Monday, August 15, 2022

The Great Flavor Revolution: Louisiana’s Craft Beer Industry Meets the Occasion

Photo by Rusty Costanza
Zac Caramonta opens a fermentation tank while cleaning it at the Gnarly Barley Brewery in Hammond, Louisiana. Right, Caramonta and his wife, Cari Caramonta, stand in the Gnarly Barley brew house.
Photo by Rusty Costanza

When David Blossman made his investment into Abita Brewery, the local beer was called Dixie and microbreweries had not yet come into existence.

“Our original slogan was the ‘New Louisiana Lager.’ Dixie was around back then but they were just doing Dixie. We were different.” Now serving as the company’s president, Blossman remembers a time before craft beer. “We didn’t call it that back then. They were just better beers. I grew up in Covington and homebrewed as a young adult. I had a passion for beer.”

In 1986, Abita unveiled its first two brews: a golden and an amber. The first microbrewery in the South, its launch marked the humble beginnings of a steadily growing industry. In recent years a dozen smaller breweries have opened in southern Louisiana, leading to the creation of a state-sponsored brewery trail to connect beer lovers and brewers.

“It’s like when a great restaurant opens up and others open around it and they all benefit from one another. A rising tide floats all boats and I think it’s great. These new guys definitely have an easier road ahead of them. There’s a lot more market acceptance and understanding amongst retailers and distributors. In the ’80s Abita Amber was dark beer,” says Blossman.

Photo by Rusty Costanza
Photo by Rusty Costanza

The company’s location in Abita Springs, Louisiana, allows the brewery access to the southern hills aquifer beneath the town, providing water two million years old and naturally filtered by white sands. “Usually older water is harder and has a lot of minerals, which can be challenging in brewing. We get water that’s soft and has a great mouth feel. It’s a signature for our house brands. We choose not to alter it,” says Blossman. “The water is why we’re here.”

“People want to know their brands and the stories behind their brands,” he says. “Once they know the story they feel like they’re a part of it and like it’s a part of their culture. Here in Louisiana we take great pride in our culture and we incorporate it into our beers when we can. We’ve made beers with grapefruit, lemon, strawberry and pecan to add some Louisiana terroir.”

Kathy Tujague has been with Abita nearly 25 years and directs the visitor’s center. “I’ve always said it’s about educating the palate. Some like lighter beers and some like darker and stronger beers. It depends on what you enjoy,” she says. “When you’re a brewer it’s like being a chef with great Louisiana ingredients. The sky is really the limit.”

Photos by Rusty Costanza
LEFT TO RIGHT, CLOCKWISE: Fred Perrick fills a cup of beer before a tour of the Abita Brewery in Abita Springs, Louisiana. The brewery offers free tours several times a week, which include a free beer sample; the brew house in Chufunkta Brewery Company in Mandeville; People on tour of the Abita Brewery; Murals cover the walls of the mezzanine level of the new brew house at Abita Brewery; Barley goes into the mill at the Gnarly Barley.
Photos by Rusty Costanza

Abita’s free tours draw large crowds. Visitors wind around the bar where a long row of taps awaits. Some recent beer releases include the Mardi Gras Boch as well as the Wrought Iron IPA. “Oh, it’s good,” says Tujague . “There are three kinds of hops in the IPA. It has a strong distinctive flavor but a clean finish because of Abita Spring’s soft water.”

“We like to be different and go by the beat of our own drum,” says Blossman. “As a brewer the hardest thing to do is make the same beer over and over again with great consistency, quality and efficiency. But it’s also important. We look at new beer styles as a way to expand and exercise our artistic abilities. It’s easier to only have a couple of varieties, but we know craft beer drinkers want something new and different. You look at the fine cheeses that are available now … or coffee, tea, ice cream. This isn’t unique to beer. There’s a flavor revolution going on.”

Jamie Erickson, co-owner of Chafunkta brewing in Mandeville, agrees that craft beer “is about unique flavors and recipes. World of Beer in Metairie uses our porter for their cheese dip. Our beers are becoming part of the cuisine and culture. Remember Dixie and Falstaff? We are niche but it’s like we’re bringing that back but with more flavor. At that time, Dixie was a great beer. We had a gentleman say recently that our Kingfish Cream Ale reminded him of Falstaff, which he remembers drinking as a teenager. That was exciting for us to hear because we like to incorporate the history of Louisiana into our brand.

Chafunkta moved into their current space in 2012 and sold their first beer in 2013. The brewery’s name pays homage to an American Indian tribe with a settlement in Mandeville near the Tchefuncte river. “We knew when we expanded out of the state no one would be able to pronounce Tchefuncte,” Erickson says. “We also used phonetics for our Voo Ka Ray IPA. The first logo for that beer was a drawing of St. Louis Cemetery in New Orleans.”

“Our newest beer will be Bayou Blaze. It’s an Irish Red style named after Blaze Starr. She was a burlesque dancer having an affair with Huey P. Long’s brother during his campaign for governor. We’re hoping to release it in May, and continue to slowly grow and eventually expand into a larger space.”

“Right now we’re gypsy brewing at Lazy Magnolia in Kiln, Mississippi. Basically you brew your beer at another facility, but it’s your recipe and you are in control of the process. My husband Josh and I have very close relationship with Leslie Henderson and her husband Mark. They also started out as a husband and wife homebrewing team. On brew day Josh goes to Kiln and he goes again to test it before fermentation. These are his babies.”

The Ericksons also have close ties to several other breweries in the state, a phenomenon common in the industry. “It really is a huge family. Kirk Coco, the owner of Nola Brewery, will sit and talk shop. He home brewed at first like us, so we talked with him about what kind of grains we should order, and he was so helpful. We try to do the same for other breweries because we all have the same mission – getting great craft beer known in Louisiana.”

Photo by Rusty Costanza
Photo by Rusty Costanza

“When we sit down to eat at home we drink craft beer because it enhances our food. I would love to see even more breweries and choices. Last year my husband collaborated with Zac Caramonta at Gnarly Barley brewery last year a beer called Black Tooth Grin, a Black IPA, for Louisiana Craft Beer week. They’re on the phone with each other all the time. Sometimes they come to our Friday night tours and we will all hang out.”

Caramonta runs Gnarly Barley in Hammond along with wife, Cari. Caramonta and Josh Erikson were in the same homebrew club before “going pro” as Caramonta refers to it, and he likens the camaraderie of brewers in the area to the skateboarding community of which he has also long been a part. “Everybody is here to help each other out; it doesn’t feel like a competition.”

Gnarly Barley has a large facility partially occupied by a 30 gallon brewing system but with space for a tap room and additional tanks for expansion. “We want to be able to grow. It was a big leap going from home brewers to owning a commercial brewery, but during the process Caramonta realized that he was put on this Earth to brew beer. I guess I’m here to be his taste tester,” she says, laughing.

In addition to tasting, Cari Caramonta runs the business’s day to day operations while her husband is the brew master. “At first he was brewing on the stove, but before long he made a big system in the garage. We would push it out and have a pop up tent and spend all weekend outside brewing beer. Our neighbors thought we were crazy. They didn’t know if we were boiling peanuts, cooking meth, or making crawfish. Our friends and family all liked it and encouraged us to put our beer in festivals, which we eventually did.”

Reception to the beer was strong immediately. Caramonta’s brewing philosophy focuses on traditional styles with unexpected twists. “As a home brewer I’ve always been someone who respects traditional beer styles, and I’m not known for outlandish beers. I’m not against it but I think there’s a reason we have traditional beer styles that have been around for so long. Our Catahoula common is a common style beer but it’s a little lighter and crisper because I use a cascade hop variety. Traditionally it is excluded from that type of beer because of its citrus notes. We call it a Louisiana common because it’s better suited to a warmer climate. “

Owners at Abita, Chafunkta and Gnarly Barley all agree that burgeoning farm to table movements in the area contribute to craft beer’s recent rise in popularity. “People are going out of their way to find things that are local that you can’t just get anywhere. They feel more connected to the products,” says Zac.

“I think the focus on the local products in great,” says Blossman. “If you build it they will come. That’s the philosophy.”

Want to go? Check out a comprehensive list of breweries here.

First published in Legends Magazine. Written by Meghan Holmes, photos by Rusty Costanza

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