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Beercation: Finding Great Beer in New Orleans

New Orleans will always be a party town, but until recently, the party has ignored most beer beyond pale lagers. Today, as people turn toward more flavorful alternatives throughout the rest of the country, New Orleans is taking its sweet time to catch up.

Nora McGunnigle 5 months ago

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The Avenue Pub. Photo by Haydn Strauss

The current renaissance may be a far cry from the paucity of local beer culture in the twentieth century, but prior to Prohibition, the city’s access to shipping channels and a burgeoning German population combined with New Orleans’s general joie de vivre to create what was known as the “Brewing Capital of the South.”

It speaks to the city’s reverence for history that the return of 110-year-old Dixie Brewing has created a wave of excitement. New Orleans’s iconic beer had been contract brewed in Wisconsin since 2005, until the production moved to Memphis earlier this year. In July, Tom Benson, owner of the New Orleans Saints football team and the New Orleans Pelicans basketball team, announced that he had purchased a majority stake in the formerly local brewery with the intention of bringing production back to New Orleans.

The Lay of the Land

New Orleans has gone from slim pickings to local beer options spread throughout the city’s many neighborhoods. Over the past two years, the number of breweries and brewpubs in the city has gone from four to eleven (twelve, if you count the city’s first cidery), with several more planned.

New Orleans’s historic and current status as a port city and regional transportation hub provides a glut of abandoned warehouses throughout the city, perfect for the brewing industry’s picking. A critical mass of the city’s breweries enjoy immediate proximity to the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. Breweries here have set up in locations next to train tracks and industrial byways. A few in the downtown area are more retail than light industrial, but they’re the exception rather than the rule.

The Tchoupitoulas Brewery Corridor

The mighty Mississippi is the heart of New Orleans’s–and the South’s–commercial trade and transportation. The street alongside (moving uptown from Canal Street) is Tchoupitoulas Street, pronounced Chop-it-TOOL-us. Here, or close by, you’ll find Courtyard Brewery, Urban South Brewery, NOLA Brewing, and Port Orleans Brewing Co.

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Going up the river, Courtyard Brewery is the first place you’ll hit. It’s on Erato Street, a few blocks up from Tchoupitoulas. Located around the corner from a coffee shop, a whiskey bar, and the edge of the Warehouse District, this tiny nano-brewery is not much to look at but serves a variety of interesting styles–classics such as Mexican lager and an ESB rub shoulders on the menu board with experimental sours, imperial stouts, and IPAs. Also on the menu: guest taps. It’s usually about a half-and-half mix between Brewer Scott Wood’s creations and beers from other breweries that he loves. Courtyard also hosts food trucks and pop-ups most nights, bringing some of the city’s most diverse flavors into the mix.

Urban South is the next stop, on Tchoupitoulas at Market Street. This large warehouse space isn’t air-conditioned, but it is family- and dog-friendly and has a good variety of beer. Their flagships are Charming Wit, Holy Roller IPA, and a funky farmhouse style called Coop’d Up, but they release lots of seasonals and one-offs, such as their Cucumber-Lime Gose, Second Set Pils, and Quatrefoil hibiscus sour IPA.

NOLA Brewing’s gorgeous taproom is next. NOLA once stood alone as New Orleans’s only production brewery, from 2009 until 2015. As the name implies, the brewery seeks to honor the city it loves with the beer it makes. The names of two of its earliest seasonals (which turned into year-round offerings) reflect its location: Irish Channel Stout refers to the Uptown neighborhood where NOLA Brewing lives, and Seventh Street Wheat pays homage to its view of the Seventh Street Wharf that serves the shipping industry of the Mississippi River.

In 2015, NOLA began brewing and distributing its Funk Series of sour beer. All the beers in the regular lineup are named after significant streets in New Orleans: Upperline, Desire, Arabella, and Piety.

One mile farther up the river is newcomer Port Orleans Brewing Co., just down the block from legendary music venue Tipitina’s. The brewery also houses a permanent kitchen called The Stokehold, which serves a menu created to pair with the beers on tap. Port Orleans’s brewmaster is industry vet and session beer lover Brian Allen.

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Port Orleans’s philosophy is, if you’re gonna have one beer, you might as well make it three—and they create their lower-ABV recipes accordingly. In addition to the brewery’s flagship lager, IPA, and brown ale, the taproom has found success with traditional German styles, such as the zwickelbier, as well as more experimental brews such as Royal Tea Pale Ale made with Earl Grey tea.

If you go all the way to where the Mississippi takes a northward turn, you’re in the Riverbend neighborhood, and there are two beer bars worth checking out. They’re accessible via the St. Charles Avenue streetcar, which is a nice way to roll uptown if you’re not in a hurry to get anywhere.

Back in the day, Cooter Brown’s Tavern is where you’d go to get unusual offerings such as Newcastle Brown Ale or Estonian lager. Before craft brewing took over the United States, beer lovers would seek out imports, and Cooter Brown’s had them all—along with amazing po’boys and oysters on the half shell.

Recently, Cooter Brown’s added taps to their back bar, making that area attractive to the beer-savvy, and hired great people to pour a well-chosen selection of beer. It’s still a neighborhood hangout where the game’s always on, and their oysters are still on point—it just has a much expanded and well-loved beer program as well.

On Oak Street, Ale has served up tasty beer in a cozy, modern pub setting since 2014. Brewing beer on-site (in partnership with brewery-in-progress Pidgin Town Brewing) is expected to start by early 2018.

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Other Uptown beer haunts include Stein’s Deli, with an off-premise-only bottled beer selection to make a grown geek weep, and a newly opened beer-focused restaurant, The Freret Beer Room, on Freret Street.

Finally there’s The Avenue Pub. What can you say about the award-winning, ass-kicking dive-y beer bar that’s open twenty-four hours with an amazing beer and whiskey selection besides “go there now?” Owner Polly Watts has parlayed her friendships with American, Belgian, and other European brewers into a sublime beer list to rival the best in the country.

On the Levees, Lake, and Rails

Turn around and cruise back down the Mississippi, past the French Quarter and the rail yards, to find more places to grab a beer.

Newcomer Parleaux Beer Lab has proximity to both the river and an active rail line that passes through the Bywater neighborhood several times a day. Parleaux Beer Lab is so close to the railway, you sometimes have to raise your voice to be heard while you enjoy your beer in their spacious beer garden. All offerings have been solid, but keep a special eye out for gose releases and their ESB (on nitro or not).

Junction is a beer-and-burger joint located right at the junction of the railroad that serves as the border between the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods.

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Over in Mid City, Second Line Brewing’s warehouse location is next to a defunct railroad spur right off the new Lafitte Greenway bike and walking path, which runs from Mid City to the French Quarter. They host movie nights, adult spelling bees, bingo, and live music in their beer garden for folks who come by for diverse offerings, from Batture Blonde Ale to Alryte Alryte Alryte, an imperial rye IPA.

On the opposite side of the city from the Mississippi River, near Lake Pontchartrain, is Royal Brewery, New Orleans East’s first neighborhood brewery. It’s a bit off the beaten path, but worth seeking out for a different environment, including regular live music, a mid-century modern-style bar from the set of The Astronaut Wives Club TV show, and Culicidae Ale, the house ale.

Revitalizing Neighborhoods

Other breweries and beer-related stores are looking to bring commerce back to neighborhoods that have seen it drift away over the past fifty years.

Wayward Owl Brewing Co. completed a full historic conversion of the Broadmoor neighborhood’s GEM Theater, a former staple of the primarily African American community. By turning the space into not only a brewery and taproom, but also a family-friendly space with games, food pop-ups, and events, Cofounders Justin and Kristen Boswell hope to serve their neighbors while making great beer for every palate.

Just across the street is the city’s first cider house, Broad Street Cider and Ale. Jon Moore makes the cider in-house, using a variety of different yeasts, hops, and botanicals, but he and partner Diana Powell also have a number of taps to showcase the best beers they can find.

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In 2010, Brewstock took over an old corner store in Central City and became the city’s only homebrew shop, which it continues to be. In 2016, 504 Craft Beer Reserve opened its beer-only bottle shop in a developing retail and commercial area on Tulane Avenue near Carrollton Avenue in Mid City.

Downtown

The French Quarter and its surrounding downtown neighborhoods are easiest for visitors to access. Crescent City Brewhouse opened more than twenty-five years ago to bring German-style beer, New Orleans–style food, art, and music under one roof. It’s the oldest brewery by far since Dixie closed down in 2005.

Gordon Biersch, an international chain with a location in the Warehouse District, brews all its beer in-house. In recent years, GBB has given more leeway in terms of styles to its brewers. The current head brewer, Nick Anzalone, is brewing everything from Gordon Biersch’s German-style flagships to imperial stouts, IPAs, hazy hoppy beers, and a coffee lager brewed in collaboration with a local bar owner.

Brieux Carre opened this year just off the Marigny neighborhood’s Frenchmen Street, well-known for its multiple music clubs. Founder Robert Bostick opened the tiny space thinking that the majority of his business would come from people taking advantage of the city’s “go-cup” permissions—grabbing a beer to go and strolling around Frenchmen checking out the clubs. While that’s a big part of his business, he’s also got regulars as well as beer-loving visitors who want sit down to try several beers. The outdoor beer garden has already expanded, and Bostick has moved to the second floor, adding more seating as well as a kitchen.

Beer’s the Thing

Since the breweries are spread out throughout all of New Orleans, check out one of the three beer-bus tour companies that have sprouted up over the past year or so: Premium Tours & Transportation’s New Orleans Brewery Tour, NOLA Brew Bus, and New Orleans Brews Cruise.

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Nowhere else in the world can you get your drink on like you can in New Orleans. And the beer scene, while still small, is growing in all parts of the city and bringing the history and stories of New Orleans and its neighborhoods, in liquid form, to visitors and locals alike.

Correction: Due to a reporting error and earlier version of this story both online and in print incorrectly identified one of the formal drinking tours offered in New Orleans. It is the New Orleans Brews Cruise, not Booze Cruise.

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