Dixie’s first pour: The history of the legendary New Orleans beer
After more than a year of planning and construction, the owners of Dixie Brewery opened their business with a bang on Halloween 1907, inviting the city to a party at its handsome new Tulane Avenue brewery. In addition to an orchestral performance, those attending were treated to ice cream, lemonade, cakes — and of course, lots of beer. “The wholesome product of the new concern was served in abundance, and it immediately won popular approval,” read a Nov. 1 write-up in The Daily Picayune. The road hasn’t always been an easy one for Dixie, but 110 years later, it is still brewing, and it has become a New Orleans icon in the process.
Dixie can still be purchased at local stores, but it’s not the local brew many probably remember. The iconic brewery at 2401 Tulane Avenue never opened in the wake of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, due to flood damage and reported looting. The beer has since been made under contract by Minhas Craft Brewery in Wisconsin. There’s hope for purists, though. In June 2017, New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson announced he was in talks to buy the brand — and bring it home to New Orleans.
- When Dixie Beer first rolled off the line in 1907, it did so in a competitive brewing environment. New Orleans at the time boasted a raft of breweries — Columbia, Consumers, Cook, New Orleans, Pabst, Weckerling, just to name some — that were cranking out such popular local brews as Regal and Jax Beer.
- The brewery reportedly cost $35,000 to build and outfit. It was designed by architect Louis Lehle, who specialized in brewery design.
- The two giant “beer cans” that decorated the roof of the iconic Dixie Brewery on Tulane Avenue, flanking its silver dome, were in fact storage bins for brewing rice.
- Unlike many local breweries, Dixie managed to survive Prohibition by making ice cream and soft drinks. As soon as Prohibition ended, Dixie started making beer again.
- Beer won’t be made again at the landmark Tulane Avenue site any time soon. The property is part of the land assembled for a new Veterans Affairs hospital being constructed in Mid-City. Plans, however, call for the brewery façade to be preserved and incorporated into the new facility’s design.
- Once upon a time, Dixie’s share of the local market topped 20 percent. By the mid-1980s, however, it was put at less than 1 percent.
- Summer 1975 was a bad one for Dixie. That was when it put out its infamous “bad batch,” when phenol fumes from a new floor into the brewhouse seeped into the beer, giving it an iodine taste. Amid a federal inquiry, the brewmaster was fired, but the brewery’s reputation had taken a hit and many local Dixie drinkers swore it off.
- Dixie suffered an even bigger hit as the result of a nationwide trend in which coast-to-coast brewing behemoths such as Anheuser-Busch and Miller made it a point to take over territories once dominated by regional brewers. Like many smaller brewers, Dixie found it hard to compete. “You can stand on top of the brewery and look to the horizon and that’s our distribution area,” Dixie’s then-owner Neal Kaye Jr. said in a 1984 interview.
- Dixie Beer wasn’t the only brand made at the Tulane Avenue brewery. It produced a number of labels over the years, including Coy, Blackened Voodoo, Jazz Amber Light and Schwegmanns grocery stores’ eponymous private label.
- Dixie found itself at a disadvantage when it came to marketing to black consumers, many of whom were put off by the Southern heritage inherent in the beer’s name. The brewery responded by removing an image of the Confederate flag that once decorated its label.
- “Dixie Doodles” was a popular print-ad campaign the brewery ran through the 1940s, ’50s and into the early ’60s, in which consumers were invited to send in pithy sayings and puns — like “Gulp Coast Favorites” and “Thirsty Days Hath September” — which were then turned into newspaper ads, accompanied by stick-figure drawings.
- Dixie founder Valentine Merz is largely responsible for another New Orleans landmark: the Audubon Zoo, for which he was an important early benefactor.
Beer drinkers today have many choices when it comes to drinking a locally made brew, thanks to the craft beer movement that has seen the establishment of a number of New Orleans breweries in recent years. But even as Dixie struggles to regain its feet, the venerable outfit stands alone as the only old-line New Orleans brewery that still bottles a product. As such, it is more than just a beer. It is a piece of New Orleans history — and one that Tom Benson, for one, thinks is worth preserving. “The Dixie Beer brand is unique to our city,” Saints senior vice president Greg Bensel said in June when discussing Benson’s possible purchase of the company. “It belongs in New Orleans.”