When it comes to local beer in New Orleans, two brands that come to mind are Dixie and Abita. Neither is brewed in the city, with Dixie contract-brewed out of Wisconsin and Abita brewed on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. But there is one beer in New Orleans that is made in the city: NOLA.
The New Orleans Lager and Ale Company, or NOLA Brewing Company, was started by Kirk Coco and Peter Caddoo in 2008. After leaving his job as a U.S. Navy officer, Coco came back home to New Orleans and saw an opportunity to help his hometown by filling the void left when the Dixie brewery was uprooted by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
NOLA Brewing Co. started off with four people and now has 11 employees, including brewmaster Caddoo, who worked for Dixie Brewing Company before Katrina. Coco bought a small 10,000 square foot warehouse in the heart of the Irish Channel at 3001 Tchoupitoulas Street (pronounced 'chop-it-too-las').
The first beer they started brewing was Blonde Ale in 2009. Then came Brown Ale, Hopitoulas IPA and 7th Street Wheat (brewed with fresh lemon basil). They have three seasonals: Flambeau Red Ale, Irish Channel Stout and Hurricane Saison (a pun on 'hurricane season').
NOLA started off with a brewing capacity of roughly 2400 barrels. Now they are pushing 7,000, doubling their capacity from 2011. Compare that to Abita Brewing Company which put out over 130,000 barrels in 2011.
The mash is boiled for 8 hours before being transferred to a 20-barrel fermenting system that works for five or six days, transferring the brew from the cone fermenters to the flat beer tanks. When it's ready for packaging, it goes to kegs or cans, then is immediately cooled. The leftover mash, or the spit grain, is sent to a local farmer who feeds it to its cows.
They first started off with kegging and distributing their beers to area bars and restaurants. In May 2011 they began to implement a canning line and released their first line of canned brew, NOLA Blonde Ale, later that year in October. Canned NOLA Brown Ale soon followed last January.
They chose to go with cans for a number of reasons: you can walk around the streets with cans, especially during Mardi Gras; better protection from light oxidation; better taste and they are more environmentally friendly.
"We think it tastes great out of a can," says Buck Brown, head of marketing and sales. "It costs less to ship and during Mardi Gras we want everyone to walk around with a can. If you have glass you get a ticket. All in all, cans are the way to go."
Instead of the plastic rings that hold six packs of cans together, NOLA favors injection molded can carriers, or 'pack tech', which are environmentally friendly.
The Blonde and Brown ales are their only two canned brews. They are working on canning pints of Hopitoulas. Even though the company currently has lager in its title, it does not actually brew lagers. Brown hinted that a plan to acquire a separate warehouse to brew them.
NOLA recently acquired the warehouse next to theirs, effectively doubling their space to 20,000 square feet. The extra space will be used for storage.
Every Friday at 2 p.m. they have free brewery tours. Yes, free, which
also includes free beer from their taproom. They are not legally allowed
to sell their beer directly from the brewery. Have as much as you want.
"If I were you I'd double fist it," says Markus Thomas, the packaging
manager. Wise advice from the kegmaster.
Craft beer only holds 5 percent of the market, yet craft beer is winning over mass-produced beers. American Craft Beer Week is meant to signify this point. New Orleans is a two-hour plane ride away, or 12 hours by car. Not far for a Miami craft beer enthusiast looking to make a brewery tour vacation.
NOLA Brewing Company is small, but they are a homegrown, grassroots operation. If Miami could take any example from them, it is that big things start with small beginnings.
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It's not so much about beer competing with beer, but keeping beer first. A wave of craft beer is flowing from the north into Miami, and local homebrewers are rising to the occasion. "High seas float all ships," Buck says.