State launches craft brewery trail

Beer and boudin proves a popular combination, says Ben Berthelot, who as head of the Lafayette tourism commission is charged with entertaining an increasing number of visiting food and travel writers to Acadiana.

New Orleans is the draw, what people come to Louisiana to see, Berthelot says, like what the Eiffel Tower or Louvre are for France. But food and travel shows are expanding their search for the colorful.

“We needed something unique. So we started driving them to some spots on the boudin trail and stopped by one of our breweries,” said Berthelot, president of the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission said. “It seemed a natural fit. And they like it.”

Busloads of tourists from Europe show up unannounced at local breweries. They arrive at places such as Bayou Teche Brewing in Arnaudville and Abita Brewing Co. in Abita Springs, looking to be shown around, maybe get a free sample, says Berthelot, echoing the experiences of brewers and travel professionals in south Louisiana.

Yes, there is a “boudin trail” that highlights on a map the locations of Cajun pork and sausage stores. And during a Monday afternoon event at Baton Rouge’s Tin Roof Brewing Co., Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne plans to unveil the “Louisiana Brewery Trail” that will organize what tourists and industry professionals have been doing on their own.

The trail, found on the internet at http://breweries.louisianatravel.com/, provides directions to and background information about each of the state’s seven craft breweries, which are located near Interstates 10 and 12 in the New Orleans, North Shore, Baton Rouge and Lafayette areas.

Weeklong celebration

The trail kicks off “Louisiana Craft Brewer Week,” ordered by the Louisiana Legislature to begin Monday and to run through Sunday. The state’s seven brewers of craft beer are holding a number of events to celebrate the week.

“The breweries in Louisiana have grown from one in 2006 (Abita Brewing) to seven today,” said state Rep. James K. Armes III, D-Leesville and sponsor of the resolution creating craft brewer week. A couple more breweries are scheduled to open before the end of the year and a couple more are on track to start business in 2014.

“The state of Utah recognizes Kool-Aid and they eat hot dogs,” Armes said. “Because of Louisiana’s culture, I think it’s only fair that we support our Louisiana-owned breweries.”

Craft Brewer Week hopes to educate local consumers on beer produced locally in small batches. The Brewery Trail hopes to create something fun to do and thereby attract out-of-state and international tourists.

“It’s been done in other places, very successfully,” said Charles Caldwell, a founder of Tin Roof Brewing Co. California’s Napa Valley has developed into a tourism destination for visiting wineries. Asheville, N.C. has done something similar for “craft brewers.”

“We have a lot of people very passionate about beer,” Caldwell said, adding that most of the people involved in craft brewing that he knows started out with a home brewing kit. “That’s what it takes, passion, really wanting to craft your own product. That’s the culture,” he said.

Craft’s place in beer industry

There are a lot strict definitions. The Brewers Association requires, among other things, that a regional “craft brewer” annually make less than 6 million barrels or roughly 144 million 12-ounce bottles of beer; must use traditional ingredients, meaning no rice or corn; and restrict outside ownership to less than 25 percent, meaning no “big boy” beer makers.

Research and Markets, a trade publication for the investors, reported Friday that financial analysts are recommending craft beer because “market growth is changing consumer taste and preference for craft beer.”

Ninety-seven regional craft breweries, plus microbreweries and Brewpubs, account for about 6 percent of the 4.8 trillion bottles of beer made in the U.S. in 2012, according to the Brewers Association.

These craft breweries are a fairly small part of the beer industry that is dominated by “the big boys” — makers of Bud and Miller, etc. — and “the import guys” — makers of Heineken and Stella Artois, etc. Overall, the $99 billion beer industry had a fairly flat growth of less than 1 percent in 2012. But the craft beer segment grew 15 percent by volume in 2012 and 17 percent by retail dollars, according to the Brewers Association.

Louisiana comes in 50 on Brewers Association “per capita” rankings, which calculates the number of craft breweries by population.

“That means there’s a lot of potential for growth in Louisiana,” said Kirk Coco, founder of NOLA Brewing Co., in New Orleans. Louisiana ranks 11 in the nation for per capita beer consumption, he said statistics show.

History of La. brewing

Louisiana has a long brewing history, he recalled. At one time, before World War I and Prohibition, New Orleans brewed more beer than any other city in the South.

In 1933, when alcoholic beverages were legalized again, only a handful reopened. In New Orleans, like most of the country, local brewers produced a light American lagers. These brewers dominated particular regions.

The advent of interstate highways, refrigerated trucks, mass advertizing and business graduate schools allowed some of those regional beer makers in the 1960s and 1970s to go national and dominate local markets. A lot of regional brewers were driven out of business.

Since then, one brewery is now a French Quarter hotel, another is a mall specializing in tourist chotschkies and another brewery site is dodging demolition.

Coco says his Dad, like many fathers in the 1960s and 1970s, bemoaned the loss of manufacturing concerns.

“ ‘New Orleans isn’t making anything anymore.’ That’s what he said all the time. And I guess it kind of stuck with me,” he recalled.

Returning home from the U.S. Navy with a business plan to make preserves in New Orleans only to discover that Dixie Beer, the surviving local beer manufacturer, after Hurricane Katrina was being made in Wisconsin.

“It bothered me that nobody was making good beer here anymore and that changed my whole plan,” Coco said.

Cultivating native flavors

Handcrafted beers offer a wider range of tastes than the standard American lager that so many people drink, he said.

“We make different varieties and they all have their individual tastes: more hops, more sours, bitters, different feels on the tongue and in your mouth, funky tastes that will scare the hell out of someone used to mild American-style lagers all their lives,” Coco said.

So, education is essential to expanding the market. “You have to ease them in,” he said.

Jay Ducote, the “Bite & Booze” blogger the state paid to write the guides for the Brewery Tour, says humidity and temperatures in south Louisiana don’t favor the growing of grapes. Winemaking never really caught hold here; but beer making did.

Historically, the quintessential dishes that make up Louisiana’s traditional food culture were developed by people drinking and serving beer, he said.

“So many flavor profiles out there pair very well with beer,” Ducote said with a poboy in one hand and craft beer in another.

“These brewmasters are local and they’re making beers that taste good with the foods they eat, crawfish and oysters and cochon du lait.

“That’s the difference between Louisiana craft beer, and the very good craft beer from Oregon or Boston for somewhere,” Ducote said.

“Tourists already are coming to Louisiana to experience our culture through our food. … The more Louisiana can promote our handcrafted, local beers as part of our food culture to a national and international audience, the more tourists we’ll draw.”