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New Orleans Gets Its Brews Back

By Nick Kaye
March 27, 2009
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I ROLLED into New Orleans on a cool afternoon, putting the windows of my car down to let a twangy version of the standard “James Alley Blues” out and up into the clear, cornflower sky.

“Times ain’t now nothing like they used to be,” went the song on the radio, and I thought to myself, “You can say that again.”

The difficult recent history of the Crescent City hangs like a specter over gutted houses and weedy, desolate lots. But despite the tough times, the spirit of New Orleans is as wily as ever. Arriving there still feels like showing up at a party in full swing.

Visitors come for a number of things that the city does like nowhere else: the music, the food, the architecture. I, however, was in town with just one thing in mind — beer.

The history of brewing in New Orleans is as cloudy as an unfiltered ale, little known outside its confines. Once a regional beer capital, it turned out a slew of popular brands like Falstaff, Jax, Regal and Dixie.

Now there are only a handful of breweries in the area, including Abita, Heiner Brau and a newcomer named NOLA Brewing Company. The good news is that over a well-hopped weekend you can sample all the local brews, tour their birthplaces and learn the story of the once — and possibly future — beer town of the South. The local brewing scene is concentrated these days in suburban St. Tammany Parish, on the north shore of the vast Lake Pontchartrain opposite the Big Easy. So that’s where I headed one morning, with an old college buddy along as designated driver, flitting over the brown lake like a water spider on the seemingly endless causeway.

About an hour out of New Orleans we turned off the highway into downtown Covington, where, in a barnlike building that was once a hardware store, the Heiner Brau brewery stands.

The air around the building dripped with the thick and unmistakable malty sweet smell of brewers hard at work. Inside, under a latticework of cedar beams, a few guys in wool caps moved among rows of shiny copper kettles and tanks. We found Henryk Orlik, the brewmaster and owner known as Heiner, sitting in his brightly lit office.

Mr. Orlik, a native of Germany, has been brewing since the age of 16. He immigrated to America in 1994 with his wife, Angela, and their children to get in on the blossoming craft-beer movement. After stops in Cleveland, at the nearby Abita brewery and in North Carolina, he started Heiner Brau in late 2004.

“I did nothing else with my life” other than brewing, Mr. Orlik, who is 53, said in a thick German accent. He stays busy producing a light, floral Kölsch and a dark brown Maerzen year-round, as well as a rotation of five seasonal brews.

Hurricane Katrina hit just about one week after Heiner Brau’s first bottles shipped in 2005, but the building managed to ride out the storm with little damage. That set Mr. Orlik on a path to becoming a kind of brewing caretaker for the area. He currently makes beers for local restaurants, as well as for the Big Easy Brewing Company, a Marrero, La., brewery whose plant was shuttered after Katrina.

I tasted a few of the excellent brews, then followed Mr. Orlik as he showed off the equipment and a small collection of antique brewing gear. Before we left, Jack Shugg, who runs Heiner Brau’s distribution, offered a rare treat — a taste of a creamy Zea Category 5 American Pale Ale — made for the Zea Rotisserie & Grill restaurant chain — straight from a tank, or as he said, just “released from captivity.”

One of the biggest moments in Heiner Brau’s short life came in spring 2006 when it was asked to take on Dixie beer, the old local favorite.

Founded in the Mid-City neighborhood of New Orleans in 1907, the Dixie Brewing Company was still sputtering along when Katrina upended the city. Its old brick building on Tulane Avenue was left stewing in 10 feet of water, and when the flood finally receded, looters moved in to haul off anything of value, including a copper kettle 16 feet in diameter. The brewery these days, with its imposing metal dome, is nothing but a spooky shell.

Heiner Brau brewed for Dixie for about six months, but was ultimately unable to keep up with demand. Its beers, including the popular Blackened Voodoo Lager, are currently shipped around the country from the Minhas Craft Brewery in Monroe, Wis. Dixie’s owners, Joe and Kendra Bruno, are eager for it to return to production in its original home. “We believe that it belongs there,” Ms. Bruno said recently by phone.

There is talk of filling the vintage building with a modern brewing operation, but for now, as plans for a sprawling hospital complex in the neighborhood take shape, it isn’t clear what will become of it.

For instance, the National Brewing Company building nearby on Gravier Street, which was long a Falstaff brewery and still bears a rooftop statue of beer’s patron saint, King Gambrinus, has recently been converted into apartments. And the Jax Brewery on Decatur Street, opened in 1890, became a mall in 1984.

Surveying these relics makes it clear how large a part brewing once played in the city. Municipal records from the late 19th century show that about a dozen breweries were operating simultaneously, according to the Historic New Orleans Collection, a museum, research center and publisher based in the French Quarter.

One night during my visit I made my way to Cochon, the culinary hot spot in the Warehouse District. Opened in 2006, the restaurant offers a full slate of local beers and serves a blend of Southern and Cajun fare, with standout dishes like the namesake Louisiana cochon, a seared patty of shredded pork served with turnips, cabbage and fried pork cracklins ($22). I went with an Abita Restoration Pale Ale — a brew created after Katrina that Abita used to raise about $550,000 for the rebuilding effort — and drifted off into pork-induced bliss.

Abita is known as the Southeast’s oldest and largest craft brewery. A few miles east of Heiner Brau near tiny Abita Springs, it was started in 1986 by a couple of local home-brewers and now ships to nearly 40 states.

Abita’s large building rises abruptly out of the piney woods, its recently added tasting room sporting a wrought-iron-laced facade. Inside, a long line of college students and older beer geeks snaked up to a row of 14 taps loaded with everything from the widely available Turbodog dark ale and Purple Haze raspberry brew to the new Satsuma Harvest Wit, a blond ale made with a type of mandarin orange grown in Louisiana that had a nice bitter bite.

Visitors get time to pour themselves samples, and after a video presentation comes a walk through the brewery, led that day by Keith Cieslinski, who, in sneakers, track pants and tie-dyed Abita shirt, looked more like a gym teacher than a docent.

“Stay alert, stay alive,” Mr. Cieslinski said as we entered the cellar area, a shiny steel forest full of nearly three-story-tall tanks.

The tour was shorter than usual that day because of a late-night accident earlier in the week. A tank that was being cleaned had become overpressurized and ruptured, tearing a hole in the building. There were no injuries, but the incident had the tasting room talking.

After the tour we followed the crowd a few minutes down the road to the lively Abita Brew Pub, the original home of the brewery, where a few cats were lounging out front under a tree swaddled in Spanish moss. I had the tasty barbecue crab claws ($8.50), in a sauce made with Abita’s Amber lager, and washed them down with a bit more of the satsuma brew.

Abita may be the consensus local beer of choice, but a new brand that recently hit town is seeking to challenge that mantle. NOLA Brewing Company — New Orleans lager and ale rather than the usual New Orleans, La. — stands out from the other regional brewers because it is now the only one, aside from a few unremarkable brew pubs like the French Quarter’s touristy Crescent City Brewhouse, actually within the New Orleans city limits.

Occupying a warehouse on Tchoupitoulas Street in the Irish Channel neighborhood, NOLA was started by Kirk Coco, a native New Orleanian who returned to the city in late 2006 after 11 years in the Navy, and Peter Caddoo, a fixture of the local home-brewing scene and a former brewer at Dixie.

I arrived around noon one day to find Mr. Coco, in a bright white sweater and slacks, and Dylan Lintern, a new NOLA employee, inside the dusty, hangarlike space. Bags of malt were stacked high, and clusters of steel tanks and other equipment sat idle. They had just finished meeting with a “political consultant,” Mr. Coco said, trying to speed the process of having the city connect their water line, a hurdle they cleared soon after.

“I can guarantee you we would have been brewing beer three months ago if we were on the north shore,” Mr. Coco said. “Or if we were in Kenner,” a nearby suburb, “which is where I was told we should open up when I went to get my permit.

“I stuck with New Orleans because I came back here to rebuild this city.”

Mr. Coco was based in Seattle during Katrina and afterward vowed to his wife that they would move to New Orleans when he finished his enlistment. He wanted to start a business in the city, and finally settled on a brewery.

“Unfortunately,” he said, laughing, “I can’t really brew beer.”

A home-brewer friend put him in touch with Mr. Caddoo, and before long NOLA was on its way.

They are starting with just two ales, a blond and a brown, available only in area bars. Plans are to move on eventually to some of Mr. Caddoo’s many other recipes, like an India Pale Ale made with sweet potatoes. Saturday tours are expected to start in May.

“I certainly hope in the next 10 years,” Mr. Coco said, “that I’m doing an interview one day and I can talk about the six or seven microbrews in the city.

“We should be the capital of Southern brewing again.”

IF YOU GO

You’ll need a car — and a designated driver — for a tour of breweries in and around New Orleans, because the north shore area is roughly 40 miles from the city center.

BREWERIES

Heiner Brau, 226 East Lockwood Street, Covington; (888) 910-2337; www.heinerbrau.com. Tours on Saturday only, at 10, 10:45 and 11:30 a.m.

Abita Brewing Company, 166 Barbee Road, Covington; (800) 737-2311; www.abita.com. Tours Wednesday though Friday at 2 p.m.; Saturday at 11 a.m., noon and 1 p.m.

NOLA Brewing Company, 3001 Tchoupitoulas Street, New Orleans; (504) 896-9996; www.nolabrewing.com. A list of bars and restaurants that currently serve NOLA brews, like the Bulldog at 3236 Magazine Street, is available online.

FOOD

Cochon, 930 Tchoupitoulas Street, New Orleans; (504) 588-2123; www.cochonrestaurant.com.

Abita Brew Pub, 72011 Holly Street, Abita Springs; (985) 892-5837; www.abita.com.

LODGING

Maison Perrier (4117 Perrier Street, New Orleans; 888-610-1807; www.maisonperrier.com) is a popular Uptown B & B in two Victorian mansions that were built in the late 19th century by Lawrence Fabacher, who was head of the Jax Brewery. It has 14 rooms that range from $89 a night in summer to $340 a night during Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest.