Louisiana Born and Brewed

By Greg Kitsock
Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Two years after Hurricane Katrina, the century-old Dixie Brewing Co. in New Orleans remains shuttered, a victim of the flooding and of looters who carted off any equipment they could sell for scrap metal. Owners Joe and Kendra Bruno have announced their intention to rebuild, but no reopening date has been set.

Thirty miles away in Abita Springs, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, the 21-year-old Abita Brewing Co. survived the fury with scarcely any structural damage, says brewmaster Mark Wilson. The brewery did go without power for a week. Fermentation temperatures spiked, and Abita had to scuttle about 1,000 barrels of spoiled beer. But total damages amounted to less than $25,000, and the brewery managed to keep its entire staff on the payroll.

In gratitude, Wilson's brew crew in October 2005 released Fleur-de-Lis Restoration Ale, an American-style pale ale with English-style restraint. It has a brisk, spicy character from the use of American Cascade hops but is neither harsh nor unbalanced. Wilson adds most of the hops late in the boil or during fermentation to emphasize the floral aroma rather than the bittering qualities.

Abita has been donating $1 from the sale of each six-pack to the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation, a nonprofit group founded in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. When the fundraising effort ends, at the close of this month, the brewery will have raised more than $500,000 for charity. It will continue to make the Fleur-de-Lis brand.

Other Abita brands available locally include Abita Golden, Abita Amber and Purple Haze, the latter a wheat beer with fresh, pureed raspberries added post-filtration. Abita Turbodog is a curious hybrid: It has the ebony color and roasty flavor of a porter but the lighter body and drinkability of a brown ale.

Is Turbodog named after a brewery mascot? Wilson doesn't know. The brand dates from the brewery's early days. Wilson didn't arrive until 1995, straight from the ranks of home brewers; Abita has been his only professional gig.

Abita also produces a Harvest line of seasonal beers brewed with Louisiana-grown ingredients. Abita Pecan Harvest Ale, now on area shelves, is a nut-brown ale with actual nuts -- crushed, roasted pecans -- added to the mash tun. Wilson says the nuts add a dry aftertaste that tones down the sweet, lip-smacking flavors imparted by the ale's specialty malts.

Abita specializes in normal-strength beers averaging about 5 percent alcohol by volume. But as soon as the Pecan Harvest Ale peters out, the brewery will release Jockamo India Pale Ale, an attempt to woo fans of higher-alcohol, more aggressively flavored beers.

Even in the absence of hurricanes, the Southeast has never been fertile territory for the brewing industry. Before artificial refrigeration became widespread in the late 19th century, the weather was too warm to allow proper lagering. In the post-Prohibition era, "dry" sympathizers pushed through laws that hamstrung the brewing industry. Mississippi, for instance, was the next-to-last state to legalize brew pubs; it had no operating brewery of any kind until 1999. North Carolina and Georgia only recently amended laws that had capped the strength of beer at 6 percent alcohol by volume, making it impossible for brewers to experiment with more potent styles such as doppelbock or barleywine.

Abita has thrived, however. This year the brewery is on a pace to turn out close to 80,000 barrels, Wilson predicts, making it by far the Southeast's largest craft brewery. Abita continues to have a strong presence in New Orleans, where you can legally stroll down the street sipping from an open container, an act that would get you arrested and fined in our area.

Although Abita markets its beers in 34 states, Wilson says, the company relies on its home state for 75 to 80 percent of its sales: "Our slogan is, 'We're Louisiana true.' "

Greg Kitsock's column appears every other week. He can be reached atfood@washpost.com.

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