Written by Nathan Stubbs
Wednesday, 21 April 2010
It was a sunny mid-July day, the kind of hot and humid afternoon that pairs perfectly with a cold beer in the shade. And at the annual Gulf Brew craft beer tasting, held at Parc International, the supply was having a hard time keeping up with the demand. That was especially true for Bayou Teche Brewing, whose LA 31 Bière Pale - a hoppy, Belgian-style pale ale - was the surprise hit of the festival.
Written by Nathan Stubbs
Wednesday, 21 April 2010
It was a sunny mid-July day, the kind of hot and humid afternoon that pairs perfectly with a cold beer in the shade. And at the annual Gulf Brew craft beer tasting, held at Parc International, the supply was having a hard time keeping up with the demand. That was especially true for Bayou Teche Brewing, whose LA 31 Bière Pale - a hoppy, Belgian-style pale ale - was the surprise hit of the festival. The fact that LA 31 was only available in the roped-off VIP tent hardly slowed the rush, as curious beer drinkers began slipping through the flimsy barriers to get a taste of the native craft brew. "People were literally breaking into the tent to get the beer," says Karlos Knott. "We said, Maybe there really is a market for this.' And that's kind of when the phones started ringing."
Gulf Brew 2009 marked the public debut of Bayou Tech Brewing, which signed a deal with Schilling Distributors last November. The beer first began appearing on store shelves and bar taps around town this February. Schilling, which serves six parishes, now delivers Bayou Teche beer to more than 100 locations.
"They far exceeded our initial expectations," says Schilling Import Craft and Specialty Brand Manager Jeremy Theriot. "They brewed their first batch and we brought in everything they had; it was about 170 cases. We figured it was going to take about a month to sell. We sold out within two days."
Schilling sold approximately 300 cases of LA 31 that first month, doubling its original projections. More recently, Bayou Teche has signed deals with other distributors to deliver its beer across the state, and has begun getting calls from distributors outside Louisiana.
Bayou Teche is one of two local breweries launching at what appears to be an auspicious time, capitalizing on a more craft-beer friendly distribution network and riding a wave of public awareness and appreciation for smaller, parochial breweries. Classified as nanobreweries, they are small, boutique-size commercial beer houses that generally produce less than 1,000 barrels of beer per year, as opposed to larger micro and regional breweries like Louisiana's Abita Brewing Co., which is now churning out more than 90,000 barrels of beer annually.
The inaugural Top of the Hops craft beer festival, held earlier this month at the Cajundome Convention Center, was the local premier of Parish Brewing Co., which, while tucked away in a back corner of the VIP section, drew a steady line of fans intoxicated by its sweet malted flavor, balanced with a healthy dose of herbal hops.
Proprietor and brew master Andrew Godley is a chemical engineer and Baton Rouge transplant who moved to Lafayette in 2005 (Godley recently earned his MBA from UL Lafayette). He still keeps his day job at Catalyst Recovery of Louisiana but in the evenings and on weekends, he can be found at his tiny brewery, which he operates out of a 1,300-square-foot space he rents out of a warehouse building in Broussard.
"The dream is to be a full-fledged microbrewery one day," he says. "For now, this is it. The idea is not having to borrow any money. Everything here is paid for out of my own pocket." Godley's brewery is a model of efficiency; he designed and built the bulk of his equipment, including a homemade keg sterilizing system and malted barley mill.
Godley signed a distribution deal with Schilling earlier this year and will begin rolling out his beer next month. His small batch brew philosophy means that for now, Parish beer will only be available on tap in bars and restaurants, and only in Lafayette Parish. "Every Parish beer out there, I want to be able to say I brewed that beer," he says.
In Arnaudville, the Knott brothers are taking a different approach, opting, for now, to farm out the bulk of their brewing to a larger regional brewer, Lazy Magnolia Brewing Co. in Kiln, Miss., which has a greater production capacity and its own bottling line.
The Knotts' Arnaudville brewery is a Cajun-style home built around a retired railroad car on the family's 40-acre farm. Here, Karlos and his two brothers, Dorsey and Byron, get together to experiment with brewing different recipes and hang out on the "tasting porch." Eventually, they plan to build a more properly sized facility that will enable them to do all their brewing and bottling in house.
Godley and the Knott brothers, like most of their brethren in the craft brewing business, started as home brewers, then decided to go pro. Godley says he was inspired in part by the dearth of craft brews in Louisiana. "Why has Abita Amber been our only choice?" he asks. "You can go anywhere else in the country, and there's hundreds of local beers you can choose from. If you look at a map of craft breweries in the United States, there's a huge void over central Louisiana."
Local brewers face an uphill road. The business is capital intensive, and both Godley and the Knott brothers spent a year obtaining all the federal, state and local permits required to legally sell their product. However, at least one aspect of the business has recently improved for local brewers. When, in 2008, Anheuser Busch merged with Inbev to become the world's largest brewer, it brought several new beers, including some regional craft brews, under the company umbrella. This ended policies that strictly limited the beers Anheuser Busch distributors could carry outside the Budweiser family.
"It allowed us to go out and talk to some of these microbrews and these other non-Anheiser Busch partners," says Schilling's Theriot. "It's up to each distributor and I think pretty much all of them have decided to go outside the AB warehouse."
Lafayette's craft beer market appears primed for growth. Rough estimates show that craft beers make up only about 5 percent of beers sold in Lafayette, while in New Orleans, it's closer to 30 percent. "I think Lafayette is ripe for becoming a beer town," Karlos Knott observes.
Next month, Bayou Teche Brewing will roll out its new Boucaniere smoke-flavored brew, followed by a passion fruit flavored Grenade expected to hit stores in June. Parish Brewing Co. will debut two of its signature beers in May, Bière Amber and Canebrake, a Louisiana sugar-induced American wheat beer.
"I think these are some of the best breweries you can have," says Theriot. "Each brewery is totally different but as far as flavor and taste, these brews can stack up to anybody in the market. It's unique to this area, and it's unique to the country. When tourists come in, they love to be able to pick up a six-pack and take it home with them. It's fresh, it's regional and it's something we enjoy getting out there."