Changes brewing

Abita Brewing Co. has started work on a $12 million expansion that will allow the state’s oldest craft brewery to make more beer and soft drinks, along with increasing the size of its visitors center.

David Blossman, Abita president, said the work will involve bringing in a 200-barrel brewhouse and adding 17,500 square feet of space to the brewery. This will allow Abita to increase its capacity from the current annual total of 200,000 barrels of beer to 360,000 barrels. One barrel is 31 gallons of beer.

“We’re hoping the weather goes right,” Blossman said. “If it does, we plan on doing our first brew in December.”

Last year, Abita made 151,000 barrels of beer. While the 27-year-old brewery is still operating under capacity, Blossman said the time is right for an expansion.

“In the future, we’re going to need this,” he said. “We would rather have the capacity before we need it. We’ve been in the position before when we needed capacity and we didn’t have it, and it’s not fun.”

Increasing the size of the brewery will allow Abita to experiment with things such as different hopping techniques, which could lead to new beer offerings.

It will also allow the brewery to make additional varieties of soft drinks. Abita currently manufactures 10,000 barrels of root beer a year. Blossman said the company would like to get a greater share of the lucrative soda market.

“We never geared up as a soda maker, but there’s a lot of flexibility in it,” he said.

Blossman wouldn’t discuss what beers and soft drinks the expansion could lead to.

Abita ranked last year as the 14th-largest craft brewer in America, according to the Brewers Association, a Boulder, Colo., organization that promotes small brewers. The Brewers Association defines craft brewers as “small, independent and traditional” — producing 6 million barrels or less of beer a year.

The largest U.S. craft brewer, the Boston Beer Co., best known for Samuel Adams beer, produced 2.1 million barrels of beer in 2012. In contrast, Anheuser-Busch, the largest brewery in the U.S. and parent company of such staple brands as Budweiser, Bud Light and Michelob Ultra, produces 125 million barrels of beer a year.

While U.S. beer sales increased by less than 1 percent by volume in 2012 to top 200 million barrels, craft brewers sold an estimated 13.2 million barrels of beer, a 15 percent jump from the nearly 11.5 million sold in 2011. Craft beer sales accounted for $10.2 billion, or more than 10 percent of all U.S. beer sales.

Bart Watson, a staff economist with the Brewers Association, said breweries such as Abita are growing to meet this increasing consumer demand for more full-flavored beers.

“There’s a revolution underfoot,” he said. “And in more occasions, the factors that are limiting growth for brewers is their capacity.”

Another part of Abita’s expansion will double the size of the visitors center. This will allow the brewery to offer more tours and host private events. “There will be big bay windows that look into the brewery so people will be able to give themselves self-guided tours,” Blossman said. “We have people who pop in from all over the place, and we only offer tours Wednesday through Saturday. So people will be able to check us out when they stop by.” The expanded visitors center should open in about a year, along with additional office space.

Watson said the Abita visitors expansion fits in with a national trend of promoting tourism at craft breweries by allowing the public to come in and take tours. Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. and New Belgium Brewing Co., the nation’s second- and third-largest craft breweries, respectively, recently launched expansions of their visitors centers.

Louisiana lags behind the nation in the number of craft breweries — the state has eight craft breweries and less than 1 brewery per 500,000 residents. In contrast, Vermont, which has about 4 million fewer residents than Louisiana, has 25 craft breweries or 20 per 500,000 residents.

Despite the small number of breweries, the state ranks 18th nationally for craft beer production at nearly 169,500 barrels, with Abita accounting for the bulk of the beverages.

Andrew Godley, owner of Parish Brewing Co. in Broussard and president of the Louisiana Craft Brewers Guild, said Abita is the “godfather” of the state’s craft beer industry. Godley said the Abita expansion will benefit Parish and the state’s other craft breweries.

“They’re bringing people into craft beer and letting them know why local beer is better,” Godley said. “That will create more customers for both of us.”

Godley said none of the state’s craft breweries are actually in competition with one another, since they’re all currently selling as much beer as they can produce.

Abita is now sold in 42 states and the District of Columbia. The beer has even gone overseas and now can be found in Italy, Honduras and Puerto Rico.

Blossman said the expansion isn’t about staying ahead of fast-growing local craft brewers like Parish and NOLA Brewing, but about taking on the Budweisers and Coronas of the world.

“We’re the oldest and largest craft brewery in the Southeast and we blazed a trail for these guys,” he said. “We see the bigger issue here is gaining share from mainstream domestic beers and imports.”