portland or Denver or San Diego. New Orleans, like Louisiana, adapts when it’s good and ready to adapt.

Abita Brewing began production across Lake Pontchartrain in 1986, and German expat Wolfram Koehler followed soon after with his French Quarter Crescent City Brewhouse—the first post-Prohibition brewery in the city proper—which opened in the shadow of the old Jax Brewery in 1991. But it was NOLA Brewing founder Kirk Coco who really changed the game in 2008.

Nola Brewing (©Shawn Fink)

“We started with a blonde ale and a very mild brown ale, really approachable beers,” said Coco, retired Navy officer who returned to his hometown to help rebuild after Katrina. “Our newest projects are sour beer and a barrel-aged beer program, which is so far off from what I would have imagined we would get to in six years. I’m so proud of the drinkers in this city. I never would have guessed the beer scene could have changed so quickly here.”

But it has.

Joining Crescent City Brewhouse, Abita and NOLA Brewing was Gordon Biersch, a chain that employs local brewers to make beer onsite that opened in 2004 in Harrah’s Casino in downtown New Orleans, and Heiner Brau (now known as Covington Brewhouse), which opened on the Northshore in 2005. Soon breweries began taking hold in other parts of the state: Parish, Bayou Teche and Cajun in the Lafayette area; Tin Roof in Baton Rouge; Chafunkta and Old Rail in Mandeville; Gnarly Barley in Hammond; Mudbug in Thibodaux; 40 Arpent in Arabi; and Red River and Great Raft in Shreveport, which opened within two days of each other.

Crescent City Brewhouse in New Orleans (©Shawn Fink)

In New Orleans, Scott Wood and Lindsay Hellwig opened Courtyard Brewery, a casual, laid-back beer bar that serves Wood’s craft brew alongside guest taps, in 2014. Rotating food trucks and twinkling lights are fixtures in the brewery’s eponymous courtyard. Second Line Brewing debuted last September in a converted Mid-City warehouse just off of City Park Avenue. Primarily a production brewery, Second Line also offers an outdoor beer garden on weekends, adding to the dramatic increase in places that are tapping into the taste for fresh, local brews. Not only bars, restaurants are jumping into the fray as well; you can now find local brews in watering holes like the Avenue Pub, the region’s most acclaimed craft beer bar, as well as at both casual and fine-dining spots, such as Boucherie and Restaurant August.

The new New Orleans is thirsty for beer. And venues such as Second Line, the Avenue Pub, Courtyard Brewing, the Bulldog, Junction, the Snooty Cooter at Cooter Brown’s, Aline Street Beer Garden, Ale on Oak, Ole Saint and NOLA Brewing’s recently renovated tap room feed that desire with beer selections that assume patrons have discerning palates and a taste for local product. For vanilla coffee porters, for milk stouts, for dunkel lagers, double IPAs and barley wine.

The Bulldog bar in New Orleans

New Orleanians will always put flavor and fun above all else—and that’s what’s fueling the current brewery boom. Here, the best beer will always be the one in hand, while surrounded by good friends, food and music. From the Brasserie and Dixie to NOLA and Second Line, the Crescent City continues its reign as the brewing capital of the South.

Nora McGunnigle
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