New Orleans' beer scene has changed tremendously in the last six years. During American Craft Beer Week (ACBW) in 2010, there were five production breweries in Louisiana — Abita Brewing Company, Heiner Brau/Covington Brewhouse, NOLA Brewing Company, Bayou Teche Brewing and Parish Brewing Company. As ACBW (May 16-22) kicks off this year, there are 20 production breweries, three brewpubs and one nanobrewery. There also are more beer-focused bars and brewery taprooms.
More national breweries are distributing beers in New Orleans, including Green Flash, the Bruery, Left Hand Brewing Company, New Belgium Brewing Company, Oskar Blues Brewery, Founders Brewing Company, Lagunitas Brewing Company, SweetWater Brewing Company, Terrapin Beer Company and Bell's Brewery. As the capacity of all these breweries has increased, the beer market in New Orleans has welcomed them.
Beer has become more intertwined with New Orleans' food culture, with beer pairing dinners at restaurants such as Cochon Butcher, Boucherie, Emeril's Delmonico, Galatoire's 33 Bar & Steak, Commander's Palace and Restaurant August. The state's first high-end beer and food event, Nuit Belge, debuted in February 2016. Restaurants including Shaya, Balise, Toups' Meatery and Angeline offered small plates to accompany Belgian or Belgian-style beers.
Beer from local, national and international brewers have been embraced in a cocktail town.
Polly Watts, owner of The Avenue Pub, says that while consumer demand for hoppy beers like IPAs has always been strong, the quality of local breweries' IPAs has improved, especially in the last year. She cites three reasons: "First, lots of breweries are dipping their toes into beers that four years ago would have been considered risky. Second, we have a lot of locals who have moved here since (Hurricane) Katrina and have created a much larger demand for those styles. Finally, I think our market is becoming less insular. We have breweries looking at and challenging themselves with styles from other parts of the country."
Double or imperial IPAs, sour and wild fermented beers, saisons, barleywines, and barrel-aged stouts are all styles that barely existed here six years ago. Now, Parish's Ghost in the Machine double IPA is eagerly anticipated in stores and bars by fans dubbed "Ghost Hunters." Great Raft Brewing has the state's first foudre — a very large wooden barrel used to ferment and age Belgian-style beers. NOLA Brewing has a dedicated sour program, which brews beer with lactobacillus and Brettanomyces bacteria to create tart, sour or earthy flavors.
Many beer fans want to drink local — for the sake of freshness, supporting local businesses or the pleasure of knowing the people who brew their beer.
"Each new brewery that pops up offers the consumer a snapshot of a sense of place and an increased sense of kinship," says Tin Roof Brewing Company CEO Audra Gaiziunas. "If anything, people's palates are being given a chance to hyper-localize."
The New Orleans market has seen increased variety and competition on shelves and tap handles.
"The increase in local breweries means that everyone is looking for the latest, newest or hard-to-get local beer on tap," says Ale on Oak proprietor Pat Winters. "That has to be hard on older breweries that have been around for a long time and helped introduce New Orleans to craft beers."
During ACBW, new beers will be released: Great Raft's Make Believer Session IPA, CottonPort's America 1 Oktoberfest, Urban South Brewery's double dry-hopped version of its Holy Roller IPA, Bayou Teche's Giant Hop For Mankind double IPA with Galaxy, Simcoe and Centennial hops, 40 Arpent Brewing Company's Orange Blossom O-Possum ale, Gnarly Barley's first double IPA called Big DIPA and Second Line Brewing's Route 47 Red IPA.
Three local breweries are among the more than one hundred breweries participating in a project sponsored by the national Brewers Association called #BiggestSmallBeerEver. Each brewery created a smoked stout based on a shared recipe.
Chafunkta Brewing Company will release it as the second in its small batch beer series, the Dew Drop Series. Old Rail Brewing Company will sell it in the brewpub. At NOLA Brewing, four Pink Boots Society members — a professional organization for women in the beer industry — created a version as well. They envision it as the basis for a special brunch at the NOLA Taproom.
ACBW events and special tastings offer plenty of excitement to brewers and beer fans.
"Breweries release really special beers just for ACBW and it becomes this fun little arms race between breweries to have something even more fun, exotic, hoppy, fruity, or delicious than all of the other guys," says Jeff O'Brien, the new co-owner of Cooter Brown's Tavern
Justin Boswell, founder of the soon-to-open Wayward Owl Brewing Company, agrees.
"It's an opportunity to connect with the people out there who enjoy your beer as much as you enjoy making it. It's also an opportunity to pay respect to all the hard work that had to happen far before many of us ever thought of brewing as a career."
While the craft beer scene grows, it always takes on newcomers.
"Over the years the beer drinking culture has become more sophisticated so the events we do have evolved to more specialty beers," Watts says. "I still long for the opportunity to introduce more novice beer drinkers to the wonderful wide world of beer."
Food and beer pairing events
Five picks for ACBW events