Long before Hurricane Katrina inundated its Tulane Avenue facility, Dixie Beer was a brand on the ropes. For years, even loyal local fans of the brand griped between sips that Dixie wasn’t as good as it used to be.
Now, Dixie is getting a new start, with Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson and his wife, Gayle Benson, announcing an agreement — actually finalized late last year — to buy a majority share of the 110-year-old Dixie Brewing Co.
As the brand reboots, the most pressing task will be to accentuate the goodwill long attached to its name while improving on the reputation it acquired in its later years.
In interviews, managers in Benson’s organization insisted the reasons for Dixie’s decline were beyond the control of their predecessors. And they said the brand's new stewards have already implemented an array of measures aimed at restoring Dixie's reputation in short order.
"Our people will be seeing it everyday, testing it everyday — our brewmaster, using our techniques and our recipe," said Ben Hales, a vice president of marketing and business development for the Saints and Pelicans. "And that's going to make a huge difference in how the beer is going to taste."
Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson and his wife, Gayle Benson, have finalized an agreement…
Since the beer’s reintroduction after Katrina forced the company out of its Mid-City brewery, Dixie was produced by an outside contractor in Wisconsin.
Under Benson’s ownership, however, the beer is now being made in Memphis, Tennessee, where the process is overseen by the company’s own in-house brewmaster. The beer is also now made using the original Dixie recipe, something the faltering company had gotten away from over time to save money.
Eventually, Benson’s management team hopes to move production to a new Dixie brewery they said they plan to build in New Orleans within a few years. They have compiled one binder full of information on potential sites in New Orleans East, with another binder covering possible sites elsewhere in the city.
There will be more variety under the Dixie name, too, officials said.
Hales and Dennis Lauscha, who also is president of the Saints and Pelicans, said the relaunched Dixie brand is already working to supplement its initial array of typical brews — including a traditional lager and a 91-calorie light beer — with offerings that they hope will appeal to seasonal craft-beer lovers.
One blackened lager already seeks to cater to that crowd.
Meanwhile, panels of beer experts are testing additional offerings, Hales said, pledging that Dixie will soon roll out a product specifically aimed at aficionados of hoppy craft beers.
Benson's team hopes the more hands-on approach to production and emphasis on craft products will get Dixie back closer to its glory days, when it had nearly one third of the New Orleans beer market.
Today, however, that market has many more local brands, from Abita Brewing Co., the region’s largest craft brewer, to a proliferation of smaller micro brewers.
What impact the combination of Benson, with his pro sports empire and wealth, and Dixie, with its long history, will have on the city's modern beer market remains to be seen. But some local craft brewers see the prospect of a revamped Dixie less as direct competition and more as a validation of their industry.
“It’s a good sign for beer in Louisiana when we have big, richer players trying to get involved in the industry,” said Andrew Godley, founder of Parish Brewing in Broussard and an outspoken advocate for the state’s craft brewing sector. “They’re capitalizing on what they see as a thriving industry.”
Hales and Lauscha echoed Godley, saying Benson hopes to add to a burgeoning local craft-beer scene rather than attempt to eradicate brewers who may not have the financial muscle he does.
Dixie, as an inexpensive, light-bodied lager, has traditionally been in a different niche for beer drinkers than craft beers, which tend to be more robustly flavored and produced in smaller, seasonal batches. It’s a difference not just in taste but also in economies of scale.
“The reason none of us (local craft brewers) make a light beer that sells for $6 a six-pack is because we can’t afford to do that. We don’t have the gigantic brewing facilities to do that. We’ll see if Dixie will,” Godley said. “For (Dixie) to make sense, it has to be inexpensive. No one’s going to pay $10 for a six-pack of Dixie. So for it to make sense, they have to make a lot of it so they can sell it for less.”
Still, name recognition goes a long way in the retail market.
“It’s challenging to build a brand, and one thing Dixie has going for it is nostalgia and classic appeal,” Godley said. “There’s a lot of equity in that brand.”
Hales and Lauscha absolved the prior majority owners, Joe and Kendra Bruno, of fault in the decline of Dixie's flavor.
They said the Brunos — who are still minority owners under Benson — deserved credit for figuring out a way to keep Dixie alive after they took control in 1985 and were faced with either shaving operational costs to survive or else sacrificing the company entirely in the name of keeping the traditional recipe.
Even before Katrina neared, Dixie had seen its Tulane Avenue facility fall into disrepair. The storm then blew out the windows, deposited several feet of water in a building that was not covered by flood insurance, and gave looters an opportunity to steal anything that had not been inundated.
Following a two-year hiatus from store shelves and a brief stop in St. Tammany Parish, Dixie entered a contract to brew in Wisconsin to remain in existence. The company also scaled back on the amount it spent on ingredients and shortened how long it let the beer ferment.
Those cutbacks didn't win Dixie any points for taste, but they kept the company afloat long enough for the Benson deal to materialize, according to Hales and Lauscha.
"There's no Dixie for us to preserve or revive if not for Joseph and Kendra Bruno," Hales said. "It was their life to keep this company alive, and they did it."