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New Orleans is the birthplace of some of the tastiest cocktails to ever touch a glass. But despite the fact that there are fewer breweries in the entire state of Louisiana (30!) than there are in some Portland neighborhoods (Maine or Oregon!), NOLA has a serious, fast-growing beer scene that’s incredibly different from any other in the country. I spoke to Eli Gay -- a New Orleans native and owner of the city’s Freret Beer Room -- and Kirk Coco -- founder and CEO of NOLA Brewing -- about why this is so.
The weather seriously influences the beer that people drink
I live in Colorado, which is pretty much famous for beer. And skiing. And a controversial plant. Damn, Colorado is famous for a lot! But while Colorado gets slammed with quite a bit of snow, the local breweries don’t produce more boozy, wintertime-y beers such as barleywines or stouts than anywhere else. New Orleans, however, seems to prefer certain styles thanks to the city’s heat and humidity. “It’s not a double IPA, imperial barrel-aged stout beer drinker’s paradise,” Gay explains. “We have some of that...but as a practical aspect of drinking beer in [this] area, the beers need to be sessionable.”
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...And so does the local cuisine!
“The beers here are more sessionable and driven by the food we eat,” says Gay. Which makes sense if you think about the Creole cuisine that New Orleans is known for, including rich and spicy dishes such as crawfish étouffée, jambalaya, and gumbo.
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Take the ESB, for instance. The English-style pale ale doesn’t exactly have hazy-IPA-levels of trendiness right now, but it’s got quite a few fans in the region. “It’s an obscure style [elsewhere] these days,” Gay says, “but the ESBs that [New Orleans breweries] are producing are some of their best-selling beers.” He likes Wayward Owl Brewing Co.’s The Tawny Twit.
Meanwhile, NOLA Brewing’s Coco ties weather and cuisine together. “A brown ale in summer in New Orleans is not appealing...or in spring or fall,” he explains. Which is why NOLA’s Brown Ale is a super light, 3.9% ABV English mild. “It tastes like an iced coffee that appears on the back of your mouth,” Coco claims. The other reason why it’s one of their more popular, year-round beers? The city loves its coffee.
The “kegged on” date is important to beer lovers
I’ve drunk beers in numerous different cities, but I’ve never seen a “kegged on” date for a beer on a bar’s taplist -- and I'm not alone. The night before I left for New Orleans, I was hanging out with Seattle-based Elysian head brewer Josh Waldman, a well-traveled beer lover who only has great things to say about the city and its beer scene. He said that he hadn’t seen dates listed on other cities' taplists either, but he knows that NOLA residents take their fresh beer seriously. Sure enough, on a trip to The Avenue Pub, I found “kegged on” dates abound for anything local or in a nearby state, and almost all of the dates were within the previous few weeks.
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Local ingredients take center stage
We’ve written before about how much the South loves to incorporate local ingredients in their beer, brewing with everything from Southern peaches to sweet potatoes. But if you think those are rare adjuncts, wait until you get to New Orleans. “We’ll add a lot of odd fruits and veggies in our beer,” Coco says. “We did a beet beer that was very popular [Drop Tha Beet, made with beet juice and ginger]. People loved it. We also made a beer from a fruit here called mirliton, a veggie/fruit hybrid. People love to drink those local ingredients if you can make a solid taste profile.”
I experienced those local ingredients myself on a trip to Courtyard Brewery. On the incredibly hot and humid day that I visited, they were pouring The Sweetness of the Fields, a delicious, refreshing, 5.2% ABV honey ale made with the sweet stuff from a local honey farm that also makes soap and lip balm. And as a man who was sweating so much that I looked like I’d been caught in a serious rainstorm, I can tell you that that honey ale was damned refreshing. Works out well, too, because Louisiana’s official state insect is the honeybee; it even has a Beekeepers Association!
So if you find yourself in New Orleans in the near future, seek out and crack open a mirliton beer, honey ale, or ESB from one of about 30 breweries in the state, and savor it. You’ll likely be drinking one hell of a unique brew.
Note: Elysian Brewing is a member of The High End, owned by Anheuser-Busch.