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Louisiana's craft brew scene 

Nora McGunnigle says 2013 is the year New Orleans beer fans have been waiting for

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Louisiana was once known as the beer capital of the South, but it's now better known for go-cups and legal drinking on the street. While Louisiana ranks 11th in the country for beer consumption per capita, it's 47th in number of breweries. The state only had six production breweries and two operational brewpubs at the end of 2012, but 2013 may see the opening of at least five more breweries and a new brewpub.

  Josh and Jamie Erickson began pursuing their dream of opening a brewery back in 2010 after brewing at home for several years while raising a family of four boys. "Compared to many other states, we are behind when it comes to the number of craft breweries in existence, so we wanted to be a part of changing that here, helping the Louisiana craft beer scene grow," Josh says. The Ericksons created their flagship beers, Voo Ka Ray IPA and Old 504 coffee-infused vanilla robust porter, and acquired a small industrial space in Mandeville to brew commercially. Last month, the Ericksons' Chafunkta Brewing Company was approved by the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control (ATC) to begin brewing and selling its beer commercially.

  When San Diego transplant Scott Wood met Louisiana native Lindsay Hellwig in New Orleans, not only did they begin a family, but also a craft beer partnership called The Courtyard Brewery that would merge West Coast craft beer sensibilities with the rich culture of Louisiana and New Orleans. Wood's great-uncle was a pre-Prohibition commercial brewer. "Brewing is in my genetic code," he says. They've acquired brewing space in Bywater, and once the space has been configured for brewing and the equipment is in place, they hope to be licensed to brew and serve by the middle of the year.

  Just over the St. Bernard Parish line in Arabi, Michael Naquin is renovating a warehouse overlooking the Mississippi River levee into the 40 Arpent Brewing Company — a plan he's been working on since 2011. His original nanobrewing business plan has expanded to creating a larger brewhouse. He and his business partner, Carl Doescher, are bringing the space up to code, installing equipment and planning to have the brewhouse in working order by mid-March. Naquin says the permitting process has been challenging, since it's the first brewery in the area, but he's had a lot of community support and hopes to provide his neighbors with a place to enjoy music, beer, and each other once the brewhouse is open.

  Zac Caramonta also decided to upgrade the size of Gnarly Barley Brewing in Pontchatoula from "nano" to "micro." Caramonta calls 2012 "a year of learning" and credits "the local breweries who have welcomed us and have not hesitated to give advice when needed." Gnarly Barley hopes to start producing several flagship beers in 2013 — Catahoula Common, Hoppopotomus IPA, Korova Milk Porter and Radical Rye Pale Ale.

  Leith Adams and business partner Brance Lloyd wanted to fuse Cajun culture with craft beer culture. They founded Mudbug Brewery in 2011 to create celebratory beers, such as their King Cake Ale and cayenne-infused Cajun Stout. Adams also envisions a "Cajun Royalty" imperial series of beers.

  "We feel that there hasn't been a big enough movement by the local beer culture to embrace the Cajun culture, which is different from any other culture in the world," Adams says. "This company is two-thirds coonass, so we felt we needed to run with that."

German immigration to the New Orleans area led to the area's first brewery founded in 1852. In the 1870s and 1880s, New Orleans became the brewing capital of the South. As many as 30 breweries slaked the city's thirst and used its ports to distribute beer throughout the region — but Prohibition ended the thriving New Orleans brewing industry in 1920.

  By the 1950s, the only breweries left in New Orleans were Falstaff, Jax, Regal and Dixie. The modernization of beer distribution (interstate highway, refrigerated trucks) brought the beers of the big national breweries to the region, and one by one the local New Orleans breweries closed. Dixie held on in the city until Hurricane Katrina; Covington's Heiner Brau offered its facilities to brew Dixie for the Louisiana market, but given the small batches to which Heiner Brau was limited, Dixie moved production to Wisconsin.

  Until Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana's modern craft beer history began and ended with Abita Brewing Company, founded in Abita Springs in 1986. The company located there because of the chemical composition and taste of the local water, and still uses the water pumped directly from the aquifers. Abita produces more than a dozen kinds of beer each year, including year-round flagship beers; seasonal beers; "Harvest" series beers, which celebrate Louisiana agriculture; and the special "Select" series, which has included styles such as oyster stout, Biere de Garde and a Roggen Weizen. The company has also recently begun a "firkin" program, which provides special batches of cask ale to beer bars around the state.

  NOLA Brewing is the first production brewery in New Orleans since the closing of Dixie in 2005, and remains the only one. NOLA has doubled its production every year since it opened. Damage inflicted by Hurricane Isaac last year provided the opportunity for the company to make some upgrades, including a new tap room and bar area. Once permitting is complete, NOLA Brewing will sell pints on draft and cans to take home straight from the brewery. President Kirk Coco is known among aspiring brewers as a source of information and mentoring. "They're teaching me as much as I'm teaching them," Coco says with a laugh.

  Mechahopzilla, an aggressively hopped double IPA, sold three times more briskly as Coco had hoped, perhaps an indication of evolution of the craft beer culture and beer drinker's palate in New Orleans and Louisiana. NOLA plans to introduce a new pale ale this year, pending can design and approval, and Coco hopes to experiment with sour ales as well.

  In 2005, Henryk "Heiner" Orlik co-founded Heiner Brau in an old hardware store owned by Robert Mingo in downtown Covington, about a six-minute drive from Abita Springs. The brewery produced German-style beers like Kölsch and Maerzen under the Heiner Brau label, but also distributed other beers, like the Strawberry Ale and Pontchartrain Pilsner under the Covington Brewhouse label. Last summer, Orlik left Louisiana for Canada, and Mingo rebranded the brewery as the Covington Brewhouse.

  Mingo and the new head of brewing operations, Brian Broussard, say they're excited about their new direction; they've been working to ensure the quality and consistency of their recipes; they've invested in firkins to begin a cask ale program; they're open for tours every Saturday morning; and they're committed to promoting the Covington Brewhouse brand as a local Louisiana craft beer.

Nick Powers, owner of the Mandeville craft beer bar The Barley Oak, describes the growth of Louisiana craft beer culture as a process. "You introduce better but still accessible beers to the market," Powers says, "and as more people come to appreciate them, start rotating in more and more specialized beers." Powers has built The Old Rail brewpub in Mandeville, which is ready to open pending finalization of all permits and licenses. The Old Rail will be the state's second locally owned brewpub (a bar that brews its beer on site, as opposed to a brewery with a pub attached), joining Crescent City Brewhouse in the French Quarter.

  These breweries hope to join the ranks of those already in business. Bayou Teche Brewing was founded on St. Patrick's Day 2009 by Karlos, Byron, and Dorsey Knott on the banks of the Bayou Teche in the heart of Acadiana. Karlos's experience overseas with Germany's beer culture combines with the use of French hops and styles to honor the Knotts' heritage. Until recently, Bayou Teche beers were contract-brewed at Lazy Magnolia in Mississippi, but the completion of their own brewery late last year means Bayou Teche now delivers beer brewed on the bayou. In addition to a year-round lineup that includes the flagship LA-31 Bière Pâle and newly added Acadie, Bayou Teche has been brewing seasonals like the new Saison D'Ecrevisses, a farmhouse ale brewed to pair with boiled crawfish. Later this year, the company plans to release a triple IPA and begin a barrel program in which they will age local honey ale in oak and last year's Bière Joi in Jack Daniel's barrels. Derek Domingue, Bayou Teche's director of sales, says the camaraderie and the casual and constant communication among local brewers helps all breweries succeed.

  One brewery Domingue cites in particular is Baton Rouge's Tin Roof Brewing Company, which Charles Caldwell and William McGehee started in 2010, hiring brewmaster Tom Daigrepont. Tin Roof has also released its beers in cans.

  "I'm trying to convert a domestic beer drinker who has never wanted to try a craft beer," says Jon Smith, Tin Roof's sales director. "I love putting our Blonde in front of them and watching them convert. Now, in a perfect world, they fall in love with it and start head scratching about what else is out there that they have never tried or even heard of."

  Tin Roof also has added seasonal specialties such as Watermelon Wheat and Parade Ground Coffee Porter. Their latest seasonal, Juke Joint IPA, should be available soon on draft in Louisiana. Also, keep an eye out for the company's Rougarou — a double black IPA named for the mythical Cajun werewolf.

  Andrew Godley founded Parish Brewing Company in Lafayette in 2008 during nights and weekends, brewing 16 kegs a week of Canebrake, a wheat beer brewed with Steen's cane syrup. By last year, Parish had found enough success in the Louisiana market to allow Godley to quit his day job. He upgraded to a larger brewery and brewed more beer on his first day there than he had in his entire first year of brewing.

  Parish started constructing a retail tasting room, which should be open for business by mid-2013. "We will be applying for a special permit to sell direct to the public," Godley says, adding Parish intends to sell bottles, growlers togo and a weekly cask.Envie, a hoppy pale ale, will roll out in both 12-ounce bottles and draft in the next couple of months. Also on tap from Parish: a Farmhouse IPA, The Gospel (a Dubbel brewed with the Chimay yeast strain), L'autre Femme (an extremely hoppy double IPA), Blackalicious (black IPA) and Saison Jolie (a classic Wallonia Saison).

Two more breweries are on the craft beer horizon, though neither has yet to settle on a permanent location or acquire a commercial brewhouse.

  Cajun Fire Brewing Company is an Orleans Parish brewery hoping for a 2013 opening. Jon Renthrope, a New Orleans native, started the brewery in October 2011, brewing a barrel at a time in a rented commercial kitchen space while looking for brewery space. Renthrope and his partners want to locate in eastern New Orleans, hoping to be an economic boost to that area. The plan is to start with a nanobrewery model; they want to keep the batches small and the styles seasonal.

  Meanwhile, when Great Raft Brewing starts production in Shreveport, it will be the only brewery in 150 miles. Owners Andrew and Lindsay Nations returned to the area from Washington D.C. several months ago, business plan in hand, and have been moving swiftly to find a space, equipment, investors and a head brewer. Jim Patton, a founding partner of Abita Brewing, signed on as Great Raft's brewing consultant and brewmaster. Patton passed away this past October, leaving Great Raft in need of a new strategy.

  Another force in the growth of Louisiana breweries is the recently formed Louisiana Craft Brewers Guild. "Right now, we have a great cohesive group of brewery representatives all paddling in the same direction," says Parish's Godley, the guild's president. "It's really a sight to behold everyone working together from the biggest brewery alongside the smallest. At the very least we now have a unified voice representing the common interests of all Louisiana breweries."

   "Thank you for showing up at every event," says Tin Roof's Smith, expressing local brewers' appreciation for Louisiana beer aficionados. "Thank you for bringing out your friends and family; and finally, thank you for trying what we put out."

  Smith adds, "It's going to take every one of us to grow the state of Louisiana and the South as a whole into the craft beer powerhouse that it has the potential to be, and in every circumstance, should be."

— Nora McGunnigle is a New Orleans writer who covers the brew scene at www.nolabeerblog.com.

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