When looking at the seismic changes in craft beer culture in the New Orleans and Louisiana area over the past five years or so, it seems incredible that a beer-focused event has been able to survive here since 1983. For the last 30 years, WYES has been providing the beer lovers in New Orleans an annual event for their signature annual fundraising effort, the WYES International Beer Tasting.
Suzette Cain, the WYES Volunteer and Special Events Coordinator at WYES until 1984, remembers that before the very first WYES International Beer Tasting in 1983, the wine tastings held in the Hilton had been popular for years. “Back then,” Cain says, “people were drinking the usual Dixie and Budweiser and had never heard of Belgian beers like Chimay, so it was called the International Beer Tasting.”
Not much information exists on that first tasting in ’83, though the consensus seems to be that it took place in a quadrant at the Louisiana Superdome after a game. In 1984, the International Beer Tasting was done in conjunction with the Louisiana World Exposition and it was held either at the Superdome again or over at the Fairgrounds. Cain recalls that they hired a German oompah band that was playing nightly in the Miller Beer Garden at the World’s Fair. When Cain’s husband went to pick them up, she says, “They had already clearly been drinking!”
Read on for more history and information about this year's tasting ...
By 1995, the Tasting moved to Pontchartrain Center, where it was also held in 1996. WYES tried moving the event to the Convention Center in 1997 and 1998, but attendance declined and those two years are not considered to be very successful, perhaps due to the event’s proximity to the Memorial Day holiday.
In 1999, the Tasting moved back to the Fairgrounds, where it occupied the ground floor. By 2004, it moved into the Senator Nat G. Kiefer UNO Lakefront Arena. 2004 was also the year that Anita Hedgepath, formerly the Volunteer and Special Events Coordinator of WYES, recalls a significant jump in participation by microbreweries and homebrewers.
The WYES International Beer Tasting stayed at the Lakefront Arena until 2012 with two Katrina-related exceptions: it was at the Riverwalk in 2006 and at Generations Hall in 2007. Hedgepath was surprised at the large turnout of the 2006 event at the Riverwalk for the first Tasting since Katrina, recalling that “People seemed to be looking for something familiar — a pre-Katrina event that made things seem normal — while at the same time helping WYES in its rebuilding efforts.”
The Tasting returned to the UNO Lakefront area for its 25th Anniversary in 2008. The success of that year’s silver anniversary led to the creation of an entire night dedicated to premium, special beers: the WYES Private Beer Sampling. “WYES needed to increase our income from the event,” WYES Events Manager Sharon Snowdy says. “I could see the craft beer market was about to blossom in Louisiana. This new event was a way to introduce beer lovers to high end beers they would not be able to discover without the new WYES event. It was a way to make them a connoisseur of beer. It was different from our Saturday Beer Tasting in that the majority of the brews served would not be available at the Saturday event.”
Snowdy approached Dan Stein, owner of Stein’s Deli on Magazine Street. Stein brought Kirk Coco and Dylan Lintern from NOLA Brewing into the conversation, and Coco offered the brewery as the new event’s location. After kicking around some names for this new night of high quality beers such as “WYES Brews and Bites Party” and “Beers and Cheers for WYES,” they settled on the name “WYES Private Beer Sampling.” By 2011, the Private Beer Sampling had outgrown the NOLA Brewing space and moved to the Black and Gold Room at the Fairgrounds Race Course, where it was held again in 2012.
This year, for the first time, the 5th annual WYES Private Beer Sampling and the 30th Annual WYES International Beer Tasting will be held at the same venue — Mardi Gras World, off Convention Center Boulevard at 1380 Port of Orleans Place, New Orleans. The Private Sampling will take place on Friday, June 21, from 7-10 p.m., and the International Tasting will take place June 22, from 6-9 p.m. Tickets for the Private Sampling are $50 and tickets for the International Beer Tasting are $30 and are available online.
— Nora McGunnigle is a freelance writer, blogger, craft beer aficionado, event planner, and regular columnist for Gambit and Southern Brew News. You can follow her blog at www.nolabeerblog.com and read her column every Tuesday on Blog of New Orleans. Please let her know what you think or suggest topics for future columns in the comment section.