It's fair to say that Dixie Beer has not had much of a following lately among beer aficionados.
A few years ago, the site BeerAdvocate.com ranked it at 2.8 out of 5, meaning "Poor."
"Nothing about this drink would encourage me to have another bottle," the site's critic concluded. "I'm not even sure if I want to finish this one."
But Dixie, with a long history of ups and downs since its founding in New Orleans 110 years ago, has entered a new era.
It's now in the hands of Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson, who has restored its original formula and launched a major marketing push.
Early assessments suggest the new owner may at least start convincing people to have more than one, capitalizing on a vogue for craft beers — though Dixie technically isn't one — with local roots.
"The reception has been pretty good, particularly with people who come in looking for something local," said Chris Rougelot, general manager of the Bull Dog bar on Magazine Street.
Rougelot noted that his bar actually stopped serving Dixie years ago after the quality deteriorated. He said recently it "has gotten a lot better."
Dixie's fortunes have waxed and waned over the decades. It not only survived Prohibition but in the 1950s claimed as much as 30 percent of the local beer-drinking market. It was popular in neighborhood bars where both its taste and its familiar green, white and gold label appealed to working people.
By the 1980s, though, Dixie found itself struggling to compete with national heavyweights such as Pabst, Miller and Budweiser.
In 1985, New Orleans entrepreneurs Joseph and Kendra Bruno bought the floundering Dixie Brewing Co. with hopes of reviving interest in the brand and renovating the distinctive old brick brewery on Tulane Avenue.
While the Brunos did beef up the brand's marketing and introduced new beers into the marketplace, the floodwaters that followed Hurricane Katrina dealt the company a crippling blow.
After the storm, the Brunos contracted with a Wisconsin company to take over the brewing of Dixie, and both the product and its reputation suffered.
Benson and his wife Gayle scooped up a majority stake in the company late last year and launched an effort to bring Dixie home.
Under their stewardship, brewmaster Kevin Stuart reformulated Dixie using its original recipe and moved its production to the Blues City Brewery in Memphis, Tennessee. The move was a temporary step while the Bensons shopped for an appropriate site to build a brewery in New Orleans.
Kenneth Caldcleugh, Dixie's general manager, said the company is close to finalizing plans for a new brewery within Orleans Parish, saying the plant will have to be big enough to "sustain the incredible demand we've already seen."
Meanwhile, Dixie's promoters and sales representatives have been busy drumming up interest in their reformulated brew. As marketers fanned out across the city to lobby bar and restaurant managers with Dixie-logo hats and T-shirts, an advertising team came up with nostalgia-laden commercials that featured vintage images from the Dixie archives.
Beer-industry observers say the strategy is a good one.
"What really sells nowadays is authenticity — having an authentic brand story," said Eric Schmidt, director of alcohol research for the New York-based Beverage Marketing Corp.
He pointed out that in recent years even an old brew such as Pabst has done well by touting its storied past, and the beer "has become popular with hipsters."
Schmidt said the facts that Dixie Beer held its own through Prohibition, struggled against competition from giant breweries and, more recently, suffered a nearly fatal blow from Katrina give the brand an appealingly deep history. And to have the brand now in the hands of the man who owns the New Orleans Saints is icing on the cake, he said.
"The beer has a good story behind it," Schmidt said. "I think Dixie has the ability to do well because all this will resonate with its home market."
While Dixie technically is a "contract" brew rather than a "craft" beer, it is gaining acceptance at the Avenue Pub, which caters to a clientele interested in high-end beers produced by small, independent brewers. "Dixie is doing solidly at the pub," owner Polly Watts said.
Noting that Avenue Pub did not carry Dixie before Benson bought the company, she said Dixie Lager on draft and Dixie Light in bottles are now part of the lineup. In fact, Dixie Light replaced Miller Light on the menu, while Dixie Lager bumped Yuengling, which first entered the local market only about 18 months ago.
Watts said she is among those who are swayed by a beer with a good story. "Part of my affection for the company is its comeback from the Katrina thing," she said. "They got beat down, they had to leave the market, the product suffered and they lost their market share. But this community embraces people who try to come back."
Jeff O'Bryon, manager at Cooter Brown's Tavern and Oyster Bar, agrees that, despite being a contract brew, Dixie seems to be making inroads with drinkers who normally prefer craft beers.
"I think it's interesting that they are going at the higher end of the market," he said. Pointing to Dixie's retail price of about $8 a six-pack vs. $5 or $6 for such beers as Bud Light, he said Dixie is emerging "as more of a craft beer rather than a big light-market brew."
The flavor profile of Dixie isn't much different from that of American traditional lagers, O'Bryon said. "It's light, clean, crisp, refreshing — a classic highly carbonated beverage."
He admits that he initially thought Dixie was making a mistake by trying to position its product as a craft brew, "but it wound up becoming a Top 5 mover at Cooter Brown's," where customers go through about a half-barrel, or 140 beers, of Dixie per week, he said.
The company has a few other things going for it as well, namely, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and the Smoothie King Center. Concessionaires in the Saints' and Pelicans' home arenas now sell Dixie and Dixie Light, and there's in-stadium, game-day advertising.
Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association, an industry group, believes the connections that Benson is making between Dixie and professional sports will pay off. "It's a crowded market out there, and having opportunities of that scale will give them a leg up," he said.
Caldcleugh said demand in the two facilities initially was so great that Dixie's limited production could not keep up. "We are happy to say that both buildings are now fully stocked with both draft and 16-ounce cans, and sales have been tremendous," he said.
Until Dixie is able to build and open its own brewery, it must operate within the limitations of its contract relationship with the Memphis brewery. Caldcleugh said it takes 45 days to produce a single batch of Dixie, and the company's third batch, which is now in production, is twice as large as the first two combined.
He said the company aims to expand to the rest of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama in January, and is also working to secure a national distribution network. "We hope to be fully distributed across the country in the next 18 months," he said.
The owners and managers appear unconcerned about the possibility that they may run into a backlash against a brand associated with the Deep South at a time when debates over the dismantling of Confederate monuments in some cities have stirred heated debate.
"The demand we have seen from distributors across the country would certainly seem to indicate that they have no reservations about the brand," Caldcleugh said. "We expect the beer to be welcomed when distribution expands around the country."
Still, some industry sources suggest that Dixie should proceed with caution when it comes to national distribution. Schmidt, of the Beverage Marketing Corp., said that problems sometimes arise when a brewer tries to grow too fast, given the intense competition for shelf space and customers' attention.
"You can run up against a wall, even with an owner that has the capital to spend for marketing and to build an infrastructure," he said.
Nevertheless, Caldcleugh said that Benson, who "has invested millions already" to produce a quality beer and bring its brewing back to New Orleans, intends to make Dixie the brand of choice among beer drinkers around the country.