Abita was one of the early success stories in the American craft-brewing movement, and it's also been ahead of the curve in releasing new types of beers to the American market. As bars and restaurants are expanding their offerings to more exotic styles of Belgian beer and imports from countries besides Germany and England, diners, restaurants and chefs are welcoming beer as equal in quality and sophistication to wine. Beer and food pairing is gaining in appreciation.
Abita recently opened a renovated tasting room with mahogany wood on the inside and a French Quarter-style brick patio courtyard at its brewery in Abita Springs. It mirrors the quality of the beer going into the bottles and the expectations of visitors. 'The visitor center used to double as the employee break room," says Blossman. 'Now it's like a Napa winery experience." The tasting room offers samples of the brewer's ever wider array of beers.
'It's not how much you produce; it's what you do," says Blossman. 'That's craft brewing. It's a combination of artistic inspiration and entrepreneurial spirit."
Abita now has a 'Harvest" series of beers, which includes Pecan Harvest Ale, released in fall 2007, and Strawberry Harvest Lager, now in its third and biggest year. Demand for the strawberry beer spurred Abita to triple its production for this spring's release. At 5,300 barrels, it will account for roughly 6 percent of Abita's production this year. One of the reasons the strawberry beer has caught on is because Abita uses real fruit, not flavoring. Amato Winery presses the fruit for the beer.
'We want to be a beer first," says Blossman. 'We use fruit to get a delicate flavor. The berries add acidity; it has good mouthfeel and aroma. It pops in your mouth."
Last year, Abita added the brown ale using roasted pecans from central Louisiana.
'We added roasted pecans to the mash. It adds delicate flavor and there are tannins from the skins, and it adds nut oils."
Abita now has 22 beers in its portfolio. Besides flagship beers like Amber, Golden, Turbodog and Purple Haze, Abita has a seasonal series, including the current summer wheat beer. It recently released Jockamo India Pale Ale (with a Mardi Gras Indian on the label). Long available on draft only, its heavier Andygator will soon be available in 22-oz. bottles. It's the first in Abita's 'Big Beers in Big Bottles" series. A Belgian-style abbey ale will be introduced to the series.
Multicourse beer dinners are not new. Abita has sponsored them around the state for seven years, but local brewpubs like Crescent City Brewhouse have automatically had that capacity for years. The microbrewer serves a regular lineup of German-style beers including a pilsner, Viennese-style red ale, Munich-style dark beer and an unfiltered weiss (wheat) beer. Brewmaster Wolfram Koehler has about two dozen beers in the restaurant's repertoire and typically runs a fifth seasonal option. The Brewhouse just sold out of its Helles beer, a light-bodied lager for summer, says General Manager Philip Gilberti.
When matching beers and food, Gilberti says the wine rule-of-thumb typically applies: heavier beers go with heavier foods. But as with the new acceptance of red wine with fish, rules are made to be broken.
'I like our dark beer with raw oysters," he says. 'The malty sweetness goes with the salty oysters."
Local chefs and restaurateurs are also thinking about pairing. In April, chef Aaron Burgau of Patois and beer enthusiast Dan Stein (of Stein's Deli and Market) put together a beer dinner drawing on a wide variety of brews. Pairings included salad with citrus vinaigrette with Japanese Hitachino Nest White Ale; steamed mussels with La Fin du Monde, a high alcohol (9 percent) Belgian-style beer from Canada; San Francisco brewer Anchor Old Foghorn's Barleywine Style Ale with pompano crusted with malted barley; Chimay-braised short ribs with Chimay Premiere; as well as dessert and cheese pairings.
'I drink Budweiser when I am at home," says Burgau, 'I like (Belgian) Hoegaarden and (English) Newcastle, but these beers had all kinds of crazy flavors."
In preparing the menu, he incorporated beer into many recipes and was pleased with the pairings, particularly with the short ribs and pompano.
'The sturdier fish held up to the nuttiness of the beer," he says.
The event sold out and went well enough that Burgau expects to do another.
'We had a lot of experienced beer drinkers," he adds.
That's no longer a euphemism for quantity. New Orleans is a beer town that appreciates quality in beer just like in its cuisine.