No matter which town you want to include or what the order is, New Orleans is a top five American drinking town. The Crescent City is the birthplace for some of the most iconic cocktails (the Sazerac) and home to equally historic bars (Hemingway mentioned the Carousel Bar at Hotel Monteleone; Napoleon House is still a lunch hour staple 200 years after). In present day, the world’s best alcohol convention (Tales of the Cocktail) takes place here every summer, plus New Orleans is notorious for its second-lining, Mardi Gras-loving, Go Cup-toting feelings on the casual drink.
But when thinking specifically about how craft beer fits in, New Orleans initially appears to lag behind. Whereas most can name multiple breweries of note around a city like Portland or San Francisco, Abita is the lone name outsiders will recognize. Granted, this is a behemoth in the craft scene. Started in the 1980s shortly after Jimmy Carter paved the way for the early brewing movement, Abita is consistently one of the largest and most successful brewers in the country. It ranked 15th in the Brewers Association list of the 50 Best Brewers in 2013, the lone representative from Louisiana. And for an anecdotal look at its impact, Abita is the rare beer that you can get in both New Orleans’ high culinary scene (find the Save Our Shores Pilsner at Susan Spicer’s Bayona) and its brash Bourbon Street culture (served in Huge Ass Beer cups at the Steak Pit).
However, like the craft movement at large, the scene in and around New Orleans has been steadily growing. While Abita continues to get the most attention north of the city (and rightfully so, it took home more awards at the recent Great American Beer Fest), it’s far from the only local brewer available in town these days. Below is merely a glimpse at the makers and meeting spots that matter for craft beer fans traveling to New Orleans today. But as with everything in the city, the best way to learn is to come and experience these and more first hand.
Location: Kiln, MS
The details: While technically out of state, Lazy Magnolia is just as close to New Orleans as Abita. Mississippi’s first post-prohibition brewer started when Leslie Henderson bought her husband Mark a brewing kit for Christmas… but ended up using it more for herself. The couple started brewing in March 2005 and only stopped production briefly when Katrina hit months later (storm came in late August; they were brewing again that October). These days they’re among the most adventurous brewers near New Orleans, harnessing local flavors from pecan to honeysuckle for a distinct regional taste.
Availability: Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, New York, Missouri, Arkansas and Tennessee.
Try: Lazy Magnolia very well may have the best IPA (Southern Hops’pitality) and summer seasonal (Song of the South, a sour rather than fruit offering) in the area. But its Jefferson Stout—a Sweet Potato Cream Stout—balances the line between being light enough for the humidity and flavorful enough for a NOLA palate (as hints of chocolate, coffee and caramel come through the primary potato).
Location: Arnaudville, LA (west of New Orleans)
The details: Bayou Teche’s president, Karlos Knott, got a taste for European beers while serving a six-year army stint in Germany during the ‘90s. When he came back to Southwestern Louisiana, he did the honorable older brother thing—passed his passion on to his two siblings. The trio eventually set out to brew beer that had both European and distinct Cajun and Creole flair. No other brewery line offers quite as perfect pairings for everything from red beans and rice to crawfish boils (…Bayou Teche’s Saison D’Ecrevisses dry seasonal was literally made to cut through boil spices).
Availability: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia
Try: The Bierre Joi became a Paste favorite for its playful take (aka a heavy dosage of local pepper) on coffee brews—the smooth and nutty initial taste is only setting you up for a delightful, unexpected heat finish.
Location: New Orleans
The details: Founder Kirk Coco had one mission when starting NOLA—give back to his city following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. So when the biggest local operation at the time, Dixie Beer, relocated north in the storm’s aftermath, NOLA eventually slid in to help rebuild the local brewing scene. Many brewers in-state (and future brewers in-city) have sought out NOLA for advice since, and NOLA itself has only continued growing (new beers, new local partnerships, new distribution goals, etc.) throughout its nearly six years in operation.
Availability: Louisiana, Florida with hopes to expand to Texas, Alabama and Georgia
Try: NOLA Blonde gives Abita Amber a run for its money as the city’s wildly available, staple beer. But though its among the brewery’s most recent offerings, NOLA’s Rebirth Pale Ale is also among its best—an American Pale Ale that beats most “sessionable IPAs” at their own game.
Location: Broussard, LA (east of NOLA)
The details: Founded by chemical engineer-turned-brewer Andrew Godley, Parish started out of a garage and has grown into a brewery that hosts a line for its annual Grand Reserve release (a bottle-conditioned barley wine). The brewery blends local flavors with old-school European beermaking, and it welcomes plenty of visitors with its taproom, tours, and recycling giveaways (bring in your old, still good 6-pack containers—10 will get you a pint glass).
Availability: Louisiana-only (and mostly Southeastern Louisiana)
Try: The Grand Reserve has advanced ticket sales, but Parish’s widely available Canebreak is nothing to sneeze at. It’s a wheat ale (ideal for sessioning given the heat) that’s brewed with a local cane syrup, adding a bittersweet element not found in most wheats.
Location: Covington, LA (just north of Lake Ponchartrain)
The details: Covington is quietly the state’s second oldest brewer to Abita. It was originally founded under the name Heiner Brau by a German immigrant and brewmaster named Henryk Orlik. These days, the name has changed to reflect the community it serves, and Brian Broussard, a former brewer for NOLA, is at the helm. Unlike many breweries who balance regular offerings with seasonals, Covington now balances three lines—the Covington Collection (named for local landmarks and using local flavors), the Seasonal Collection and the Legendary Collection (which includes traditional German beers to carry on the Heiner Brau legacy).
Availability: Louisiana and Florida Gulf Coast
Try: Abita Strawberry may feel like the unofficial seasonal of Mardi Gras, but many New Orleanians would argue Covington Strawberry is the superior sip. Unlike the Abita offering, Covington Strawberry is available year-round.
Neighborhood: Lower Garden District
The details: It’s fair to wonder if the craft beer movement would exist in New Orleans without Avenue Pub (NOLA founder Kirk Coco credits his brewery’s birth to a meeting at Avenue with owner Polly Watts and other local industry folks like Dan Stein of Stein’s Deli). Built sometime in the mid 1800s, the historic building was owned by Polly Watts’ father until he passed away. Looking to do something to shakeup the business, Polly took the place headfirst into the craft movement. Avenue has been hosting American Craft Beer Week celebrations before Louisiana ever had its own craft week (which started through the efforts of Avenue in 2013); and it was among the first bars in town to devote taps to locals. Today more than 30 of the pub’s 40 taps are rotating, and the 24-hour craft mecca of New Orleans has been a staple on Top 50 bars lists (most recently from Draft).
The details: Take the street car line west all the way to the end of St. Charles, ignore the name that screams “College kids!” and head to the back. This oyster pub recently renamed its backroom as Snooty Cooter (worse?), dedicating the space entirely to craft beer (better!). We’re the first to admit selection does not immediately equal a great bar (though the odds are good with 40 draft beers and 400 bottles available at Cooter Brown’s), but the Snooty section offers 20 rotating taps that carry sweet, sweet West Coast suds (Stone, Green Flash) alongside Louisiana brewers like Gnarly Barley.
Neighborhood: Lower Garden District
The details: Alright, you can’t technically drink anything while at Stein’s Deli—they don’t have the right permits under local law. But that may be the most confusing aspect of New Orleans beer culture because Stein’s seems to offer everything else you could want. Their 450+ beers in stock span the globe and country (Alaskan Brewing, Prairie from Oklahoma, Grassroots from Vermont, all the Southeastern offerings you’d want). And in addition to selling great beer (and tasty New York and Philly style sandwiches), they sometimes hold beer pairing events or classes for the real craft nerds.
Neighborhood: French Quarter
The details: While there are other bars with greater selections (see The Bulldog or the Aline Beer Garden), DBA is undoubtedly the beer leader within the French Quarter. Located on Frenchmen Street (the “local Bourbon Street,” which means live music from local acts and people who like to have a good time with none of the regret and sadness), there are no giant plastic glasses shaped like handgrenades here. DBA offers 20+ taps that span PBR, Lagunitas and locals like 40 Arpent. Toss in the fact that legend John Boutte routinely plays a Saturday night set, and you have more than enough reasons to skip the line at Pat O’s.
The details: If Avenue didn’t give it away, New Orleans is home to a number of colorful 24/7 establishments (see a duo Uptown only footsteps apart like Brothers III Lounge and Ms. Mae’s, where Saints’ Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan was known to show up post-game when celebrations were merited last season). But of all the non-stop bars, none has done it as continuously as Kajun’s. Famed for being a lone beacon of cold beer in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Kajun’s stayed open on generators and coolers full of PBR in order to serve locals without a home, rescue crews, military, media and more. Head there today, and you’d have no idea it’s such a historic haunt. Kajun’s has ample amounts of draft beer as well as liquor, and it’s known for a tight community where you can BYOM (bring your own meat) to grill during Saints games. In the local alt-weekly’s guide to being a 20-something in New Orleans, “Taking the stage at Kajun’s” for their daily 9pm karaoke is in the same city bucket list as catching a Superbowl at the Dome.