Microbrews: liquid culture
Two weeks ago I went to Whole Foods on Magazine Street to chase a lead on Schneider Aventinus, a Bavarian wheat dopplebock featured in a Saint James Cheese Company beer and charcuterie tasting over the summer. Aventinus is one of those types of beer that only comes in large single bottles, similar to Abita’s release of Abbey Ale, S.O.S., or Andygator, so it’s a bit more of a chore to sit down with ‘just one’ in the same way I would with a normal 12 oz size. But I still picked up two bottles for good measure.
On my way out of the beer section I caught myself eyeing a can with a snowy-white and lime-green color palate. It reminded me of an energy drink that was less annoying on the eyes than a can of Four Loko and attractive with a Japanese anime flair. As it turns out, NOLA Brewing Company finally started putting one of my favorite beers in cans. Mechahopzilla.
I am of a school of thought that brewing is a window into a local culture. At the very basic level, it all comes down to distribution. Beer is temperamental and doesn’t travel extremely well, unless a large company has the means to ship their product safely (Pilsner Urquell ships express from the Czech Republic in refrigerated containers, for example), or there are multiple breweries which cater to different markets in different parts of the world. There are other ways to ship, I’m sure, but a quick and dirty way to put it is: money and popularity increase the distance between the source of the beer and people who consume the beer.
Local microbrewing is a way to look into a local culture because the specific brewery caters to an individual city or limited geographic area, so the beers that survive and reach popularity among drinkers in the area indicate the drinking habits of a region.
To bring back the example of Pilsner Urquell, one of the most popular Czech beers known globally, the Pilsner brewery has a shipping style specific to Europe in that they ship beers not only in bottles and kegs but also in large tanks. Dotted around the streets of Prague, are tank pubs serving ‘pivo z tanku,’ or beer from tanks.
Tank beer, literally large vessels of beer, is special because, unlike beer in kegs, the beer is not pasteurized. However, tank beer is much more volatile and subject to spoilage, which makes it a more local pub style. Tank beer is successful in Prague, because Czechs are the greatest beer drinkers per capita in the entire world (roughly 130 liters per person per year). Provided the volume of beer Czechs consume, because they drink so much, it is easier to move the product in tanks. Moreover, this distribution method enables Czechs to drink fresher beer.
Another example is a growing national trend of distributing beer in growlers, 2 liter bottles that can be transported to participating bars (Like Avenue Pub in New Orleans) or growler dispensaries and filled with a beer of your choice. This makes home consumption of limited release beers possible when breweries don’t yet bottle or can their beers. It’s also a good way to save a bit of money on beer, not to mention more eco-friendly.
For New Orleans and much of the south, the craft brewing culture is still picking up steam. Although the ambition is apparent, local brewers have their work cut out for them before reaching the sheer numbers of breweries in places like the Midwest or the Pacific Northwest. But the beer is fantastic, nonetheless.
Something to consider, though, is the visible progress made by certain breweries in the last ten years. NOLA Brewing Company is one of my favorites, because I started drinking their Blonde Ale as one of my standard ‘go-to’ pints in bars. When they began packaging their blonde and brown ales in cans, I became excited, because it was apparent that their reach and popularity were growing. Months later I saw that they expanded their cans to include a pint variety of Hopitoulas and, more recently, the Mechahopzilla.
In the future, when I’m in a bar someplace across the country and I see a Parish Canebrake, NOLA Blonde, or Covington Strawberry on tap, I’ll reach for it just to revisit these local tastes one more time. Otherwise, I’m excited to see the change in local beer habits in the coming years.
Watch this video about craft brewing in Louisiana.
Chuck Williams is a booze nerd who writes about various aspects of the drinking scene, culture, and practices in New Orleans. E-mail him comments at [email protected]