Polly Watts, owner of the Avenue Pub, remembers that during New Orleans' first American Craft Beer Week (ACBW) in 2008, Harpoon Brewing sent six 12-ounce bottles of its Leviathan series double IPA (DIPA) for the bar to pour, and it was gone in 15 minutes. "Everyone was so excited to have a DIPA," Watts says, whose bar is on St. Charles Avenue, "and in 2008 it was the only one available in the entire city."
This year's ACBW (May 13-19) will highlight a very different New Orleans craft beer scene.
In 2008, NOLA Brewing had been in existence for only two months. President Kirk Coco had heard about American Craft Beer Week, a nationwide celebration of craft beer, from colleagues at the Craft Brewers Conference. Coco realized that to publicize the new brand, he would need to create awareness of the event from scratch. NOLA Brewing, Avenue Pub, Stein's Deli and Crescent Crown Distributing put their skills together to make it happen in New Orleans.
Beer professionals in the Crescent City were "absolute infants" in 2008 when it came to craft beer, says Ron Swoboda, director of craft beer education at Crescent Crown. "We ran around like crazies" promoting the company's beers that first year, he says. Both Crescent Crown and NOLA Brewing tried to do events every night.
"ACBW '09 was just a couple of us ragtag beer nerds arm-twisting a few people into doing things," longtime local beer aficionado Vasu Tummala says of the second year. "Compare that to now ... and even I'm not 100 percent sure what's going on and where. There are so many things going on that even one of the earlier beer nerds here can't keep up." (See sidebar, p. 45, for a list of all events.)
Avenue Pub started spotlighting individual breweries in events during 2010's ACBW, and in 2011 began holding themed events spotlighting nanobreweries and catering to new local demand for IPAs, DIPAs and Imperial IPAs with a special "Hophead Night." Other bars and restaurants around the city and on the Northshore — including the Bulldogs in Uptown and Mid-City, the Barley Oak in Mandeville, Scarlett O'Hara's in the French Quarter, the Inn on Bourbon and Donald Link's Calcasieu — collaborated with breweries and distributors to create tasting and pairing events to showcase American craft beer.
This year, several local breweries plan to share new small-batch offerings during American Craft Beer Week. NOLA Brewing has several prototypes it is considering producing: Belgian IPA, Scottish IPA, Mexican Wheat Beer Lager, and Munich Helles.
Tin Roof Brewing will experiment with transforming its three flagship beers by using English yeast instead of its usual American yeast, and at the events, the regular version will be there beside the altered "English" version for comparison purposes. The Blonde ale has been transformed into "Blonde, James Blonde"; Perfect Tin is anglicized into "Manchester Brewnited Amber"; and Voodoo Bengal's new identity is "Parliament Pale Ale."
In its previous incarnation as Heiner Brau, Covington Brewhouse did not participate, but this year it will share Belgian Single (its flagship pilsner with trappist yeast), a keg of Bomabastic IPA brewed by local home brewers as well as a keg of Imperial Stout or Porter, only available in test batches.
Both locations of the Bulldog have at least one event planned every night of the week, showcasing local breweries and tap takeovers of East Coast and West Coast beers.
Evangeline, a bar that opened recently in the French Quarter, focuses exclusively on local beer and will offer more than a dozen craft selections on draft from the Gulf Coast as well as multiple food pairings. Owner Ed Bowdon, who spends much of his time researching and procuring beers to feature, has found local craft beers that complement Louisiana cuisine. "There are so many unique and flavorful styles brewed year round and seasonally that are made from the same local ingredients we serve on our menu," Bowdon says. Evangeline will offer special food pairings to complement the local beers available throughout the week.
More than a dozen events for this year's American Craft Beer Week feature firkins (containers of about 9 gallons) of cask-conditioned ale. Cask, or "real," ales complete their secondary fermentation in the vessel from which they eventually are served, giving them natural carbonation. Cask ales are served at cellar temperature, which allows the drinker a better chance to taste all the nuances of the beer. Often a brewer will add hops, spices, wood chips or other ingredients when putting the beer in the cask, which creates a unique version in a limited batch.
Abita, Covington, NOLA Brewing and Bayou Teche all have strong and growing cask programs. Since 2009, when NOLA Brewing collaborated with Avenue Pub to bring the first cask conditioned ales to New Orleans, cask ale availability has been a marker of increased craft beer awareness and appreciation. Abita has been focusing on its cask program over the last two years, and one of Covington Brewhouse's major changes this year is to invest in providing and promoting its beers on cask. The collaborative "American Craft Cask Crawl Down St. Charles Avenue" during ACBW will feature six casks from three brewers at two St. Charles Avenue bars, the Avenue Pub and the Irish House. Firkins also can be found that week at both locations of the Bulldog, Evangeline, Barcadia, the Barley Oak, Mellow Mushroom in Covington, Lager's Metairie, The Chimes of Covington and the Columbia Street Tap Room in Covington.
Swoboda from Crescent Crown says that at the start, Abita was "integral to the growth of craft beer." Growth of the craft beer market required Swoboda and his colleagues to re-evaluate how to market and sell craft beer. After working on educating themselves, retailers and consumers, breweries and distributors are seeing the fruits of their labor with increased sales and more brands entering the market.
"I know the Avenue Pub had an event for New Belgium, and there will be one for Southern Tier [during ACBW], but Nectar Ales and Caldera snuck in this month also," Tummala says. "Back in '09, that would have been cause for a weeklong celebration each."