Until recently, drinking beer in New Orleans meant Big Ass Beers and Dixie. Now, the number of breweries in the state has risen from one to seven with several more poised to open, and nuanced beer lists are popping up on restaurant menus all over town. With more and more well regarded breweries like New Belgium, Green Flash, and Southern Tier entering the Louisiana craft beer market along with beer brewed in state, local bars are stepping up to create spaces where craft beer dominates.
The Uptown Bulldog location opened in 1994 and added their signature draft system within the fi rst few years of operation. Joey Knesel, general manager for the Uptown location, says that even at that point, they worked to offer everything that was available in the market. The problem was there wasn't that much available then. It wasn't until Stone Brewing and Magic Hat came to the market in 2007 that Knesel realized the potential of a higher level and greater variety of beer at the Bulldog. "The term 'craft beer' had no meaning until then," he says.
The Bulldog has fi ve locations - Uptown, Mid City, Baton Rouge, Jackson, Mississippi, and Lager's in Metairie. Each location is managed separately to keep the feel of each bar unique and refl ect the personality of each community. The organization has increased its commitment to craft beer in recent years, though, switching to an interactive beer menu that can be accessed through smartphones, ensuring that draft lines stay clean, and instituting a staff education series on the beer world's premier model, cicerone.org, an organization that evaluates beer knowledge and provides various levels of certifi cation. The Bulldog also founded and co-organizes one of the largest beer festivals in the state, New Orleans On Tap, now in its fourth year and which benefi ts the Louisiana SPCA.
The Avenue Pub, a 24-hour Garden District bar has been dedicated to craft beer since 2008 and has quickly become one of the region's (and country's) most prominent beer bars. Now carrying 50 taps of the best beer from the state, the country, and the world, Pub owner Polly Watts remembers how it all started. "We got into the European beers early on because there weren't many US options for us," Watts says. "In hindsight it was the best thing that could have happened because as it turns out, the New Orleans palate was much more accepting of a European profi le beer than the big and hopped to the max US beers. The result was that folks in New Orleans who were primarily wine drinkers accepted high end beer as a luxury wine alternative much more quickly than many neophyte markets."
The Avenue Pub has been named one of Draft Magazine's 100 best beer bars for three years running now, and was voted as one of the top three Southern beer bars last year by craftbeer.com readers. The bar staff encouraged to obtain certifi cation as Cicerone Beer Servers, the customers are given extensive background on beer selections and tasting notes, and even the local beer distributors had to learn to be more craft beer focused because of Watts' business practices and ordering habits. All beer is served in style-appropriate glassware, slightly larger than the serving size to accommodate the beer's foamy head.
Watts has provided valuable and well run events and classes to customers as well; the pub's themed nights during American Craft Beer Week are creative and wide ranging, culminating in the week's signature event, the ACBW Grand Tasting. The Avenue Pub is also one of only 46 bars in the world that has been selected by the well regarded Belgian brewery, Cantillon, to release its highly anticipated and sought-after annual Zwanze beer, for the past three years. The upstairs bar, open every night at 5 o'clock, is non-smoking and features a cask conditioned ale every Friday. Almost every beer on draft is available in 4 oz. pours so people can create their own beer fl ights. In an indication of how far the craft beer selection in the region has improved, Watts is now able to select the freshest hoppy beers by demanding transparency in when the beers were brewed and kegged.
There are two new beer bar contenders, each with their own focus. The Aline Street Beer Garden opened during Mardi Gras 2013 and offers an authentic German beer garden experience. With 60-75 different German beers available both in the bottle and on tap, owner Jason Comboy hopes to bring the German beer drinking culture back to New Orleans. Traditional biergarten tables grace the sidewalk outside the bar, right on the corner of Prytania and Aline Streets. Inside, German beer memorabilia and traditional beer glasses add to the mood. Even in the summer heat, Comboy says, "People have been very willing and welcoming about sitting outside" due to strategically placed outdoor fans and the pleasure of outdoor and convivial drinking.
Recently, Aline Street Beer Garden partnered with local restaurant Dat Dog to set up a "permanent pop-up counter" near the entrance which serves traditional sausages. Comboy asks, "What could be better than fi ne imported German brew and brats?" Comboy envisions the bar to be a cask beer destination as well, working with local breweries such as Covington Brewhouse to bring traditional cask conditioned ale to his customers.
In the French Quarter on Decatur Street, Evangeline owners Ed Bowden and Jennifer Evangeline are passionately committed to providing tourists and locals alike with Gulf Coast craft beer. Their rotating selection of eleven local beers on tap is carefully curated to ensure a diverse offering of styles. Bowdon says that the variety "allows something for everyone, no matter their mood." He adds, "We try not to overlap styles too much when we make changes, and we constantly taste test new and ongoing offerings to ensure that we offer the best of each style available locally. Local is important, but good tasting is just as important."
Evangeline has sponsored events such as pub crawls and local beer club meetings, and offers locally sourced and inspired food to go along with their beer. The long dark wood bar and brick interior offer an escape from the busy French Quarter, and their beautifully appointed courtyard in the back is a true oasis.
The Quarter's Crescent City Brewhouse, the only independently owned brewpub in New Orleans, has been brewing and serving its own beers since 1991. Many of its beer styles are German in origin; founder and brewmaster Wolfram Koehler based his recipes on the centuries-old Bavarian Purity Law of 1516 which only allowed four ingredients in beer: water, malt, hops, and yeast. One can sometimes fi nd other styles of beer such as a smoked lager and an English-style brown ale.
The other brewpub in New Orleans is Gordon Biersch, part of a national chain. However, all beer is made on the premises by head brewer Tom Conklin.
Also anchored in the German brewing tradition, Conklin takes great pride in the quality and freshness of the beer he serves his customers.
New Orleans' only commercial brewery, NoLA Brewing, opened its tap room this fall to offer all their beer for sale, as well as experimental brews not found anywhere else. NOLA beer fans can have pint or two in the tap room, or take a growler or a 4- or 6-pack of their canned beer home. Set up as the perfect place to watch the Saints, there will be visiting food trucks and occasional live music to enjoy with their fresh beer right at the source.
With the craft beer movement continuing to expand, it's inevitable that more beer bars will join these New Orleans pioneers. Not only are local tastes evolving, but more visitors are looking to experience great beer on vacation. And everyone wins.