Cheers to New Orleans, the one-time beer king of the South
As hot and humid as it is, New Orleans has for the entirety of its history all but required ample cool beverages in order to remain even moderately habitable. So, in 1726 — less than a decade after the city’s 1718 founding — Pierre Dreux and kid brother Mathurin decided to make money from that fact. On their plantation in what today is the Bywater they began a beer-making operation, supplying the young city with suds. The plantation would, fittingly, become known as The Brasserie, or “The Brewery.” Residents of the city drank it up. Literally. And they still are.
The Brasserie started something, kicking off a brewing tradition — and a drinking tradition — that continues in New Orleans today. After a mid-20th century heyday, and subsequent decline, the local brewing industry is experiencing what some consider a second golden age, thanks to the craft beer movement, which has seen such labels as Abita, NOLA, Tin Roof, Chafunkta, Second Line and others wetting whistles throughout the region.
- As the first plantation downriver from the Marigny Plantation, the Brasserie occupied the land that today lies between Franklin Avenue and Press Street and between the river to the edge of what was then the nearby swamp.
- In their book “New Orleans Beer,” Jeremy Labadie and Argyle Wolf-Knapp describe a court case brought by the Dreuxs against M. Decoeur for nonpayment of 131 livres of beer. “Decoeur thus has the distinction of being the first recorded deadbeat to skip out on a bar tab in New Orleans,” Labadie and Wolf-Knapp write.
- In 1853, Swiss-born brothers Louis and Samuel Fasnacht took it to another level, establishing what is recognized as the city’s first large-scale commercial brewery, located on Poeyfarre Street at the present-day site of the Cotton Mill Apartments in the Warehouse District.
- It’s entirely coincidental, but nonetheless fitting, that “fasnacht” is also the word for German and Swiss Carnival festivities, the pre-Lenten celebrations better known in New Orleans as Mardi Gras.
- Thanks largely to a mid-19th-century influx of German immigrants who brought their homeland’s brewing traditions to South Louisiana, beer was soon a booming business in New Orleans. By 1890, between 30 and 50 breweries were operating in town.
- A 1951 Louisiana News Digest report dubbed New Orleans the “brewing capital of the South,” with Regal, Jax, Dixie and Falstaff sharing 80 percent of Louisiana’s beer-drinking market at the time.
- New Orleans’ native beer industry was hit hard in the 1950s and 1960s by efforts of national brands — such as Anheuser Busch and Miller — to cut into territories previously dominated by regional brands.
- Today, Dixie Beer is the only old-line New Orleans beer still available to consumers, but it isn’t brewed in the Crescent City. Since 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, it has been made under contract by a Wisconsin brewer.
Whether it was being consumed because it was cleaner than local drinking water or simply to take the edge off of the hot, mosquito-filled nights, New Orleans has a long, friendly relationship with beer, wine and spirits. Like it or not, that relationship has become very much a part of the city’s cultural fabric for locals and visitors alike. That’s true whether it comes in the form of a bottle of Turbo Dog, a Hurricane at Pat O’Brien’s or a meticulously poured Sazerac. That’s not to say les bon temps won’t rouler without a bottle of booze — but it sure helps grease the axles.