Katrina has left craft beer in its wake

While in New Orleans in April 2010, BeerByBART talked with Polly Watts, the owner of Avenue Pub, NOLA’s newest craft beer spot… see below!

New Orleans. The mention of this city elicits powerful feelings for the people who live there and for those who’ve visited. For us, New Orleans has been a city of musical riches, friendly people and creative food adventures since we started visiting in the early 90s. This spring we were fortunate to spend a little time back in the Big Easy. The current oil slick in the Gulf — which has everybody heartsick — had not bloomed yet, so our visit was a rich music and seafood extravaganza.

Bland macrobrewed beers and sticky cocktails — available 24/7 in “go cups” for drinking on the way to the next place to drink — can distract some tourists (and locals) from any thoughts of top notch beers.  Until recently, those of us who look forward to discovering distinctive regional craft beers that are not available to us at home had to put that quest on the back burner when we headed to New Orleans. Change is coming, however.

Jazzfest goer in a Dogfish shirt, having to settle for a Coors

In the past several years, at least four regionally breweries have opened: Lazy Magnolia, in southern Mississippi, Heiner Brau across Lake Ponchartrain in Covington, Louisiana, Bayou Tech (currently contract brewing at Lazy Magnolia) and NOLA (New Orleans Lagers and Ales) Brewing Company in New Orleans.

While the sheer number of beer-serving establishments has never been a problem in New Orleans, most serve only light macros. An occasional Abita tap handle may also be found. There are, however, several bars serving a nice selection of craft beers. The old standby, DBA, in the Fauborg Marigny neighborhood has been the standard-bearer for years. Their 20 taps feature local, regional and national crafts and imports. They also have an extensive bottle list. Located in the heart of the Frenchman Street music scene, walking distance from the French Quarter, DBA has live local bands every night.

Cooter Brown’s Tavern, located in the Riverbend section of the Uptown neighborhood (#32 bus or stop #43 on the St. Charles Street Car line), offers 45 taps macros, imports and craft beers to enjoy with raw oysters and grilled foods. For an intriguing bottle selection, Dan Stein of Stein’s Jewish & Italian Deli in the Garden District (#11 Magazine bus) features U.S. and imported craft brews to take away, but not to sip on the premises. He makes great deli sandwiches to go with the beers, and has also produced periodic tasting events.

Finally, there is a new star rising in the Crescent City: Avenue Pub, in the Lower Garden District. The new owner, Polly Watts, inherited a twenty four hour dive bar from her father four years ago, a year after Katrina. She knew nothing at all about craft beer and not much about anything having to do with the beer, all macros, that were served by her father.

“I would have sold the bar if there was a market for it,” Watts said. “But Katrina took care of that.” The Tulane graduate did know business, however. She quickly discovered that she was actually losing money on draft beer. She began calling people in the industry to solicit opinions about why this was and what to do about it. She got suggestions ranging from expensive fixes like a installing a new glycol system or replacing her refrigeration system. The true problem, as pointed out to her by a knowledgeable beer distributor rep, was beer lines that hadn’t been cleaned for a very long time. “When he showed me a line I saw the thick clump of black stuff, it was gross. I was sick that we were serving the public anything that had passed through this,” Watts said.

Soon, with new beer lines and some renovations to the historic building, clean beers were flowing again at her pub.

Avenue Pub, early in the day

With the ability to taste the beer properly again, Polly began learning more about beer. With the encouragement of friends and colleagues in the industry, she became familiar with craft beer. She experimented by putting on a keg of Racer 5, and according to Polly, “It flew out of here, and new people came in the door.” Being the savvy businessperson she is, she saw a new business plan emerging.

One year ago, encouraged by the owner of NOLA Brewing, Polly decided to convert virtually all of her 40+ taps to craft beer overnight.

St. Charles Street Car; trees adorned with Mardi Gras beads

Eschewing suggestions to phase in the change, Polly went all-in. And it has paid off. She has now installed a second draft system upstairs so patrons can enjoy craft beers on the large balcony overlooking the historic St. Charles street cars.

Perhaps the best news for all current and future craft beer appreciators is that Polly is not stopping with the Avenue Pub conversion. “We need to expand the whole craft beer market in New Orleans,” says an enthusiastic Watts. She is spearheading area-wide events for New Orleans’ celebration of American Craft Beer Week (May 17-23), hosting 17 events including the finale at Avenue Pub where an all day event will feature about 50 drafts and casks plus 50 more bottles — some making their Louisiana debuts — including beers from Brooklyn, Harpoon and Rogue.

What’s coming for New Orleans beer appreciators? For one thing, some restaurants are getting interested in beer. Ray Daniels will be coming to town with his Cicerone exams late this summer to help raise the level of beer education among local servers and beer professionals. Maintaining draft lines that are free from infection is a core element in his curriculum, of course.

While we were there, Avenue Pub had a special event with Stone Brewery. According to Watts, it was Stone’s idea. So it seems that if craft breweries were looking for a way to establish a market in the Louisiana and Mississippi area, they now have a ready, capable and enthusiastic ally in New Orleans.

P.S. We should mention that Avenue also has a full bar and serves food, prepared in-house by well regarded local restaurant, J’Anita’s.

Post by Steve and Gail

Explore Beer By BART; see our list of the San Francisco Bay Area’s best beer places with detailed transit info, so you can get out there to enjoy without driving.

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3 thoughts on “Katrina has left craft beer in its wake

  1. New Orleans by far one of my all-time favorite cities — for food, that is. I had the opportunity to visit pre-Katrina and then post-Katrina, while moving across country. Luckily, I was friends with a local beer blogger — who turned introduced me to The Avenue Pub and the entire NOLA Brewing Co. team. My craft beer experience in NOLA last year was extremely memorable and anticipate returning there in the very near future!

    Great write up guys! Love you!

    Cheers,

    Wenchie

  2. Thanks for the write up on The Avenue Pub. Polly has done a fantastic job with AP and we beer nerds get to reap the reward! Glad you had a great time in our city! And Ashley, you’re welcome!;)

    Cheers!

    The Beer Buddha

    1. Hey Buddah,

      Thanks for the kind words. Polly is bringing a great energy to NOLA for the craft beer movement. We have Dan Stein to thank for pointing us in her direction. We loved New Orleans before there was much in the way of good beer. Now, it’s even better. Hope to meet you on our next time through.

      Steve

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