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Beer City 

Ken Wells' Travels With Barley searches for the Perfect Beer Joint in every city, but as our once-proud brewery tradition proves, New Orleans is one big bar.

In the new book Travels With Barley: A Journey Through Beer Culture (Free Press), Louisiana author and Wall Street Journal writer Ken Wells explores the vagaries of Beer Nation, both production and consumption, embarking on a pilgrimage down the Mississippi River, along "the River of Beer" in search of the Perfect Beer Joint. New Orleans, the mythic city of his youth, is his last stop before heading to his boyhood home in Black Bayou, the genesis of his beer fascination. Unfortunately, as a brewing town New Orleans is a letdown, and Wells rates it a C-. Though he praises Abita's state-of-the-art Northshore facility, its "wonderfully interesting beers" and its success in the regional market, areas south of the lake -- where Wells focuses his attention -- remain firmly entrenched in the "Bud Belt."

But, reconciling the reality of his adult disappointment with his love for New Orleans, past and present, he has a mid-morning Bourbon and Canal Street epiphany with a couple still celebrating their recent engagement with reckless, intimate abandon, that indeed the entire city serves "as a hothouse for the free-form beer joint."

Though Wells ends up finding a way to redeem New Orleans as having a special place in Beer Nation, the book doesn't mention that more than a hundred years ago the city was a regional brewing center, home to some 13 breweries, though Prohibition, a world war and the Lager Wars of the 1970s has left but one, Dixie, still making beer. Many of these distinctive buildings, remnants of a more decorative industrial architecture, have become some of the city's most treasured landmarks, each of them representing, with poignant variation, different facets of the city's character and its ongoing struggles with its own identity.

In Travels With Barley, Wells dismisses Dixie beer as a "quirky brand," while acknowledging the popularity of its "rare dark lager," Blackened Voodoo. Still a family-run urban factory, it's a throwback to when real, tangible industry mixed vibrantly into city life. And like so many endangered New Orleans institutions, it's undergone changes and heydays and threats to its existence -- in its current state, Dixie no doubt finds the competition more and more difficult.

Opened on Halloween in 1907, it still uses equipment original to the building, in addition to old machinery salvaged from dead and dying breweries from all over the country. The plant is enormous and inefficient, walls blistered with plaster and layers of paint, floors pitted with erosion caused by dripping pipes, rust-mottled vats, busted-out windows and leaky ceilings.

Purity is paramount in beer making, and though the facility may be deteriorating, the interiors of the copper tubs and huge, wax-lined cypress vats are gleaming and pristine. They're well-cared for by a handful of men with arcane knowledge of a turn-of-the-century brewing practice that only a few people in the world possess, running ancient machines they can't even get parts for anymore. Everything is manual. Nothing is computerized.

A typical brewing day consists of one or two men working from the top floor down to the bottom along a series of catwalks and Victorian metal staircases, checking the thin needles of gauges and adjusting copper valves of riveted tubs and wooden vats. Even the huge iconic beer cans on the rooftop are actually functioning rice grit silos. Every bottle is the product of a very current fight for economic, cultural and historical survival, the preservation of an archaic process and the prospect of a great loss.

Nearby, on South Dorgenois Street between Gravier and Perdido streets, part of the same old brewery district, in the former Falstaff building other struggles are being played out for the human soul and for viable real estate. Probably the most visible of the breweries, the mysterious planetary glow of the weather ball still tops wreckage, the industrial solidity of its exterior belying the dark, decrepit beauty within. Originally a National Brewing Company plant, Falstaff bought and refurbished the building in 1936, and in the mid-1940s during a post-war boo expanded the plant, building eight more floors.

Despite the triumphant statue of a crowned, sworded Falstaff raising a chalice -- foot on a vanquished keg, a mean-eyed ram at his side peering down South Dorgenois towards the Dixie Brewing Company -- after it closed in 1978, the brewery's equipment was cannibalized, its copper vats stolen and much of the complex was ravaged by fire, the elements and neglect. Over the years its glorious deterioration has appealed to artists, filmmakers and the homeless. And due to its proximity to Central Lockup and the New Orleans Criminal Court Building, two nonprofit organizations are attempting to house a program there to help ex-offenders re-enter society as productive citizens. Big dreams are involved in the structural rehabilitation of the brewery and in the spiritual and social rehabilitation of the ex-cons who could benefit from the program. Like the still vaguely hopeful weather ball, Falstaff seems to embody both great falls and the pursuit of redemption, of restoring purpose and hope to the broken.

Of all the brewery buildings, the Jackson Brewery most pointedly symbolizes the city's shift from a diversified, thriving industrial port economy to one run more and more on a tourist and service economy. Built as a rice mill in 1891 by a Sicilian immigrant and one of the first industrial sites of its kind on the downtown stretch of river, Jackson Brewery itself wasn't established until 1912. At its peak, Jax -- originally Jackson Bohemian Brew -- was the largest independent brewery in the South, pumping out more than 350,000 barrels a year catty-corner from the St. Louis Cathedral. After it closed in 1974, facing mounting losses under pressure from the national mega-brewers, a victim of the Lager Wars that Wells details in his book, Jax sat empty for several years until it was developed as a retail complex in the early '80s. Anchoring one of the swaths of the French Quarter sealed over with bright, slick tourism and parking lots, Jax is the very successful marketing of New Orleans to the rest of the world, repackaging people's expectations and selling it back to them in a familiar and comfortable environment.

It's a little bit of air-conditioned, suburban mall right on the river, with national retail chains, escalators, glass elevators and a food court serving the ubiquitous local beverage more keenly associated with the French Quarter -- the daiquiri, sweet and strong and premixed. But the management does retain pride in its origins: The brilliant red "Home of Jax Beer" sign remains illuminated, and the third floor houses a small shrine of Jax relics preserved in plexiglass boxes, ephemera of quaint regional, and ultimately failed, advertising campaigns. Dixie, Falstaff and Jax may be the beers of Wells' south Louisiana youth, but he doesn't spend much time mourning their passing. He's more interested in exploring the present and future of Beer Nation, like the energetic rivalries within the "extreme beer" movement and surprising phenomenon of "yeast rustling." But Wells is not by any stretch a beer snob; he's just looking for an authentic beer experience and is perfectly justified overlooking New Orleans, where beer quantity over quality has been become our tendency. But authenticity, we've got. The city may at times seem like one big beer joint, but one that's been around for a long time, with a varied and loyal clientele, crowded with texture and story-filled artifacts, still figuring out ways to make room for the new.

click to enlarge Once home to 13 breweries, New Orleans now boasts only one, what Ken Wells calls "quirky brand" Dixie in his book Travels With Barley.
  • Once home to 13 breweries, New Orleans now boasts only one, what Ken Wells calls "quirky brand" Dixie in his book Travels With Barley.
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