When Courtney and Garrett Bogden visited New Orleans last week from their home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, their itinerary included some tourist standbys, like Creole restaurants and historic cemeteries. They also made sure to build in one of the city’s newest draws: craft breweries.
“Beer is our thing,” said Garrett. “Wherever we travel, one day is typically about beer.”
Their afternoon tour started at the tiny Brieux Carre Brewing off Frenchmen Street and then went upriver to Urban South Brewery and NOLA Brewing. They sampled beers, collected brewery stickers and swag and tapped into a different kind of visitor experience.
“We seek out the local breweries, the small ones just getting started, because they give such a feel for the spirit of a city,” said Courtney. “You get a glimpse into the life of their neighborhoods.”
The Bogdens could be the spokescouple for beer tourism. A strong trend in regions better known for craft brewing, this niche of the travel market is now making an impact in New Orleans.
For many travelers, drinking beer has long been as natural a part of a New Orleans visit as breathing air. The city is renowned as a party town.
But since a new local industry in craft brewing has developed, breweries and their taprooms have created attractions where beer isn’t just along for the ride. It’s the reason for the outing, with a place on some New Orleans bucket lists alongside the beignets, beads and buggy rides.
“People who follow craft beer are different from the people hanging out at the bar at 4 a.m.,” said Jesse Barry, co-owner of the brewery tour company NOLA Brew Bus.
“The local brewing scene is led by passion, and people can feel that,” she said. “They’re interested in the stories and how these different breweries express their values and tastes.”
At least three companies now offer brewery tours around New Orleans. Barry’s fiancé Matt Marsiglia started NOLA Brew Bus in 2016, providing guided tours in a customized minibus, which brought the Bodgens around town last week.
In September, NOLA Brew Bus opened a storefront on Decatur Street, pitching beer tours to curious walk-up customers. Still, Barry said, most of the business comes from beer enthusiasts who make brewery visits part of their travel plans from the start.
“People on our tours are looking for beer; they’re looking up breweries and planning beer vacations around them,” she said.
“All about where you’re at”
Carla Harris lives for beer vacations. From her home in San Diego, she and her fiancée Raquel Walker travel the country visiting breweries (Harris documents their adventures on social media under the handle @Carlathabeerhustler).
She’s been to about 220 breweries so far, including a sweep of the New Orleans beer scene during Mardi Gras last year.
“It’s all about where you’re at,” said Harris. “You can have the same hops, the same yeast, and go through the same steps and it’s going to make a different beer, and that’s what’s so fascinating about it. With these small breweries you can really only try them by visiting. That fuels my need to keep traveling.”
There are other benefits for the beer tourist, which Harris said she experienced in full measure during her New Orleans visit.
“There’s a beer community out there, and that made it easier to navigate the city,” she said. “I didn’t want to do tourist things. When you’re sharing a pint, it’s amazing how people will open up for you and really tell you about their city and what you should see.”
Today, that includes a growing number of breweries, some small craft distilleries, specialty beer bars and beer events, a slew of which return in the fall.
Revived industry, new attraction
Compared to craft brewing meccas like Colorado and Oregon, New Orleans has a small modern beer scene. But it does have a huge tourism industry, drawing a reported 17.7 million visitors in 2017. They were bound to intersect. The city also has brewing history.
New Orleans was once regarded as the brewing capital of the South. Prohibition sent that industry into hibernation, and the version that emerged after repeal was defined by big brewery consolidation and national distribution.
The modern craft trend has been building regional nuance and diversity back in, and that registers not just in the stouts and saisons but in the people who make the beer and the breweries they’ve developed. That gives beer tourism its cultural hook, in addition to the primal satisfaction of sipping a cold one.
There are nine craft breweries in New Orleans proper, plus a few brewpubs and one cidery (Broad Street Cider & Ale, which produces its own hard cider). A 10th brewery, Miel Brewery & Taproom, is slated to open in the Irish Channel this fall.
Dixie, which has been produced out of state since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, recently announced plans to build a large, new brewery in New Orleans East. When it opens in a projected two years, it will have a beer museum and offer tours.
Other breweries are spread across the surrounding parishes. That includes the region's original beer tourism destination, Abita Brewing Co.
Brewing since 1986, Abita now draws about 45,000 visitors a year to its facility outside tiny Abita Springs. Company president David Blossman said visitors are a vital part of the brewery’s marketing strategy, and a built-in focus group for its new beers.
Other small-town Louisiana breweries have become top attractions, especially Bayou Teche Brewing in Arnaudville, where Cajun music jam sessions are as much a part of the program as brewery tours. Bayou Teche founder Karlos Knott said travelers from out of state make up more than half the brewery's total visitors.
"We get a lot of Europeans here, French speakers coming to Acadiana," Knott said. "They even show us how the brewery is in their travel guides now over there."
This week, Bayou Teche opens its own restaurant, called the Cajun Saucer, as another visitor amenity.
The breweries in New Orleans, closer to the tourism hub, access the visitor market in different ways.
Parleaux Beer Lab, for instance, is a Bywater brewery that does not distribute at all. It relies entirely on its taproom for business, and draws a crowd interested in trying unique, small-batch beers that are only available at the source. While its core customer base comes from its neighborhood, that neighborhood is also on the map for tourists.
"What we see now is people from cities with better-developed beer scenes, when they travel, they just seek out breweries the way they look for restaurants or other places to visit: It's on their checklist of things to do," said Parleaux co-founder Eric Jensen. "They want to check your game out, see what New Orleans is bringing to the table."
Royal Brewery New Orleans, meanwhile, could not be farther from the beaten path of local tourism. It opened last year by the Industrial Canal in New Orleans East. But this brewery has carefully cultivated a sideline in tours and found people eager to seek them out.
Royal Brewery offers tours by appointment only, and these are usually led by co-founder Raymond Pumilia, a burly, bearded, funny presence who fills the metal building with tales of building a modern beer business from scratch. The tours are pitched and priced as package deals, with beer samples at the tap room and merchandise to bring home.
“We try to package it no different from the way you’d package a swamp tour,” said co-founder Mandy Pumilia. “Because of where we are, it has to be an experience, a destination.”
The visitor profile goes way beyond avowed beer aficionados, and extends to travelers looking for group outings and stories they can tell back home.
“Tourism today isn’t about relics, it’s about experiences,” Pumilla said. “You can see a lot of places on the internet today, but you can’t have an experience until you actually go do it.”
New Orleans breweries are in many cases worked into the edges of old neighborhoods, giving tourists a different way to explore the city.
At Second Line Brewing in Mid-City, visitors sometimes arrive with their bags in tow, either just arriving from or headed out to the airport. Brewery co-founder Mark Logan said out-of-towners are often charmed to find a destination where the locals congregate, complete with pets and children in the all-ages taproom and beer garden. Sometimes, the brewery staff even shift into tour guide mode.
“If we find out they have a little time, we’ll point them to the local cemeteries a few blocks away,” said Logan. “We hold onto their bags and set them up with a go-cup and send them on their way. They came this far, they might as well do it all.”
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