How New Orleans Got its Beer-Making Mojo Back

Dinner at Wayward Owl. | Photo by Denny Culbert.

On a mild winter evening in New Orleans, warm rain freckling the sidewalk, I found myself inside Urban South Brewery’s industrial taproom, knuckle-deep in a paper boat of boiled shrimp. I peeled away the shells and popped pink shrimp into my mouth, chased by sips of hazily tropical Holy Roller IPA, poured by the bartender who’d just cooked my crustaceans on a propane-burner kit. It was an indelible New Orleans scene, decadent and improbable all at once.

Sure, the seafood boil was a pleasant surprise, though not out of character for food-centric New Orleans. The bigger shock was imbibing a flavorful IPA inside a local brewery, until recently a Big Easy rarity. It’s no contest that New Orleans is America’s premier gustatory town, a hedonistic island awash in oysters, po’boys and Absinthe Frappés. The Crescent City celebrates flavor so deeply that it’s always been a head-scratcher why beer has been a bland commodity, a bulk buy on Bourbon Street where signs tout HUGE ASS BEERS, something cold to cut jambalaya’s peppery heat. “Historically, the brewing was German, so there wasn’t much expectation out of the beer except that it be wet and refreshing,” says Scott Wood, owner and head brewer of Courtyard Brewing. “It’s in the culture to drink shitty beer down here.”

Change can come slowly in New Orleans, where traditions are lushly draped in Spanish moss. But as the city celebrates its 300th anniversary, New Orleans’ brewing scene is finally sprouting. In the funky Bywater you’ll find family-friendly Parleaux Beer Lab, where you can drink rustic grisettes and sour IPAs amid citrus trees. Port Orleans Brewing, which counts New Orleans Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief as a founder, offers easy-drinking pilsners and IPAs alongside Vietnamese-inspired fish and chips. And an old theater became the roost for Wayward Owl, home to European-inspired beers and unbridled excitement. “There’s a thin line of electricity running through the air,” says Wayward Owl founder and brewer Justin Boswell. “Right now in New Orleans, it’s electrifying.”

Justin Boswell of Wayward Owl. | Photo by Denny Culbert.

Past to the Future

New Orleans was once Southern brewing’s central node, its brewery count peaking at 13 in 1874. But Prohibition, competition and consolidation steadily felled local lager producers such as Regal, Jax and Falstaff. By 2005 only Dixie was left, though the brewery, founded in 1907, was foundering. Dixie had laid off employees in the months leading up to Hurricane Katrina, whose floodwaters dealt the facility a final blow.

Dixie Lager production was outsourced to a Wisconsin brewery, a fact that ruffled Kirk Coco’s feathers. The New Orleans native had returned home post-Katrina (he served in the Navy for 11 years), intent on helping rebuild the city and its economy, perhaps by starting a preserves company. Instead, in 2007, Coco resolved to revive brewing, an exercise in masochism. “Nobody wanted to loan me money,” Coco says. “They were like, ‘We don’t need another craft brewery.’ ” Abita Brewing, located some 30 miles north of New Orleans, held a local stranglehold. “There were no other craft beers here really, even from other cities.”

Coco previously lived in brewery-rich Seattle and San Diego. “I was like, ‘You don’t understand. We’re going to have hundreds. It’s coming and I want to be on the edge of this,’ ” Coco says. Undaunted, he pushed forward with NOLA Brewing, lodged in an old warehouse on Tchoupitoulas Street, hugging the winding Mississippi River. NOLA opened in 2009, with Dixie vet Peter Caddoo turning out approachable beers such as the lightly sweet Blonde. Hopitoulas IPA proved a harder sell. “People would drink that and go, ‘Oh my God, what is this? What is that flavor in there? I don’t like that,’ ” Coco recalls. Local tastes rapidly adapted. “Four years later we put out our double IPA and thought it would fail miserably. We sold 40 barrels in a week.”

In most emerging beer markets, one brewery leads to two, then four, then scores more. “I was excited because it was so untapped,” says beer journalist Nora McGunnigle, who moved to town in May 2010. “I was excited about how the culture of the city would impact the beer growth.” Spoiler alert: Nothing happened. “It grew a lot slower than I thought it would,” she laments, noting that it took three years for another brewery to open.

In the interim, locals were exploring better beer at bars like Cooter Brown’s, the Bulldog and, most notably, Avenue Pub. After Katrina, Polly Watts returned to New Orleans to fix up her ailing father’s failing bar—the food was middling, the balcony was inches from collapse and the tap lines were as filthy as the bathrooms.

Polly Watts of Avenue Pub. | Photo by Rush Jagoe.

She addressed the infrastructure, installing a tap system kept whistle clean. She’d never been much of a beer drinker, but she proved a quick study and renovated the beer list too, curating what became the city’s best selection. Watts worked with distributors such as Shelton Brothers to fill her taps with European saisons and sour beers, great gateway beverages. “That succeeded because we’re such a big wine and cocktail city,” Watts says. “The fact that I was new to craft beer, I was a woman and grew up here gave me a different perspective on how the city would drink beer.”

The double-decker Avenue Pub, open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, fast became a meeting ground for burgeoning beer obsessives. “The Pub, in its early days, gave people who were interested in beer a place to gather,” Watts says. “If you look at the guys who now own their own breweries and brewpubs, a lot of them were customers here.”

Scott Wood was one such regular. The San Diego native worked in beer distribution, despite never having sipped the stuff. Then at 30, he road-tripped across America and, in New Orleans, he tried his first beer, Rogue’s Dead Guy Ale. Back in San Diego, Wood fast-tracked his beer education, and in 2011, he moved to New Orleans and began homebrewing. The outsider’s perspective suited him well. “You’d hear people talk about opening a brewery, but nobody was really doing anything,” Wood says. “I decided to open a brewery because nobody was opening breweries.”

He rented a former shrimp warehouse and built Courtyard on a whisper-thin $80,000 budget, rescuing construction materials from dumpsters and constructing the cooler out of two-by-fours and foam, a heavy-duty air conditioner supplying the chill. The build-out resulted in a funky mishmash, rough-edged, soulful and packed with personality, a brewery embodying New Orleans itself.

The city’s second modern brewery soft-opened in fall 2014, some four years after Wood tasted his first beer, outfitted with a tiny three-barrel brewing system. Courtyard’s unique license allowed Wood to sell his hazy, aroma-rocked IPAs alongside beers from stalwarts, such as Founders and Bell’s. The brewery was a round peg that fit snugly into a gaping hole. “There wasn’t a place in the city or the state that was focused on American craft, and I think we hit that niche,” Wood says.

Courtyard Brewing. | Photo by Denny Culbert.

I Fought the Law

Burdensome, outdated beer laws have particularly hamstrung the Gulf South, where Mississippi and Alabama didn’t legalize homebrewing until 2013. Louisiana’s issue was that taprooms—where breweries earn the highest profit margins—could only sell 10 percent of their monthly output on premise. “It didn’t do any good to a small startup,” says Urban South founder Jacob Landry. “The taproom is the difference-maker.”

Landry grew up in rural southwest Louisiana, then a career in public education took him to Seattle. During travels throughout the Pacific Northwest, he noticed how entrenched taprooms were in everyday life. “You go to a city like Portland, and the idea of a taproom as a destination or a place to drink is much more developed than it is [in Louisiana],” he says.

Louisiana drew him back, and in New Orleans he began planning a two-pronged attack: open Urban South Brewery and fix a fussy statute. “From the start of business planning I started working on changing the law,” Landry says. The first try failed, but in 2015 the Louisiana legislature tweaked the rule, letting breweries sell 10 percent of their monthly output or up to 250 barrels per month, whichever is greater. “That law change singlehandedly doubled the number of breweries in the state,” Landry says. (Currently, there are just over 30 statewide.) “That was a pretty pivotal turning point.”

A flight of beers at Wayward Owl. | Photo by Denny Culbert.

Urban South opened in the spring of 2016, offering beers with appeal both broad (pilsner, witbier, Oktoberfest) and local, including a Vietnamese coffee stout. The brewery sits on Tchoupitoulas, joining NOLA and Port Orleans to form a burgeoning brewery corridor. Additional newcomers include Mid-City’s Second Line Brewing, named after the city’s joyously jazzy parades, which opened in 2015 and has a kid-friendly beer garden and beers such as Saison Named Desire, brewed with blood oranges. Brieux Carré, which opened in the spring of 2017, serves coconut milk stouts near music-rich Frenchmen Street, its wood-walled patio a refuge from the nearby French Quarter.

Wayward Owl had a more wayward path to its late-2016 debut. Founder Justin Boswell grew up in Lafayette, Louisiana, before stints in Texas, North Dakota and Seattle, where he fell under beer’s spell. He became a brewer at Redmond, Washington’s Black Raven before flying back to his home state to found a brewery with wife Kristin. They homed in on Broadmoor’s landmark Gem, a once-popular African-American theater that shuttered in 1960. Its solid foundation and sturdy masonry construction meant it weathered the decades well.

Old laws were the bigger issue. “When I started, it was illegal to build a brewery in this building,” says Boswell, who spoke before the city council to encourage changing zoning ordinances. “Six months after we started drafting plans, it became legal for me to open a brewery.”

Wayward Owl restored the Gem marquee, the neon aglow at night, and theater-style seats inside the soaring, open brewery. Pop by and you can buy 20-ounce pints of Boswell’s clean Euro-leaning beers, such as Tawny Twit, an English bitter. Like a double bill at the theater, Wayward Owl is where you settle in for the long haul, surrounded by good friends and great beer.

Boswell is thrilled to be part of an ascendant scene, a chance to capture lightning in a (beer) bottle twice. “It’s cool because I get to live through the new part twice,” he says. “Seattle is where I got into beer. Now I get to come home and experience that in another way, from the ownership standpoint. We get people coming in who are just starting to get into this the way I did 10 years ago.”

Parleaux Beer Lab. | Photo by Denny Culbert.

There Goes the Neighborhood

At its core, New Orleans has always been a city of neighborhood bars where locals assemble to commiserate and celebrate another spin around the sun, bar tops crowded with longnecks. People matter more than the beer selection, or lack thereof.

Now, better beer is working its way into New Orleans. I bought NOLA Brewing’s Rebirth Pale Ale at ramshackle jazz spot Vaughan’s, while at Black Penny, a weathered dive that opened in 2015 on the French Quarter’s northern edge, a rough wooden wall showcases the bar’s raison d’être: nearly 100 canned craft beers, heavily weighted toward Louisiana breweries, such as Baton Rouge’s Tin Roof and Shreveport’s Great Raft. “You wouldn’t have seen craft beer in the French Quarter seven years ago,” says Urban South’s Landry.

The best example of the neighborhood brewery is the Bywater’s Parleaux Beer Lab. Eric and Leah Jensen moved to New Orleans in 2003, hailing from, respectively, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Golden, Colorado, a suburb of Denver—both huge brewing centers. Jensen worked in public education, but homebrewing had his heart, a hobby he picked up in college. “Growing up in a robust beer community, you just want to learn how to brew,” he says.

The couple found a quirky property by tracks where freight trains rumble past, the building a shotgun house stitched to a steel workshop, the backyard teeming with 13 kinds of citrus trees. The brewery, painted a saturated blue, seamlessly blends into the Bywater’s low-rise skyline. “We wanted to fit into the fabric of the neighborhood,” he says. “Historically, that’s where breweries used to fit into cities.”

Last spring, Parleaux opened with a moderate-sized 10-barrel brewhouse focused on experimentation and accommodation. Whenever the lights are on, customers can grab beers that dance from the New England–style Foggy Glasses IPA to a blood orange–conditioned gose seasoned with pink Himalayan sea salt, as well as farmhouse-inspired beers fermented with wild Brettanomyces yeast. “The concept behind it being a beer lab is that we always want to do different beers,” Jensen says.

New Orleans Beer

Parleaux Beer Lab owners Eric and Leah Jensen. | Photo by Denny Culbert.

Perhaps Parleaux’s most ambitious beer to date is a historical re-creation of New Orleans’ oldest indigenous beer. Local real estate entrepreneur Sean Cummings tapped historian Argyle Wolf-Knapp to determine that the city’s inaugural ale was a French-style bière de garde brewed with corn at the city’s first brewery, founded a few years after the city. “It’s intended to be a real taste of this place,” says Cummings. “We want it to be raw and gritty, like the founding of a port town.” (The beer is currently bottle conditioning and will be released this fall.)

In New Orleans, it can be argued, we’re witnessing a beer scene’s foundational moment. But nothing comes easy in the Big Easy. Though her sales are steady, the Avenue Pub’s Watts sees national beer brands struggling. “I put Stone IPA on, and it just sits,” she says. “Our craft beer is already cannibalizing other craft beer,” she says.

The other elephant in the scene is a revitalized Dixie. Last year, New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson bought the brand. Now, Dixie is everywhere in town, from stadiums to dives. It’s a local beer that currently lacks local roots. At the moment, the lager is contract-brewed in Memphis, a prickly fact that will only be smoothed over when Dixie returns operations to the city. That’s the plan, although there’s no official timeline set.

Nonetheless, there are ample reasons to be excited about New Orleans’ brewing future. It’s a drinking town that’s only now appearing on beer tourists’ radars. Restaurants such as Freret Beer Room and the Stokehold, housed inside Port Orleans, are focusing on food pairings. Moreover, Mardi Gras means that most breweries are cranking at full capacity in December and January, stockpiling beer for what’s traditionally producers’ slowest time of the year. “There’s probably no other part of the country where the first quarter is the biggest quarter of the year,” Urban South’s Landry says.

Additional breweries are also in the works, including the honey-focused Miel, while Courtyard is eyeing expansion. Growth will come slow and organically, a fitting pace for a region that’s never keen to be ahead of the curve. “When I was young, my dad told me something that’s always stuck in my head,” says NOLA Brewing’s Coco. “You want to figure out what you want to do in New Orleans? Just look at what they were doing in California 10 years ago.”


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